The Zookeeper's Wife Summary & Study Guide

Diane Ackerman
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The Zookeeper's Wife Summary & Study Guide Description

The Zookeeper's Wife Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman.

The following version of this book was used to create this guide: Ackerman, Diane. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007.

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman, tells the true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski who helped rescue hundreds of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II by hiding them in the empty animal enclosures at the zoo.

Before the war, the Warsaw Zoo was an idyllic place filled with beautiful plants and the sounds of the animal residents. Jan and Antonina lived in the villa on the zoo grounds and Antonina loved waking each morning to the noises of the animals. She was in charge of caring for the sick or orphaned animals as well as the family’s pets. She also acted as a zoo guide for any important guests.

Jan met Magdalena Gross, a sculptor, while taking his daily bicycle ride through the zoo. She was fascinated by the animals and became friends with Antonina.

Polish and German relations were deteriorating. Antonina took Rys to their cottage in the country for a vacation. While there, two of Rys’s friends told him that the beaches were being dug up to build fortifications. Antonina left Rys with his nanny and went back to Warsaw for the weekend to spend time with Jan. They discussed sending Rys somewhere safer before the war began. Jan was a veteran of World War I and a reserve officer, so he was on duty at night. The couple tried to go on foot to visit cousins, but had to turn back because the area was bombed. Jan sent Antonina back to the country house to be with Rys.

Days later, Jan went to the country house to bring Antonina and Rys back to Warsaw. The zoo had been hit by bombs and the polar bears had been shot when they escaped, along with several other animals Polish soldiers thought might be dangerous if they were to get out. When Jan was sent to the northwestern front, Antonina and Rys stayed with Antonina’s sister-in-law. She did not feel safe in the fourth floor apartment, so they went to stay in a lampshade store on the first floor where several other people were staying as well. Warsaw surrendered and Jan and Antonina returned to the zoo. Jan became a part of the Polish Resistance and took risks to sabotage the Nazis.

Lutz Heck, the director of the Berlin Zoo and a Nazi, came to the Warsaw Zoo and offered to take the animals to Berlin to keep them safe. He took only the animals he felt were valuable and had the rest shot. The zoo was converted into a pig farm to supply pork to the German soldiers, but when the Germans failed to fund the pig farm in order to keep the animals warm and healthy during the winter, the pigs died off and the farm was closed.

The Jewish people were confined to an area of Warsaw called the Ghetto. Jan and Antonina vowed to help as many of them as possible to escape. They began accepting “Guests” at the zoo who stayed temporarily until they could be moved to safer places. Antonina was in charge of caring for the Guests.

A German officer arrived at the zoo requesting to see the insect collection of Szymon Tenenbaum that Jan was storing at the zoo. The man was fascinated by the collection and Jan used this connection to gain access to freely enter the Ghetto. He then began sneaking people out of the Ghetto. When Szymon died, Jan brought his wife to stay at the villa.

Magdalena Gross refused to live in the Ghetto, so she lived in disguise as an Aryan working in a bakery. When she became worried that she would be recognized because she was famous, she became a Guest at the villa.

The Nazis built a fur farm at the zoo and hired a Polish man raised in Germany to run it. The Zabinskis called the man Fox Man and he turned out to be sympathetic to the Underground. Fox Man moved into the villa.

Antonina got pregnant and was confined to bed because of a painful leg condition. Maurycy Fraenkel, a friend of the family and a friend of Magdalena’s, came to live at the villa. He was suffering from a nervous condition brought on by the stress of the war and spent his first days sitting at Antonina’s bedside. He eventually got better and befriended Rys’s pet hamster. The man and the hamster became inseparable and were called “The Hamsters.”

Himmler ordered the extermination of the Jews in Warsaw’s Ghetto as a birthday gift for Hitler. The Jews resisted, but the Germans eventually set fire to the Ghetto causing ash to rain down on the city and the zoo.

Antonina was finally able to get out of bed in the spring. There was a fire in one of the German storage areas on the zoo. A soldier accused Antonina of starting the fire, but her quick thinking helped her to convince the man that the fire was started by a German soldier’s cigarette.

A former zoo guard saw Magdalena and it became unsafe for her to stay at the villa. Jan and Antonina used their connections with Zegota, a cell within the Underground that worked to rescue Jews, to move Magdalena to a safer place.

Antonina gave birth to a baby girl and they named her Theresa. The Guests held a christening party at the villa for her.

After a bomb exploded at Hitler’s headquarters in the Prussian forest, the Germans fled the area and went through Warsaw, burning buildings as they went. Jan was called to fight with the Polish Home Army. The Germans began to retreat, which allowed the Jews to move about more freely until Hitler ordered Himmler to send troops in to utterly destroy the city.

The Germans told Fox Man to take his animals to Germany. Antonina and Rys left with him. They lived in a schoolhouse in a town outside of Warsaw while Fox Man went on to Germany. They heard nothing of Jan’s whereabouts. She did not know he was in a POW camp. When the Uprising ended, she posted notices asking for information about her husband. She finally received a letter from Jan.

The Russian Army invaded Warsaw and drove the Germans out. Antonina and Rys returned to the zoo, which was almost completely destroyed. The villa remained, but it was damaged.

After the war, Jan came home and they repaired the zoo. Shortly after the zoo reopened, Jan retired as zookeeper. However, he continued his work on animal psychology and wrote several books. Antonina wrote children’s books. Rys grew up and became a civil engineer and Theresa married and moved to Scandinavia.

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