Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798
After her parents are shot in Russia when she is nine years old, Antonina goes to live with her well-educated aunt and eventually moves to Warsaw where she meets Jan at Warsaw's College of Agriculture. After marrying Jan, Antonina helps Jan as he accepts the zookeeper position at the...
(The entire section contains 798 words.)
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- Critical Essays
After her parents are shot in Russia when she is nine years old, Antonina goes to live with her well-educated aunt and eventually moves to Warsaw where she meets Jan at Warsaw's College of Agriculture. After marrying Jan, Antonina helps Jan as he accepts the zookeeper position at the Warsaw Zoo. She is a natural fit as a zookeeper's wife because of her interest in nature and her compassionate personality. She nurses ill animals, allows them to become members of the house, and encourages their son's love for all creatures. These attributes also allow her to become a significant asset in Jan's participation in the Resistance Movement. On several occasions, she saves the lives of her family members and escaped Jews with her confidence which witnesses reported "could disarm even the nest hostile." Quick-thinking and intuitive, Antonina deserves much of the credit for saving the lives of many of the guests who pass through the zoo and demonstrates an aplomb not found in many humans who are faced with similar compounding difficulties.
Ackerman paints a portrait of Jan through Antonina's reactions and relationship with him. Raised by a Polish engineer who sent him to a Jewish school, Jan is open-minded and logical. Much of his desire to be involved in the Polish Resistance stems from his many Jewish school friends and his finding risks "alluring" and "exciting." Each "mission" or act of sabotage on his part enables him to eliminate his fears and saves lives. At times, Ackerman's portrayal of Jan leads readers to believe that he put some of his thrill-seeking above his family's safety and feelings. He also comes across as rather condescending toward Antonina in some sections of the book. Ackerman points out, though, that Jan does give his wife credit for their harrowing escapes and that his matter-of-fact, pragmatic personality provides a sense of serenity to Antonina even when he is injured and later moved to a prison camp.
After the war, Jan repairs the physical structures at the zoo and seeks to replenish the animal life lost during the occupation, but he retires in 1951 from zookeeping because of the ever-present eye of the Soviet regime. He spends the rest of his life writing, producing fifty books about zoology, and hosting a radio program.
The Żabińskis' son is an only child for much of the book's action. A precocious boy, Ryś spends the beginning of his childhood in an idyllic setting. His mother allows him to freely roam the zoo's grounds, and he domesticates several unusual animals for pets. Although Antonina tries desperately to shield her son from the cruelty of some humans, Ryś witnesses the killing of many of the zoo's animals including some of his pets, and experiences the Germans' attempts to rid Warsaw of Jews and dissidents. He hero-worships his father and desires to be a significant member of the Resistance Movement. Near the end of the book, Ryś's attempts to commit sabotage almost get him shot in front of Antonina, but he is spared by a Nazi soldier's dark sense of irony. After the war, Ryś returns to a rather normal life, though he is understandably never able to recapture the idealism of his early childhood. As of the printing of the book, he was living in Warsaw, without any pets, after retiring as a civil engineer.
Ackerman describes Berlin's zookeeper and Nazi officer as charming and cold-blooded. Fortunately, the Żabińskis are just as savvy and hold him at arms' length. Heck uses the Żabińskis to procure their most valuable animals and breeding records for Berlin. In turn, they use their connection to him to keep the zoo open and to rescue more of their friends from deportation. Heck never seems to regret any of his actions, including the strange juxtaposition of his almost obsessive interest in animals and his drunken killing of several of the zoo's creatures. After the war, he returns to Berlin and writes Animals: My Adventures about the Berlin Zoo's bombings but makes no mention of the tragedies at the Warsaw Zoo. For many years, Heck's son, Heintz, runs the Berlin Zoo, which featured rare, endangered Przewalski Horses bred from ones stolen from Warsaw's Zoo.
Nobel Peace Prize nominee Irene Sedler is one of the Żabińskis' more famous zoo guests. A native Pole and doctor's daughter, Sedler works at the Social Welfare Department during the war and uses her position to smuggle in necessities and Jewish infants out of the ghetto. Eventually captured by the Gestapo, Sedler is tortured and interrogated. She somehow manages to escape and spends some time recovering at the zoo. After the war, she continues her work as a social worker and advocate for the handicapped.