The Zookeeper's Wife Questions and Answers
by Diane Ackerman

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In Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife, how does Ackerman portray an individual Jewish guest at the Zabinskis' villa and some other Jews?

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In The Zookeeper's Wife, Ackerman gives a description of the Jewish community of Warsaw in the pre-war period as one in which there is a degree of assimilation, but also a continued separateness from the Polish Gentiles. There is a Jewish Quarter, though as many as one-third of Warsaw's population of 1.3 million are Jewish. Some Jewish people live outside the Quarter and in "posher neighborhoods throughout the city." Yet, we are told that

for the most part they kept their distinctive garb, language and culture, with some speaking no Polish at all (23).

It is, and has always been, a paradox that Jews had been given sanctuary in Poland in large numbers, beginning in the late Middle Ages, but anti-semitism had always been an entrenched phenomenon in Poland, and was still so on the eve of World War II and the Holocaust. Ackerman describes the Jewish Quarter of Warsaw as "the heartbeat of eastern European Jewish culture," in which there are Jewish theaters, newspapers, "artists and publishing houses, political movements, sports and literary clubs." Jewish food can be distinctive from Polish food overall, but is a variation on it, as the kreplach is a specialized type of pierogi. In all, the apparent centrality of Jewish culture is anomalous because the Jews are for the most part excluded from the mainstream of the country's life. Nevertheless, they are not openly persecuted, and the real danger to them, of course, comes from the Germans who invaded Poland in 1939.

A guest to the Zabinski's home in this prewar period is a Jewish woman named Magdalena Gross, who is a sculptress and close friend of Antonina's. Magdalena wishes to use the animals at the Zoo as subjects for her art. It is interesting that Jan, though not an anti-Semite, seems to view Magdalena in somewhat stereotypical terms, at least in comparison with Antonina:

By all accounts tall, slender Antonina looked like a Valkyrie at rest, and short, dark, Jewish Magdalena vibrated with energy (37).

Perhaps the stereotyping extends more to Antonina, who in these words seems the picture of the "Aryan" ideal that Hitler and his henchmen created for the Germans, though Antonina is Polish. The comparison seems an ominous presaging, or a subliminal indication, of the tragedy that will be enacted in the Holocaust, despite the benign situation at this moment in the story, and despite the Zabinskis' eventual aid to the victims of the Nazis.

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