Summary and book reviews of The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's Wife

A War Story

By Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's Wife
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2007,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2008,
    368 pages.

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Book Summary

When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw—and the city’s zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen “guests” hid inside the Zabinskis’ villa, emerging after dark for dinner, socializing, and, during rare moments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital. Meanwhile, Antonina kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants—otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes.

With her exuberant prose and exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, Diane Ackerman engages us viscerally in the lives of the zoo animals, their keepers, and their hidden visitors. She shows us how Antonina refused to give in to the penetrating fear of discovery, keeping alive an atmosphere of play and innocence even as Europe crumbled around her.

Chapter 8

Lutz Heck took over the Berlin Zoo from his distinguished father in 1931, and almost immediately began remodeling the zoo’s ecology and ideology. To coincide with the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin, he opened a "German Zoo," an exhibit honoring the country’s wildlife, complete with "Wolf Rock" at its center, surrounded by enclosures for bears, lynxes, otters, and other native species. This bold patriotic display underscoring the importance of familiar animals, and that one needn’t go to the ends of the earth to find exotic species, conveyed a laudable message, and if he’d unveiled his exhibit today, his motives wouldn’t be questioned. But given the era, his beliefs, and the ultranationalism of his family, he clearly wanted to please Nazi friends by contributing to the ideal of Germany’s master races. A 1936 photograph shows Heck and Göring on a hunting trip to Schorfheide, Heck’s large preserve in Prussia; and the...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. How does Diane Ackerman's background as a naturalist and a poet inform her telling of this slice of history? Would a historian of World War II have told it differently, and, if so, what might have been left out?
     
  2. Reviews have compared this book to Schindler's List and Hotel Rwanda. How would you compare them?
     
  3. Did this book give you a different impression of Poland during World War II than you had before?
     
  4. Can you imagine yourself in the same circumstances as Jan and Antonina? What would you have done?
     
  5. How would you describe Antonina's relation to animals? To her husband? How does she navigate the various relationships in the book, given the extreme circumstances? Is her default ...
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Reviews

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So many stories have been written about the Holocaust. Some recount one of the few small miracles, they give us hope for humanity, and honor those who acted with compassion. Others delve into the darkest parts of the destruction, sinking the reader deep into the trenches of the violence. But The Zookeeper's Wife does both, which is what makes it so worth reading. Writing unflinchingly with equal vigor about the beauty and the ugliness, Diane Ackerman manages to re-sensitize the reader to acts of war and acts of grace.   (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).

Full Review Members Only (1147 words).

Media Reviews
Author Blurb Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel
Diane Ackerman has surpassed even herself in her latest book, which is alternatingly funny, moving, and terrifying.

Author Blurb Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated
I can't imagine a better story or storyteller. The Zookeeper's Wife will touch every nerve you have.

Author Blurb Dava Sobel, author of The Planets and Galileo's Daughter
Stunning….Rarely does one read a book in which the author and the heroine are so magically matched.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This suspenseful beautifully crafted story deserves a wide readership.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

Starred Review. Ackerman's affecting telling of the heroic Zabinskis' dramatic story illuminates the profound connection between humankind and nature, and celebrates life's beauty, mystery, and tenacity.

The New York Times - D. T. Max

This is an absorbing book, diminished sometimes by the choppy way Ackerman balances Antonina's account with the larger story of the Warsaw Holocaust.

The Washington Post - Susie Linfield

A lovely story ....that is simultaneously grave and exuberant, wise and playful. Ackerman has a wonderful tale to tell, and she tells it wonderfully.

Reader Reviews
This Book Is Not Good

Do Not Read This Book
I'm going to be a freshman in high school and I had to read this book for the summer. I HATE this book. All my friends have to read it too and they all hate it. My friends mom read it and she didn't like it either. So I do not recommend this book to ...   Read More

A Bookshelf Monstrosity

Zookeeper's Wife
Ackerman pulls from Antonina Zabinski's extensive memoirs of her experiences in World War II Poland and from her own research on the topic to tell the story of the hundreds of Jews that passed through this particular stop on the Polish Underground. ...   Read More

J. Arnold

Copiously Researched
The beauty in Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife lies in her attention to detail. She tells the story of Jan and Antonia Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife, during the Polish Occupation during WWII, with beautiful prose that ...   Read More

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Janusz Korczak

Tucked into The Zookeeper's Wife is the equally myth-like story of Janusz Korczak (photo). A friend of the Zabinksis', Korczak was a Polish writer and pediatrician who founded a progressive orphanage for boys and girls in Warsaw in 1912. He had a popular radio show, enjoyed by both children and adults, and his children's book, King Matt the First, is known as well in Poland as Alice and Wonderland or Peter Pan is in the States. Korczak insisted on the importance of respecting and listening to children, believing that parents, caregivers, and instructors could do best by learning from them. He insisted that the role of the parent was not to impose a set of behaviors or expectations on a child, but rather...

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