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The Zookeeper's Wife is the story of two unsung heroes of World War II: Jan and Antonina Żabiński, Polish zookeepers who risked their lives to rescue Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis. The heroic couple hid more than three hundred fugitives in their home and in the empty animal cages of the Warsaw Zoo.
Diane Ackerman vividly evokes the extreme brutality and heroism that defined WWII-era Poland. The Zookeeper's Wife is a testament to the bravery of those who resisted tyranny through radical compassion.
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Summary and Analysis of The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story
Based on the Book by Diane Ackerman
By Worth Books
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
To tell the story of Christian zookeepers Antonina and Jan Zabinski, Ackerman consulted Antonina's memoirs and children's books, as well as Jan's books and recollections. She studied the interviews they gave to newspapers after the war, and used photographs for physical details. She also researched Nazi ideology, particularly their obsessions with zoology and pure breeding.
Ackerman's interest in the Zabinskis stems from her Polish heritage: Ackerman's grandparents fled Poland during the war. They shared Polish tradition and folklore with her, including a remarkably relevant story about a Jewish man who dresses up like a lion in the village zoo.
In the years before the war, Jan and Antonina Zabinski work as the directors of the Warsaw Zoo, where exotic and native animals live in lush habitats made to recreate their native forests, tundra, or wetlands. Jan is a talented zookeeper, naturalist, and biologist; but Antonina possesses a particular talent with animals, a "sixth sense" that allows her to connect and communicate with them.
The Zabinskis live with their young son, Rys, in a villa just off the zoo grounds. There, they play hosts to a panoply of guests, human and non-human alike — including an eagle chick, a wolf cub, and two baby lynxes rescued from Poland's primeval Bialowieza Forest.
Need to Know: The Zabinskis share an unconventional life at the Warsaw Zoo, filled with the joys, challenges, and surprises of caring for animals.
While Jan works with the zookeepers to stay up to date on the animals' health and behavior, Antonina gives tours of the zoo to visitors. The Zabinskis have ambitions for the Warsaw Zoo: Jan hopes to one day build a large enclosure for some of the animals to share, emulating their natural habitat. The zoo boasts several prize animals, including the twelfth elephant ever born in captivity.
The Warsaw Zoo is a clamoring bazaar of color and life. The scents and sounds of the animals fill the air, and the Zabinskis encourage local and visiting groups to hold events on zoo grounds. Antonina believes that the zoo offers visitors a chance to connect with their animalistic nature, and is a way to promote conservation.
Need to Know: The Warsaw Zoo is a nexus between animal and human life, where humans care for and observe animals and animals remind humans of their place in the natural world.
Antonina and Jan befriend Magdalena Gross, a famous Jewish sculptor. The zoo animals captivate Magdalena — she spends hours observing them in their enclosures. The animals become her models — the zoo, her art studio.
In the summer of 1939, Antonina takes Rys on vacation to rural Rejentówka, where they spend idyllic summer days playing with their new pet badger and exploring the forest. Isolated and happy in the little cottage with her animal friends and Rys, Antonina feels far away from the political tensions roiling Europe. But when she returns to Warsaw, her sense of peace shatters — the city is preparing for an imminent German invasion.
Need to Know: The life that Antonina knew before the war — the life of security and madcap fun — has begun to fall apart.
Warsaw, September 1, 1939
Germany launches its invasion of Poland on the September 1, 1939. Planes screech overhead; bombs reduce houses to flaming rubble. Antonina flees to Rejentówka, where Rys and his nanny remain. German aircraft fly low over the road out of Warsaw, strafing the fleeing women, children, and elderly. Antonina arrives safely at the cottage; Jan joins her a few days later. Together, the three Zabinskis return to Warsaw.
German air raids rend the skies over Warsaw morning and night. At the zoo, the Zabinskis try to calm the terrified animals. But when a bomb hits the polar bears' enclosure and frees the bears, Polish soldiers shoot all of the zoo's predatory and aggressive inhabitants — including a large male elephant. A day later, a Polish soldier knocks at the door. He orders Jan to join the Polish army on the northwestern front and directs all civilians to vacate the zoo. Antonina and Rys leave the zoo to stay with Jan's sister-in-law.
Need to Know: The violent wrecking of the Warsaw Zoo mirrors the sudden destruction of everything the Zabinskis understood about their lives. As the city falls, so do the Zabinskis' dreams of a bright future at the zoo.
Antonina and Rys hide and wait in the small fourth floor flat on Kapucynska Street. Desperate to protect Rys in the event that the building collapses, she leaves her sister-in-law and relocates to the ground floor, where there is a lampshade store and workshop. The two elderly storeowners offer food and shelter to those who fled their homes. Theirs is a city under siege — every day, Antonina, Rys, and the others in the shop face the possibility of their own death. When the French and English declare war on Germany, the Poles rejoice; but the intervention they hope for does not come.
One day, Antonina braves the bombers and heads toward the zoo, determined to save what animals she can.
Need to Know: Faced with the threat of death, Antonina's animal instincts kick in — she does what she can to protect her young and her territory.
The Nazi bombs devastate the zoo. Flames engulf some of the animal enclosures, animals lie dead or wounded in their cages, and some animals escape into Warsaw's streets. And, somehow, some survive — Antonina finds the rare lynxes, bison, and Przywalski horses still alive and does what little she can to calm them. Back at the lampshade store, Antonina and the huddled survivors listen for news on the radio; they begin to understand that Warsaw will fall to the Germans.
Then Jan, who had gone off to the war front, arrives at the door of the shop.
Jan left Warsaw weeks before as part of a group of men looking for an army unit to join. After three unsuccessful weeks, they disbanded. While overnighting at the farm of some acquaintances, Jan ran into Dr. Muller, a Nazi zoologist who, by pretending to arrest Jan, was able to bring him back safely to Warsaw.
After Poland surrenders and the bombings stop, the Zabinskis return to the zoo and salvage what they can. Outside the villa, the German soldiers march in the streets. Hitler installs his personal lawyer, Hans Frank, as ruler of occupied Poland. Jan immediately forges ties with the Polish Underground Resistance. Also called the Home Army, the resistance sabotages and undermines the Nazi occupiers.
Need to Know: Warsaw reels from the catastrophic German invasion. After the surrender, the Polish people piece their lives back together under radically altered circumstances — and some of them plan how they'll fight back against the occupying Germans.
Normally, October would bring quieter days and new animals to the zoo, but in 1939, the zoo is empty and wrecked. Antonina fears the Germans will liquidate the zoo.
Then, the Zabinskis receive news of a coming visitor: Lutz Heck, a friend from the International Association of Zoo Directors. Keeper of the Berlin Zoo, Heck has become an influential and powerful Nazi. The Zabinskis don't know whether they can trust him or not. Though he's always been a little sweet on Antonina (tall and blonde, she's an ideal Aryan woman), he may be the official in charge of liquidating the zoo. Jan and Antonina have no choice but to wait and see.
Need to Know: The Zabinskis are helpless to prevent the Germans from shutting down the Warsaw Zoo. The war has changed their relationship to everything — even to Heck, whose political ties may well trump his sympathy for fellow zookeepers.
Lutz Heck is a big-game hunter, animal breeder, zoo director, and zealous Nazi. Heck applies Nazi theories of eugenics and racial purity to animal bloodlines — as the Nazis vaunt their pureblooded Aryan ancestors, Heck exalts the now-extinct species that populated ancient Europe. By breeding together the modern descendants of extinct animals, he hopes to resurrect ancient breeds. The Nazis don't just want to annex land, they want to exterminate non-German flora and fauna and create Aryan ecosystems like the Bialowieza Forest.
Need to Know: Heck embodies a lesser-known part of the Nazis' goals: They wanted to cleanse and manipulate the natural environment of Europe as well as its human population. In a darkly ironic twist, the Nazis — who committed history's largest genocide — were ardent conservationists and animal lovers.
Heck arrives at the Warsaw Zoo. Antonina feels hopeful — Heck chats with Jan and pays Antonina flattering attention. Soon, however, he reveals his mission: He plans to take the Warsaw Zoo's most important animals to the Berlin Zoo, though he assures the Zabinskis that their animals will only be on loan. Jan and Antonina must comply.
Need to Know: The Warsaw Zoo is home to several valuable animals — but now they, too, belong to the Nazis. The occupation has stripped the Zabinskis of their freedom and their livelihood.
Despite being an educated scientist and zoologist, Lutz Heck ignored the accepted theory of hybrid vigor: that interbreeding strengthens a bloodline, and that the purer the bloodline, the more vulnerable the species. Based on Heck's own writings and actions, author Diane Ackerman speculates that he may have seen racial purification and eugenics (both animal and human) as a form of proactive evolution.
As promised, Heck plans to install the best specimens from the Warsaw Zoo in the Berlin Zoo — yet he hasn't told Zabinskis the truth about what he plans for the remainder of their zoo. On his last night in Warsaw, Heck throws a "hunting" party. He invites the SS to the zoo to shoot and kill all the animals that Heck doesn't want. To shelter him from the slaughter, Antonina spends the day and evening reading to Rys in his bedroom, while gunshots pierce the air. "How many humans will die like this in the coming months?" Antonina asks herself.
Unable to abandon the zoo because it served the Underground, the Zabinskis save their home by offering up the zoo grounds to Lutz Heck for a pig farming operation.
Need to Know: Heck loots the Warsaw Zoo, a zoological parallel to the looting the Nazis did throughout the countries they occupied. The SS and Heck's disregard for the lives of the animals is a chilling foreshadowing of the Nazis' disregard for all life, animal and human.
Antonina struggles to cope with the loss of the zoo animals, Heck's betrayal, and the broader calamity of German occupation. Food and supplies are short, mass executions bloody the streets, and German soldiers murder and imprison Poles and Jews with impunity.
The pig farm begins operations in the spring of 1940. Overqualified zookeepers look after the pigs, and the animals grow fat and happy. The farm also provides a cover for Jan's Underground activities. One day, Jan gives Rys a baby piglet, which Rys names Morys.
Need to Know: The violence in Warsaw did not end with the city's surrender. The Zabinskis adjust to their new existence as pig farmers in constant danger from the SS — by giving Rys a pet pig, they take a small step back toward their erstwhile tradition of always cohabitating with animal friends.
At first, the people of Warsaw refuse to believe that the Germans will really enact their racist laws and carry out their plan for racial purification. But denial soon morphs into fear as the Nazis distribute anti-Semitic propaganda, force Jews to wear a star of David on their clothing, ban them from public trams and parks, and commit unchecked brutalities in the streets.
Then, in October of 1940, the Nazis forcibly relocate Warsaw's entire Jewish population to a twenty-block district. Few people foresee the relocation as the first step in a planned extermination; still, some Jews — including Wanda Englert, a part-Jewish friend of the Zabinskis — convert to Christianity, purchase false documents, and assume non-Jewish identities.
Need to Know: The occupation grows bleaker as the Nazis begin to systematically destroy Polish-Jewish life.
Antonina and Jan find the Nazis' racism contemptible. Jan, whose father raised him as an atheist in a Jewish neighborhood, respects and esteems Warsaw's Jews.
He and Antonina decide to hide Jews at the zoo. Because the house and grounds are exposed to the street, the refugees will have to be hidden in plain sight. German soldiers even erect a weapons storehouse on the former lions' island enclosure in the middle of the zoo. Staunch in his determination to do what he believes is right — and glad to deceive the German occupiers — Jan commits to helping what Jews he can regardless of the risk his subversion poses to his family.
Need to Know: The Zabinskis are motivated to help the Jews by their shared sense of justice, their personal connections to the Jewish community, and their desire to subvert the German regime.
In the summer of 1940, the Zabinskis regularly welcome "Guests," their name for Jews and Underground agents who need temporary asylum. They invite a constant stream of legal visitors to the villa so that the extra Guests in the house will pass unnoticed. Some Guests sleep in the villa or the villa's basement, while others hide in the empty animal enclosures.
While Jan works for the Underground, Antonina commands the zoo's domestic space. She works to dispel the gloom and tension that surround the Guests' daily lives. But despite Antonina's efforts, the horror of the war encroaches: one day, German soldiers butcher Morys, Rys's pet pig and only confidante.
Need to Know: In order to keep everyone safe, Jan had to maintain strict secrecy about his Underground activities. It wasn't until after the war that Antonina learned that Jan was the leader of an Underground cell specializing in sabotaging and derailing German trains, or that he once infected some pigs with worms, butchered them, and then slipped the poisoned meat into the German army canteen where the soldiers ate it.
The Zabinskis must shut down their pig farm when a German bureaucrat refuses to provide them with any hay for the winter. (Unknown to them, the bureaucrat is corrupt and had colluded with other officials to rent the zoo to a German herb company.)
The Zabinskis fear they will lose their house and land, but the zoo is saved when the German president of Warsaw, a devotee of zoos, visits with his wife and daughter and cancels the corrupt rental agreement. Vice-president Julian Kulski, a friend of the Underground, devises a plan to create community garden plots on the zoo grounds. Management of the garden gives Jan access to all quarters of the city — including the Ghetto.
Under the guise of collecting scraps for the pigs, Jan is able to visit the Ghetto regularly. But with the pigs dead, he's lost his excuse for visiting. Thankfully, Jan's access to the Ghetto expands when Ziegler, the director of the Warsaw Ghetto Labor Bureau, visits the zoo one day. An amateur entomologist, he's come to see Szymon Tenenbaum's beetle collection. Tenenbaum, a Jewish entomologist and friend of the Zabinskis, left his collection at the zoo when he was forced to move to the Ghetto. Jan befriends Ziegler and often visits him at his office, a building with an entrance into the Ghetto and an entrance into the Aryan district. Jan daringly spirits many Jews out of the Ghetto and into hiding via Ziegler's office — without Ziegler's knowledge. But when Tenenbaum dies, Jan once again loses his excuse to regularly enter the Ghetto.
Need to Know: Jan and Antonina keep control of the zoo and save refugees from the Nazis thanks to a serendipitous combination of chance, cunning, and caution.
The Zabinskis work to erect a façade of normalcy at the zoo to hide their Underground activities. Jan adopts a disciplined and demanding persona — in order to carry out subversive activities without attracting the Gestapo's attention, the zoo's inhabitants must cultivate paranoia and strictly follow the villa's rules.
The danger of discovery threatens the Zabinskis every day. Jan nearly gets caught sneaking Szymon Tenenbaum's widow, Lonia, out of the Ghetto. He persuades a suspicious gatekeeper that Lonia is his lawful guest and keeps his cool when he and Lonia run into two SS officers in the Aryan section of the city.
Today, Szymon Tenenbaum's incredible beetle collection resides in Poland, about one hour outside of Warsaw in one of the satellite State Zoological Museum buildings.
Need to Know: Szymon Tenenbaum's insect collection is an entomological feat, made even more remarkable for its role in helping dozens of Jews escape the Ghetto.
Excerpted from Summary and Analysis of The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story by Worth Books. Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Cast of Characters,
Direct Quotes and Analysis,
What's That Word?,
About Diane Ackerman,
For Your Information,