The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story

3.8 209
by Diane Ackerman

View All Available Formats & Editions

The New York Times bestseller: a true story in which the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.

After their zoo was bombed, Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski managed to save over three hundred people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in the empty animal cages. With animal names for these "guests," and human names


The New York Times bestseller: a true story in which the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands.

After their zoo was bombed, Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski managed to save over three hundred people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in the empty animal cages. With animal names for these "guests," and human names for the animals, it's no wonder that the zoo's code name became "The House Under a Crazy Star." Best-selling naturalist and acclaimed storyteller Diane Ackerman combines extensive research and an exuberant writing style to re-create this fascinating, true-life story—sharing Antonina's life as "the zookeeper's wife," while examining the disturbing obsessions at the core of Nazism. Winner of the 2008 Orion Award.

Editorial Reviews

Diane Ackerman has a molecule named after her (dianeackerone), but perhaps her greatest claim to fame is that all her works are wondrously different. Whether she's writing about "sacred play," the natural history of love, or the alchemy of the mind, she manages to arrest and stimulate our senses. (And, yes, she's written a book about the senses, too. And we haven't even mentioned her verse or her children's books.) The Zookeeper's Wife is a war story unlike any other. A narrative about a Warsaw animal keeper who saves hundreds of Jews from Nazi gas chambers draws inevitable comparisons with Schindler's List, but Ackerman's artful, almost lyrical book occupies a genre of her own invention. Her narrative interlaces stories of Jan and Antonina Zabinski's improvised sanctuary with telling glimpses into the animal societies their hunted benefactors shared. Ultimately, this is a book about what it means to be human.
D. T. Max
Nature is patient, people and animals fundamentally decent, and the writer, as she always does, outlives the killer—that is the message of The Zookeeper's Wife. This is an absorbing book, diminished sometimes by the choppy way Ackerman balances Antonina's account with the larger story of the Warsaw Holocaust. For me, the more interesting story is Antonina's. She was not, as her husband once called her, "a housewife," but the alpha female in a unique menagerie. I would gladly read another book, perhaps a novel, based again on Antonina's writings. She was special, and as the remaining members of her generation die off, a voice like hers should not be allowed to fade into the silence.
—The New York Times
Susie Linfield
A lovely story about the Holocaust might seem like a grotesque oxymoron. But in The Zookeeper's Wife, Diane Ackerman proves otherwise. Here is a true story—of human empathy and its opposite—that is simultaneously grave and exuberant, wise and playful. Ackerman has a wonderful tale to tell, and she tells it wonderfully.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) tells the remarkable WWII story of Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife, Antonina, who, with courage and coolheaded ingenuity, sheltered 300 Jews as well as Polish resisters in their villa and in animal cages and sheds. Using Antonina's diaries, other contemporary sources and her own research in Poland, Ackerman takes us into the Warsaw ghetto and the 1943 Jewish uprising and also describes the Poles' revolt against the Nazi occupiers in 1944. She introduces us to such varied figures as Lutz Heck, the duplicitous head of the Berlin zoo; Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, spiritual head of the ghetto; and the leaders of Zegota, the Polish organization that rescued Jews. Ackerman reveals other rescuers, like Dr. Mada Walter, who helped many Jews "pass," giving "lessons on how to appear Aryan and not attract notice." Ackerman's writing is viscerally evocative, as in her description of the effects of the German bombing of the zoo area: "...the sky broke open and whistling fire hurtled down, cages exploded, moats rained upward, iron bars squealed as they wrenched apart." This suspenseful beautifully crafted story deserves a wide readership. 8 pages of illus. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

The 1939 Nazi bombing of Warsaw left its beloved zoo in ruins with many of its animals killed or wounded. Worse was to come when Berlin zoo director Lutz Heck had surviving rare species shipped back to Germany as part of a Nazi breeding program and held a New Year's Eve hunting party for German officers to finish off the remaining animals. Witnessing this horror was the zookeeper's wife, who wondered, as she recalled later in her memoirs, how many humans would die in the same manner in the coming months. As Antonina Zabinski and her husband, Jan, soon learned, the Nazis had targeted Poland's large Jewish population for extermination, and the couple, who were already supplying food to friends in the Warsaw Ghetto, pledged to help more Jews. And help they did. Ackerman's (A Natural History of the Senses) moving and eloquent narrative reveals how the zookeepers, with the aid of the Polish underground, boldly smuggled some 300 Jews out of the Ghetto and hid them in their villa and the zoo's empty cages. Based on Antonina's own memoirs and newspaper interviews, as well as Ackerman's own research in Poland, the result is an exciting and unforgettable portrait of courage and grace under fire. While some critics might feel she glosses over Polish anti-Semitism, Ackerman has done an invaluable service in bringing a little-known story of heroism and compassion to light. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/1/07; for a profile of Ackerman, see "Editors' Fall Picks," p. 32-38.-Ed.]
—Wilda Williams

Washington Post Book World
“A lovely story about the Holocaust might seem like a grotesque oxymoron. But in The Zookeeper's Wife, Diane Ackerman proves otherwise. Here is a true story... that is simultaneously grave and exuberant, wise and playful. Ackerman has a wonderful tale to tell, and she tells it wonderfully.”
Los Angeles Times
“It is no stretch to say that this is the book Ackerman was meant to write.”
“An exemplary work of scholarship and an 'ecstasy of imagining.'”
Jonathan Safran Foer
“I can't imagine a better story or storyteller. The Zookeeper's Wife will touch every nerve you have.”
Jared Diamond
“Diane Ackerman has surpassed even herself in her latest book, which is alternatingly funny, moving, and terrifying. This powerful thriller would be a great novel--except that it is true.”

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Sales rank:
File size:
394 KB

Meet the Author

Diane Ackerman has been the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in addition to many other awards and recognitions for her work, which include the best-selling The Zookeeper's Wife and A Natural History of the Senses. She lives in Ithaca, New York.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 209 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's a shame that this book misses the mark. The story of Jan and Antonnia deserves to be told by someone who can do it justice. The author can't even decide the narrative point of view, she never commits to it as either a novel or a documentary account, switching view points and adding obscure parenthetical references that are odd distractions. The run-on sentences are very hard to follow. Time and location shifts are vague and confusing too. I heard about this book through an interview with the author on Public Radio, but the interview was 10,000 times more entertaining than the book itself.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I wholly endorse the five star reviews already printed here. I find the most memorable aspects of the book are the instances in which Antonina was able to reach the goodness within apparently evil people through her calm communications. Although the descriptions at the beginning seemed lengthy, the book was hard to put down as it drew to the climax of the Polish uprising.
Lollypop99 More than 1 year ago
Being Jewish, I have often heard stories about how my ancestors hid during the war. What I find truly commendable is the non-Jews who risked their lives and the lives of the family members in order to harbor these Jews. They are like an extended family in my eyes. This book was extremely well-written and once you pick it up, you do not want to put it down.
Leah-books More than 1 year ago
What a great read! really enjoyed it. It was very easy for me to connect to the characters
FayeT More than 1 year ago
I absolutely love reading anything set in this time period and love that the story is fact based. The book serves as a good reminder of the heroics that took place under extrordinary circumstances. The problem was the writing. The author can describe things beautifully as long as it is pleasent. I thought there were times when the UNpleasent details needed to be fleshed out further. Also, at times the story would FINALLY be moving along nicely and the author would go off on a tanget about some inconsequential detail that added nothing to the story and quite frankly she just got annoying. I would reccomend googling the family from the story to learn about them because the family's actions really were incredible but i would pass on the book. There are plenty of other WONDERFUL war-time stories out there. Cheers!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing history lesson.despite what man meant for evil - goodness continued to flourish. Interesting characters who persevered through a most awful time in history and their story wasn't lost. Thanks to the author for allowing us a glimpse into survival of ordinary folk in extraordinary times.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think every high school student should read this book,gives a great explanation of what nazisism was all about
mahawk More than 1 year ago
I like the ease of reading, interest grabber, a version of the Nazi war against Poland that I had not heard or thought of. The atrocity of this war went way beyond mere human torment in this reading the vast destruction and despair encountered every aspect of life. I highly recommend this reading.
Tlg78613 More than 1 year ago
Well worth it but a little more intense read. Def recommend and would LOVE to see it as a movie!
Miss_Katy More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the book overall. I was unaware of the level of hatred pointed directly at Poland during WWII and was unaware of their heroic efforts at resistance. As far as the writing, I felt the author was perhaps conflicted on whether she wanted to write a fiction or a non-fiction piece of work. I would have preferred a fiction book based on the real life of the protaganists. That would have allowed the author more freedom than she took to hypothesize what the characters were actually feeling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although I was disappointed in the way the book ended -- or actually seemed to "fade out" -- I loved this book. One of the few books I've read about Warsaw and Poland during WWII that strangely, wasn't really depressing. It was disturbing and parts were heartbreaking, but over-all it was a great testament to human goodness.
Lynne64 More than 1 year ago
The description, the research, the deeply developed characters all woven together made me love this book. It covered an arena of WWII, occupied Poland, more specifically its capital, Warsaw, that I had not read or studied about outside my World History class in college. Once inside the drama, people, and intrigue, I was hooked--I had discovered a new favorite author: Diane Ackerman.
Momma_Hunt More than 1 year ago
I found this historical novel to be very, very interesting. It was chosen for my book group but I am starting to get nervous that they will not have liked it as much as I did. Being that I am a history teacher I loved the fact that most of this novel was based on research by the author and told like a biography. I think that some people will find this style of book off putting. The book tells the tail of a Zookeeper and his family who live in Warsaw at the start of WWII. The story tells the tail of this family (primarily the zookeeper's wife) during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. The book tells the tale of what happened to the Jewish population of Warsaw, life in the Warsaw ghetto, and how the zookeeper's family helped as many people as possible. It was a great look into not only what life was like in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, but what life was like for a family (particularly a housewife) during this era. For me what I liked was the historical aspect of the book. I loved the first hand accounts of what life was like in the city during the war and what it was like for the Jews living in Warsaw during the occupation, reassignment to the ghetto, and eventual liquidation of the ghetto. More importantly the aspect that I loved about this book was it showed how average people did above average things to help the Jewish community during WWII. Everyone has heard of people the Schindler who saved thousands, but you never hear about all those who helped three or four people along the way. This book showed how one family made a difference for several people and risked their lives in the process. Not only is it a great historical piece, it also a great psychological piece in that it looks at the human condition and the desire to help others versus our desire to protect ourselves. For those who love historical books this is a must read. I give the book **** according the the J. Kaye scale.
Liss925 More than 1 year ago
Such an insightful book that really led us into the mind of someone experiencing WWII firsthand. It's so important to remember what happened 60+ years ago so that it never happens again and to realize the horrible tragedy while also remembering the amazing people that helped the persecuted and helpless regardless of what religion or background. In addition it was so well written and delved into the thoughts and feelings surrounding the tragedy that was WWII while also exploring the individual repurcussions that go along with being so selfless. The characters were relatable and interesting and had depth so that you could envision them as real people dealing with a horrible time in history.
sciencegirlNU More than 1 year ago
The fascinating story of Antonina, her husband and son, and their zoo in Warsaw in WWII is nearly ruined by the poor writing of this book. The author skips around in time and place, slipping in barely related anecdotes and reaching for unusual phrasing that distracts rather than enlightens (...she saw her son's face shriek"...). We are also held at a deliberate distance from Antonina's life, as we are told she would have done this, would have worn that (or maybe not). Repeated mention is made of Antonina being pregnant in the winter of 1942-3, but then she 'rises from her bed' with no further mention, either of a baby or its loss, as if nothing had ever happened. The story itself, however, is so compelling that I was willing to put up with the lamentable writing through to the end. Any credit for 'provocative', 'thrilling', 'touching', 'absorbing', and 'enlightening' go to Antonina herself: Ms Ackerman does not do her justice.
alexcross4me More than 1 year ago
I read this book through a book club and couldn't even get through the whole thing. It's not a book I would have chosen to read on my own but I was interested when I heard the storyline. However, the style of writing makes it difficult to read (run-ons, jumping back and forth, very little character description, etc). I never really "bonded" with the characters because the author jumps between narrative and documentary style writing. It should have been written as a ficitional story based on real life events to include more dialoge. There was also too much talk of animal killings and very little explanation of what was going on with the Jewish people in the zoo.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had no idea of the terror that not only the Jews of Warsaw endured but also the people of Poland in general and specifically in Warsaw. This story relates the angst experienced in a home filled with love and people who care about each other and love animals.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Well, I wouldn't say it's anywhere near as powerful as Schindler's List but it was okay. They supposedly saved hundreds of people but you never really know that because they spend more time discussing the animals ie: Balbina the cat, the badger, the zoo animals that were destroyed by soldiers. It was a good story in that it hasn't been told but it needed more development in my opinion. I didn't feel like I knew characters and definately not any hideaways, most of which just passed through the zoo to go elsewhere.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A moving story of Polish Christians sheltering hundreds of Jews at the Warsaw Zoo during Nazi rule. I found the author's detailed descriptions of minor points distracting and her flowery prose sometimes irritating. I recommend the audio CD version over print copies although it would have been better without the reader's attempts at Polish accents for the main characters' dialogues. The ending of the book was abrupt and leads the reader longing for more information on the Zabinskis after the war. Despite these weaknesses the basic story is powerful, and the book is still highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A marvelous story, poorly told. The story line of the lives of two Christian zookeepers and their child in Warsaw during World War II is compelling, but loses much of its power in a very poor telling. The story line is very disjoint. The writing varies between flowery and newspaper-like. Random and frequent insertions of erudite essays on periferal topics serve only to validate the author as an excellent researcher, but not a good story teller. I tried to push through to see the story to its completion, but the lack of readability made that impossible. Where was the editor? This is a marvelous story that few will want to read. How sad.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was incredible. The story is extremely interesting. Our history books rarely contain more than a few lines about the Polish people during the Nazi invasion. From tales about the Warsaw Zoo animals to the personal risks this family experienced, this story paints a painfully realistic, yet at times, magical picture.
HCE2 More than 1 year ago
A beautiful story, well written, about an ugly time in our world's history. I was moved by the prose, and by the story itself. I would recommend this book to anyone. Unforgettable!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
These people that owned the zoo did the right thing even though it was extremely diffucult to do so. Wonderful. I think stories like can be a life lesson. Choose to do the right thing even when its not convenient or your too busy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a disappointment. This book certainly sounded intriguing and had all the potential for a great read, but fell far short. Tales of courageous individuals were so poorly written, that it was nothing but a struggle to get through this book. Reading a half page in Wikipedia would have been more interesting. It was a waste of time. The only reason I am giving two stars is because there were some golden glimpses into Antonina's personality that showed what a remarkable spirit she had.... Apologies to the "guests" and other survivors, who deserved to have their stories told much better than this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be fascinating! I am Polish and have a daughter who lived in Poland for a semester in college. You will certainly feel very proud of your heritage after reading this book.