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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1771

In The Zookeeper’s Wife , naturalist writer Diane Ackerman seamlessly weaves together the memoirs, recollections, stories, and interviews with Jan and Antonina Żabiński to provide her readers with a meticulous account of the Żabińskis’ “radically compassionate” efforts to save Warsaw’s Jews from Nazi extermination. Ackerman begins with a description of...

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In The Zookeeper’s Wife, naturalist writer Diane Ackerman seamlessly weaves together the memoirs, recollections, stories, and interviews with Jan and Antonina Żabiński to provide her readers with a meticulous account of the Żabińskis’ “radically compassionate” efforts to save Warsaw’s Jews from Nazi extermination. Ackerman begins with a description of the Żabińskis’ unique lifestyle tending to the animals of Warsaw’s zoo in 1935. Jan, the son of a Polish railroad engineer, exhibits his father’s muscular build but hones his interest in zoology to earn the position of Warsaw’s zookeeper. Antonina grew up under more harrowing circumstances. Her father and stepmother were shot as intelligentsia members during the Russian Revolution. At the time, Antonina was only a young girl and went to live with her aunt in Warsaw. Well-educated and articulate, Antonina takes a position as an archivist at Warsaw’s College of Agriculture where she meets Jan. In 1931, the pair marries and begins their work at the zoo. A year later Antonina gives birth to their son Ryszard, whom they call Ryś (“lynx” in Polish). Their nickname choice proves to be ironic because the Żabińskis later use animal names to refer to the “guests” who hide at the zoo.

By the time summer arrives in 1939, the Żabińskis’ goal of transforming the zoo into a collection of natural habitats for their unique residents has almost been accomplished. Antonina uses her maternal instinct as well as her sixth sense to nurse sick or abandoned animals, and the Żabińskis’ house resembles a circus more than a human home. During the summer, Antonina establishes the tradition of taking Ryś to their cottage in the country. For some weekends, she travels back to Warsaw to spend time with Jan, who keeps her abreast of the rising turmoil between Germany and the rest of Europe.

On September 1, 1939, the first day of school for Polish children, Antonina and the rest of Warsaw awaken to the sound of planes and bombs. The Blitzkrieg has occurred, and the Żabińskis, like many other Poles, are puzzled. Many of them had assumed that Poland possessed the military strength to defend itself and that their allies would immediately come to their aid. When Jan and Antonina discover that this is not the case, they flee to the countryside until they deem it safe to return. When they travel back to the zoo, they are horrified to see that not only have many animals been killed by the bombings, but some have also been shot in cold blood. Antonina cannot safely stay at the zoo and takes Ryś to a series of hiding places in the city. There she meets kindhearted, generous individuals who are willing to share whatever they have with those in need of shelter and other essentials.

When the Germans officially move in, Jan’s determination to participate in the Underground Polish Resistance Movement increases, and he and Antonina find themselves in a situation far more dangerous than their former lives as zookeepers. However, they do receive help from unlikely sources such as Lutz Heck, a German zoologist who is especially interested in preserving or recreating Germany’s “natural” bloodlines, including animals who were once native to Germany. Heck approaches the Żabińskis about sending their more exotic animals who had survived the Blitzkrieg to Berlin to be “on loan” and in safety until the end of the war. While Jan and Antonina do not trust Heck, they both agree that having him as an ally will help them in their mission to save people and animals. Unfortunately, not long after their meeting with Heck, the Warsaw Zoo is closed with Heck claiming that he simply did not have the power to prevent the closing. Not to be discouraged from becoming more involved in the Resistance Movement, savvy Jan creates a ploy to put the zoo to use in a seemingly benign manner—he offers to turn it into a pig farm to feed the many German troops stationed in Warsaw. While Jan’s idea is enough to allow his family to stay at the zoo, it is not enough to keep Heck from swiping some of the remaining animals and shooting the rest for a New Year’s “hunting celebration.” In the midst of all the violence, Antonina attempts to shield Ryś as much as possible. She gives him a piglet whom he names Morys, and he soon becomes Ryś's loyal companion.

On October 12, 1940, the remaining Warsaw Jews are ordered into the ghetto; most of them comply because they realize that death is certain if they do not. The ghetto increases Jan’s desire to use the zoo to hide Jews. His thinking is that the Germans would never suspect underground activity to take place in a “setting so exposed to public view.” He would arrange for “Guests” to stay at the zoo, and Antonina was constantly ready to take in someone at a moment’s notice. Ryś, of course, is fascinated by his parents’ activities and tries to become a saboteur himself. While he is not harmed, he and other boys are spotted by German soldiers, and the soldiers confiscate Rys’s piglet Morys for slaughter.

As deportations begin from the ghetto, Jan visits his Jewish friend, Dr. Szymon Tenenbaum, a renowned entomologist, as often as possible. Szymon continues to write articles and collect insects even as he and his dentist wife try to survive in the ghetto. Jan’s connection to Szymon eventually leads to his meeting a man named Ziegler who serves as the director of the Warsaw Ghetto Labor Bureau. Ziegler maintains a keen interest in insects and visits Jan at the zoo to see Szymon’s collection. Upon their meeting, Jan manages to procure a ride back to the ghetto with Ziegler under the guise of asking Szymon a question about his collection. This action provides Jan with a rather secure way to get in and out of the ghetto for future visits, during which he manages to parade “guests” past the guards simply by mentioning Ziegler’s name. Jan runs into complications, however, when Szymon passes away, and his reason for being in the ghetto evaporates. He makes one more daring rescue when he finds out that Szymon’s widow, Lonia, needs to be taken to safety.

As Chapter 16 begins, Ackerman compares the Żabińskis’ involvement in resistance and refugee activities to the “ploy and counterploy” of chameleons and lion-fish in the animal world. Jan and Antonina skillfully blend into occupied Warsaw so that they might save as many lives as possible and Jan becomes even more involved in the Resistance Movement which increased to over 100,000 members during the occupation.

Even in the midst of chaos, many Poles maintain their interest in academia and culture. Several of the zoo’s guests are artists and musicians; so Antonina is able to expose her son to the good in life despite their grim surroundings. The zookeeper’s wife even uses music as a warning to her guests that they need to hide. When an unexpected visitor arrives, Antonina plays Offenbach’s “Go, Go, Go to Crete” on the piano and the guests scurry to their hiding places. 

In 1942, Antonina hears of the death camps, and the urgency of her and Jan’s mission increases. Unfortunately, with the extremely troubling news comes a debilitating illness for Antonina. From 1942 to 1943, she suffers from swollen legs and is bedridden much of the time. To multiply their troubles, for Hitler’s birthday in 1943, Heinrich Himmler makes it his personal goal to liquidate Warsaw’s ghetto which begins the immense struggle between the Polish underground and German forces. Just after the first weeks of the conflict, only ten percent of the three million Polish Jews could be found.

In the summer of 1944, Antonina gives birth to her and Jan’s second child, Teresa, amidst Poland’s being stuck in between the Russians and the Germans. While the Żabińskis are excited by the thought of being freed by the Russians, they also realize that the Russians might not treat their Jewish friends any better and that Poland will most likely provide the battlefield for the two warring forces. During this time period, Jan is away from the house for long weeks at a time, leaving Antonina to protect the family. One day, some German soldiers stumble upon several Resistance boys who have been hiding on the zoo grounds and order them out into the open. With Antonina, Ryś, and Teresa watching, the soldiers order one of the boys to go behind a shed, and Antonina soon hears a gunshot. Next, the soldier tells Ryś, “You’re next,” and they disappear behind the shed. Shortly afterwards, the soldier reappears with the two boys and Ryś’s dead chicken. The Germans laugh about the “funny” joke they have played on Antonina. From this point on, Antonina lives in a constant state of fear and later has to stand up to invading Russian soldiers as they pillage the zoo. She wins her and her family’s safety by speaking her native Russian to them.

Sixty-three days after the Warsaw Uprising begins, it collapses along with much of the city’s physical structure. The end of the Uprising brings the continuation of more atrocities. Ackerman writes that “overflowing hospitals were burned with patients still in them, and women and children were roped onto tanks to prevent ambush from snipers.” Jan does not return from the Uprising and Antonina finds out that after being hospitalized for a neck wound, he was sent to a POW camp. She flees Warsaw with her two children and hides in the countryside while waiting for Jan’s release. 

Finally, in the spring of 1946, Jan returns home and begins making repairs on the virtually destroyed zoo. The zoo reopens in 1949, but Jan’s passion for returning the zoo to its former glory is stifled by the regulations of the “new” Poland. Warsaw’s children are now taught to denounce their parents and friends in the modern Communist education system. After only two years, Jan retires from zoo-keeping and spends the rest of his life writing. Antonina, too, takes up writing, but she focuses on children’s books with an emphasis on animals. The Żabińskis live their remaining years in Warsaw, where Antonina dies in 1971 and Jan in 1974. Their son Ryś still lives in Warsaw today and is a retired civil engineer.

Until Ackerman's meticulous research and writing, the Żabińskis's significant story went untold. In total, Jan and Antonina rescued more than 300 Jews and Polish dissidents during Warsaw's occupation.

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