58 pages 1 hour read

Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide


The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a non-fiction narrative recounting the heroic efforts of Antonina Żabińska and her husband, Jan Żabiński, during World War II. When soldiers of the Third Reich invade Poland on September 1, 1939, Jan is the ambitious director of the Warsaw Zoo. Antonina is an amazingly gifted woman who connects emotionally with all the animals in the zoo and the multitudes of human visitors and officials drawn to it. Within hours of the start of the war, the zoo is demolished by Nazi bombs, and within weeks, the zoo’s animals have been stolen for the zoo in Berlin or killed by soldiers. Over the next five years, Jan, a veteran of World War I, works a series of petty government jobs while Antonina struggles to maintain their living quarters in the zoo’s main house. Meanwhile, Antonina and Jan shepherd to safety more than 300 escapees from the notorious Warsaw Ghetto. Originally published in 2007, The Zookeeper’s Wife became a New York Times bestseller and won the 2008 Orion Award for literature connecting humans with nature. A motion picture based on the book, directed by Niki Caro, and starring Jessica Chastain as Antonina and Johan Heldenbergh as Jan, was released in 2017. Author Diane Ackerman is a prolific, widely read author of poetry, essays, and books on a variety of subjects, particularly nature studies. This study guide refers to the 2007 Headline paperback edition.

Content Warning: The book contains frequent references to acts of war, violence, executions, threats, deprivation, and pervasive danger. There are continual descriptions of atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers and officials, primarily against the Jewish citizens of Warsaw.


Ackerman introduces the Żabińskis: Jan, a World War I veteran who earned a doctorate in zoology and later became director of the Warsaw zoo, and his wife Antonina, 11 years younger, whose skill in relating to both people and animals was instrumental in the zoo’s success. She is an orphan whose parents were killed by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. The couple has a young son, Ryś, who loves animals and considers the zoo’s wild creatures his personal pets.

Their peaceful, productive lives are interrupted when the Nazis invade Poland in September 1939. Jan joins the Polish army while Antonina leaves Warsaw in the middle of a pitched battle and returns, after the Polish army’s defeat, to find the zoo completely devastated. A German zoologist, Lutz Heck, soon arrives to steal most of the precious animals remaining alive for his zoo in Berlin. German soldiers celebrate the New Year by shooting all the zoo animals that Heck did not want.

Governor-General Frank, appointed by Hitler to rule over Poland, establishes a 12-block area of Warsaw where all the region’s Jews, around 400,000 people, are relocated. With the goal of eliminating all Jews, Frank slowly tightens his grip on the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, leading to deprivation, starvation, disease, and death. Jewish citizens receive a food ration of 184 calories daily. Doctors are prohibited from practicing in the Ghetto and medicines are nonexistent, leading to many dire health consequences and rampant infectious illnesses.

Jan, with his ties to the military, joins the Polish resistance at the beginning of the German occupation. Quietly, he and Antonina begin to accept Jewish escapees into the decimated zoo buildings. They refer to these transient refugees as “Guests.” Frank issues an edict saying that any Jew who leaves the Ghetto or anyone who assists the Jew in an attempted escape is subject to immediate execution. Jan creates a hog farm on the zoo grounds, which gives him the ability to move around Warsaw and enables him to create a storage place on the zoo grounds for resistance supplies.

Antonina attempts to keep a large number of legitimate visitors coming to and from the villa at the zoo. She knows that the presence of many strangers moving around will make the Germans less likely to notice that some of those strangers are Jewish escapees. In addition to baking bread every day, she finds ingenious ways to feed and care for her guests. She never knows when new guests will arrive, does not know their names when they do, and does not know how long they will stay. She accepts and cares for all of them without question.

Because the Nazis will not allow Jan to have coal to heat the villa in the winter, the herd of swine dies early in 1941. With the help of Polish officials who are secretly members of the Underground, Jan procures another job as a magistrate of gardens. This allows him to move freely through Warsaw and continue his resistance activities.

A highly placed German official, Ziegler, learns that the zoo houses the vast insect collection of Dr. Tenenbaum, a Jewish scientist confined to the Ghetto. Striking up a friendship with Ziegler allows Jan to enter the Ghetto through Ziegler’s office. For weeks, he uses this opportunity to spirit Jews out of the Ghetto to safety. Though Tenenbaum dies in the Ghetto, Jan brings out his friend’s wife safely.

As conditions in the Ghetto continue to deteriorate, Antonina works to make the villa as hospitable as possible. She brings in a number of different animals that have free reign of the house. Antonina arranges a signal to advise her Guests when danger is near. She goes to her piano and plays a song by a Jewish composer that results in immediate silence throughout the villa. The city of Warsaw itself, though gravely restricted in its activities, also has secret schools to replace the universities and secondary schools the Nazis shut down. Inside the Ghetto, Jewish residents work to maintain religious customs, a semblance of an economy, educational institutions, and entertainment venues.

Life in the villa and in the Ghetto becomes much more complicated in the fall of 1942. A warning letter arrives for Ghetto residents describing the construction of a new concentration camp at Treblinka. Jews are warned that they must escape. Otherwise, they will all be killed. When the camp opens in July, within three months more than one-quarter of a million Jews move from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka. The Nazis continue their deportation efforts until the Warsaw Ghetto contains only about 30,000 people, who the Nazis call “wild Jews.”

Antonina becomes ill and must stay in bed in the fall of 1942 with what is apparently a persistent case of phlebitis. She also expects her second child, so that those she has cared for must take the responsibility of caring for her. Guests continue to arrive at the villa, though now there are fewer coming from the Ghetto and more are a part of a cyclical meandering through the city by Jews trying to evade detection and arrest. Ackerman notes that the average person fleeing Nazi arrest moved 7.5 times to different safe houses around Warsaw.

Because many Jews remained in the Ghetto, Heinrich Himmler wanted to give Hitler a present for his birthday on April 20. He sends troops into the Ghetto on April 19 to kill the rest of the remaining Jews. To their surprise, they encounter 1500 Jewish fighters, who keep the German troops at bay for more than three weeks. At last, the Germans burn the Ghetto to the ground.

Though his parents never discuss their activities with him, Ryś understands that they are very active in the Underground. He is frustrated that they will not allow him to go with the Boy Scouts and teenage Jewish fighters who actively attack German soldiers. Antonina discovers that Ryś and another boy have hatched a plot to lure German soldiers to a munitions dump and set off a bomb to kill them. She tells Jan to explain to Ryś that this will endanger all of them as well as their resistance work.

When a fire starts on the zoo compound and threatens the supplies of the Germans, Antonina must explain to a soldier that the fire is not an attack on the Germans. She manages to calm the German soldiers by explaining that one German went on top of a haystack with a girlfriend and his cigarette caught the hay on fire. That evening at the supper table Jan explains to others in the villa that Antonina has a wonderful ability to settle any situation.

With the war turning against Germany, Jan and Antonina experience several close calls during which they might have been killed. Jan once again changes jobs with the help of government officials who are also in the resistance. When the majority of German troops leave Warsaw, the Home Army of Polish fighters decides that they must force the Germans completely out of Warsaw. This results in a protracted two-month offensive. Once again, Jan takes up arms and Antonina goes to the country with her son and her new baby, Teresa. Gravely wounded, Jan ends up in a German POW camp. When the fighting ends, Russian troops take over Warsaw and Antonina must deal with ongoing threats as she waits for her husband to return.

After New Year in 1945, Antonina, Ryś, and baby Teresa return to the villa to find it denuded of all personal possessions but still standing. It is another year before Jan returns from POW camp. In 1947, Jan and Antonina reopen the zoo.

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By Diane Ackerman