Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper’s Wife

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The Zookeeper’s Wife Summary

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The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007), a non-fiction book by poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman, tells the story of a Polish couple who save the lives of three hundred Jews imprisoned after the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.

Jan and Antonia live in a villa on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo, waking up in the morning to beautiful plants and the sounds of happy animals. Antonia cares for the sick or orphaned animals, as well as their own pets. She is also the zoo guide for important or distinguished guests. Meanwhile, Jan, the director of the zoo, meets a sculptor named Magdalena Gross, who quickly becomes friends with Antonia and fascinated by the animals.

Polish and German tensions were rising. Antonia takes their son, Rys, to their vacation cottage. Two of Rys’s friends tell him that the beaches are being dug up to build fortifications. Antonia leaves Rys there and returns to Jan for a time. They consider sending Rys away before a war starts. Jan, a veteran of WWI and a reserve officer is on duty that night. Bombs begin falling, and Jan sends Antonia back to the cottage with Rys.

Days later, Jan goes to bring his wife and child back to Warsaw. The zoo has been hit, polar bears and other animals shot for being potentially dangerous. Jan is sent to the Northwestern Front and Antonia and Rys stay with Antonia’s sister-in-law. The fourth floor feels too dangerous, so they hide with others in a lampshade store beneath them. Jan joins the Polish Resistance and tries to help sabotage the Nazis.

Lutz Heck, the Director of the Berlin Zoo, comes to the Warsaw Zoo to offer to take the animals still alive to safety. He is a Nazi and only takes the valuable animals, having the rest shot. The zoo is converted into a pig farm to supply the German army with pork. This, too, fails, and the pigs die off during the winter.

Soon, Jewish people are confined to the Warsaw Ghetto. Jan and Antonia swear to help whomever they can. They accept “guests” at the zoo, who hide in the animal cages until they can be evacuated. One day, a Nazi asks to see the insect collection at the zoo. The man is fascinated with the insects, and Jan uses this connection to gain access to the Ghetto, sneaking people out when he can.

Magdalena Gross refuses to live in the Ghetto and lives in disguise as an Aryan. She works at a bakery but is worried about being recognized because she is a famous sculptor. She, too, becomes a guest at the villa. The Nazis build a fur farm, hire a German-raised Polish man to run it, who is called Fox Man. He, too, moves in as a guest.
Antonia is pregnant and bedridden with a painful leg condition. She is only able to get out of bed in the spring. A friend of the family with PTSD eventually recovers through spending time at Antonia’s bedside and befriending Rys’s pet hamster.

As a birthday gift to Hitler, Himmler calls for the extermination of everyone in the Ghetto. They resist, but the Nazis burn it to the ground. There is a fire in the zoo. A soldier accuses Antonia of setting it, but she tricks him into believing it was a German soldier’s cigarette that started the fire.

One day, a former zoo guard sees Magdalena; she cannot remain at the villa. Jan and Antonia work out a plan, using their connections with Zegota, a section of the Underground, to rescue Magdalena and move her to a safe place. It is around this time that Antonia gives birth to a baby girl, whom they name Theresa. All of the guests have a christening party for her in the secrecy of the villa.

A bomb explodes near Hitler’s headquarters in the Prussian forest, and German soldiers flee the area. They travel through Warsaw, burning as they go. Jan is again called in to fight with the Polish Home Army, as the Germans retreat. The Jews begin to move around more freely until Hitler orders Himmler to send in more troops and destroy the city completely.

The Germans warn Fox Man to take his animals to Germany, and Antonia and Rys go with him. They live in a schoolhouse outside of Warsaw, knowing nothing about Jan’s whereabouts or well-being, while Fox Man goes on to Germany. They do not know that Jan is being held in a prisoner-of-war camp. The Uprising ends, and Antonia asks after news about Jan. Finally, she gets a letter from him.

The Russians drive the Germans out of Warsaw, and Antonia and Rys return to the zoo, although it is nearly destroyed. The villa stands but it, too, is damaged.
At the end of the story, we learn that Jan came home after the war and helped repair the zoo, reopening it eventually. He retired as zookeeper, but he continued his work on animal psychology, writing several books. Antonia wrote children’s books, and Rys grew up to be a civil engineer. Theresa married and moved to Scandinavia.