The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story

by Diane Ackerman

Hardcover, 2007

Call number

940.53 A



W. W. Norton & Company (2007), 368 pages


When Germany invaded Poland, 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 the 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 and refusing to give in to the penetrating fear of discovery, even as Europe crumbled around her.

User reviews

LibraryThing member riofriotex
I'm glad to have read this book, but it could have been so much better. I would have liked to have seen more of Antonina's memoirs and less of Ackerman's flowery prose. I felt I never got a good idea of what the zoo was like before the war, nor of what happened to it afterward, let alone to the
Show More
Zabinskis. There's not a lot of information out there about the real people in this book, and it seems a missed opportunity to have Ackerman focus more on the animals and nature than on them.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Lilac_Lily01
I have read many touching books about the ordeals of the holocaust victims. And every time I was moved to tears. This story, however, failed to make a connection with me. This was definitely an experience that needed to be written down and passed on. But the writer really didn't do it justice.
Show More
Instead of bringing the characters alive and letting the reader be part of the events the prose kept you at such distance that it was hard for any emotions to come up. I also felt that the storyline was all over the place. The author gave details where none were needed and distracted from the main story. In other parts it only scratched the surface when the reader longed to know more. Overall, this book is a good example of a fascinating story that was turned into a boring one by bad writing. I would definitely not recommend it.
Show Less
LibraryThing member kambrogi
This book was so promising. Check out the fascinating topics: the city zoo in Warsaw during WWII, the zookeeper and his wife harboring Jews, the operation of the Polish Underground, the Nazi effort to breed back extinct animals in order to return to earlier, purer races. There really isn’t much
Show More
in this book that isn’t potentially interesting, but the author seems to have gotten lost wandering in her myriad threads. Too many are spun out briefly, then dropped and never fully explained, not to mention tied-up into some overall concept. At the same time, she repeats herself endlessly or follows pointless background bits that contribute little to the topics at hand, which she could have been developing more fully. Ultimately, I felt as though I’d snacked my way through 342 pages and was still waiting for a real meal.
Show Less
LibraryThing member danaenicole
Ugghhh. This book.

So, the premise is amazing, right? This couple saved the lives of over THREE HUNDRED people during the Holocaust! But you'd never know it, reading this book.

This story that is so amazing is buried deep under a MOUNTAIN of details. If you ever get your hands on a time machine and
Show More
you would like a map for when you vacation in this area/time of Poland, the first chapter will let you know where everything in that town is. Extensive researching is great for writing a historical novel to get the feel of it just right. But you should NOT put ALL of that research into the book. I really could not care less exactly what type of beetles some random guy had in his collection. That's not why I'm reading this book.

It's offensive, really. This story is so fascinating and inspirational and so important to tell, but it's so bogged down by irrelevant details that I was intensely bored throughout the entire book and I only remember them helping even a handful of people. The book really doesn't do the story justice.

Furthermore, Antonia herself is a zookeeper, so calling her "the zookeeper's wife" is kind of insulting.

I'm hoping the movie is better.
Show Less
LibraryThing member whitreidtan
Chosen by my bookclub, this non-fiction book was not exactly what I was expecting. The story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, this story significantly changed my perceptions of what happened during World War II in Poland. Jan and Antonina Zabinski were animal lovers, deeply attached to the Warsaw Zoo
Show More
and its animals. As the zookeeper's wife Antonina raised orphaned animals in the family's home alongside their young son while Jan was rightfully proud of the zoo he was shepherding so carefully. But they were living in times destined to be rent apart by a devastating war, calling upon them to make a moral stand and then to turn that moral stand into action.

Jan fought against the Nazis during the Blitzkreig while Antonina held the homefront and feared for her son, Rysz, and for the animals left in her care. And of course, once the Nazis won, the fears increased. The animals not killed outright in the bombings suffered two fates: either be shipped to Berlin to the zoo there or be shot during a Nazi Christmas hunting party. And while the zoo ceased to be a zoo by any definition, the Zabinskis were allowed to continue living there through its other incarnations, giving them the means to smuggle more than 300 Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto, saving them from certain death in the camps. Jan worked throughout the war, helping the Polish Underground, smuggling human beings, and helping with low levels of sabotage. Antonina was more confined in the role she could play, especially during a difficult pregnancy, but without her calm head and quick thinking as the matriarch to a zoo-full of hidden people, all could have been lost.

The Zabinski's story is one that shows the heroism of the common people. It proves that more people than we sometimes suspect avoided the moral depravity that war brings in its wake. And it is a compelling and wonderful story of truly good people. So why was the book itself just the slightest bit dull? Ackerman makes many digressions from her main story, telling of the history that brought Poland to this pass, stories of acquaintances of the Zabinskis who really have almost nothing to do with the purported story here, and other bits that caused the story to drag instead of leap along. She detailed long lists of people or insects or animals that served no purpose in the narrative and she occasionally waxed overly lyrical about pieces of the natural world (a tendency I put down to her love of gardening and natural history as evidenced by her other book topics).

The book was strongest when she concentrated on the terrors that the Zabinskis faced, small and large, and when she allowed Antonina's journal to speak for her. There was little beyond superficial information about what sort of man Jan was, leaving the impression that he was a silent, rather cold person while she rounded out Antonina well, thanks to descriptions from those who had known her and to her own writings. But her attention to Antonina faltered at times and it was at those times that it became easy to put the book down and pursue other stories. This is a story that should have been riveting. It deserves to be told. But it plodded more than it ever should have.
Show Less
LibraryThing member tianatune
The author of The Zookeeper's Wife is also a poet, a fact which is obvious in the writing style of the book. This book was my most recent book club selection and the majority of the group had the same mixed feelings about it.
Pros: The Zabinskis' true story of hiding Jews in their zoo in Poland is
Show More
one of selflessness and bravery and the world should know about it. The author did a lot of research and included some very interesting information about the motives behind the Nazis' genocide, the sabotage attempts by the Underground, and how the Zabinskis managed to hide Jews with German soldiers only yards away. It was a personal look into a couple's very important part in history.

Cons: The author bogged the story down with many (in my opinion) unimportant details. For example, she describes in detail the beetles collected by one of the Zabinskis' friends for 3 pages! Conversly, I would have enjoyed more detail explaining how the Underground worked and their acts of sabotage. The author also wrote with such poetic prose that at times it got in the way of understanding what I had just read. The flexible use of time was also confusing. Time frames jumped back and forth depending on whose story the author was telling.

Overall I found the book interesting and important, but difficult and time consuming to read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member goldiebear
I tried really hard to get into this book. I couldn't finish it. There were too many unimportant details that I just couldn't get past. I had to skip the 4 pages about beetles! The whole premise of this book was interesting, but I also felt that it was a bit repetitive. It was also a bit dry for my
Show More
taste. There wasn't much dialogue and there were too many characters coming and going and I couldn't keep track of them all. I had a hard time keeping track of the use of time in this book as well.

This book was set up interesting enough though. A fictional story based on a real life family who hid Jews in their zoo. The author obviously took a lot of time doing research about the family, the zoo and the time period.

I didn't finish this book. It was taking too much time and it wasn't keeping me interested enough to try and forge on.
Show Less
LibraryThing member zofia.moczulski
I am deeply moved by this story. Being a Pole and a mother, mother always first, I can only imagine (if ever in her circumstances), what Antonina felt risking her life for saving her son, saving her friend, a talented artist who happened to be a Jew, saving other people, 300 of them.,.. Saving
Show More
animals...what was left of them, after Nazis hunting parties in the zoo..
If you read books like these (should or should we not), if you know who Janusz Korczak was, a powerful if only passing character in this book, how can you define humanity?
Should I or should not ask?
Show Less
LibraryThing member thornton37814
Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina were zookeepers of Warsaw's growing zoo before the onset of World War II. In this account, we learn not only of the horrors suffered by the animals, but also of the zoo's involvement in the Underground Movement aiding Jewish refugees. It's a spellbinding and quick
Show More
read. My biggest criticism is that it is well-researched but poorly documented. The end notes don't link to passages in the text. My first clue that they even existed was when I reached the end. While I understand the author's desire to make the book readable and use fewer citations, it would have been helpful to know which sources were used in constructing the points made in each chapter.
Show Less
LibraryThing member delphica
(#39 in the 2008 Book Challenge)

I read a review of this when it first came out, and it looked fascinating -- the zookeeper of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife were very involved in the Polish underground during the occupation, and their resistance activities included hiding Jewish people in the zoo.
Show More
Unfortunately, the book doesn't really add any other coolness to what I told you right there -- that's the whole story. It's based on the diaries of the zookeeper's wife, and the author also included some more general stories of the Warsaw ghetto. I see what she was aiming for, sort of a collection of anecdotal slices about the ghetto, tied together by Mrs. Zookeeper's journals, but it ended up being too random. I was also hoping there would be more information about the zoo itself, but I guess that was just a hook; by that time the animals were gone: some relocated and others sadly meeting bad ends during the initial bombing.

Also, do you remember in Amadeus when the Emperor says something like "it's nice, but it has too many notes" about Mozart's music, and Tom Hulce as Mozart (wasn't he supposed to have more of a career after that?) gets this look on his face like "ignoramus says what?" and the audience gets to snicker knowing that only a complete Philistine would think that Mozart used too many notes? Well, my reaction to this book was like that -- there were too many words. I felt bludgeoned by adjectives, as if the author was using the thesaurus to make her term paper longer the night before it was due to meet the minimum number of pages.

Grade: C, a sad C.
Recommended: If you are very familiar with Warsaw you would get some enjoyment from that aspect at least. In general, I think this is one of those unfortunate things where the real story strikes you as compelling so you want the book to be better than average ... but at the end of the day, it's more dimwitted than anything else.
Show Less
LibraryThing member marient
After their zoo was bombed, Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski managed to save over three hundred people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in the empty aniaml cages. With animal names for these 'guests' and human names for the animals, it's no wonder the zoo's code name became 'The House
Show More
Under a Crazy Star".
Show Less
LibraryThing member cmbohn
I was really impressed by this book. It's the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski who hid Jews in their villa on the zoo grounds in Warsaw, Poland. Some heart-wrenching stories in there. What made it even more amazing is that it is a true story. Most of the book is taken from the diary that Antonina
Show More
kept during the war, so we get a close look at how she felt. The descriptions of how fear affects you were really well done. The only thing I didn't like about the book is that I didn't really find out what happened to Jan and Antonina after the war or how the diary came to be found.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Smits
i was really excited hen I found this book at a used book sale. It had all the qualities I like to read about. I'm into war stories and I love animals so i was very keen on this book. i was disappointed. it was based on the diary kept by the zookeepers wife and therefore was not really fiction and
Show More
the author tried to stay true to this. There was not alot of detail about the animals and how the war, bombing in Poland affected the zoo. Nor was there a lot of detail about how the people they hid in the zoo during the German occupation lived. the day to day stuff. still there were some very interesting parts and I am not sorry I read it.
Show Less
LibraryThing member KeriLynneD
I struggled getting thru this book and was very disappointed. I know it's about true events but to me it felt like the author didn't have enough for a full book on the zookeepers so she added in random facts that weren't necessary. She was also very long winded in these random parts. I skipped some
Show More
parts when she started rambling and was able to pick up where the actual story was again without any problems. I'm hoping I'll like the movie better.
Show Less
LibraryThing member CymLowell
This is the story of a zookeeper and his wife living in Warsaw before World War II. They operated the Warsaw Zoo and lived on the grounds in central Warsaw. The story is based on the diary of the wife Antonina, as well as interviews and other historical materials.

It begins with vivid description of
Show More
the bucolic life in the zoo, its animals, their sounds, and the details of the operation. The love of the zookeepers family for the animals is touching at this point in the story. The wife nurses all manner of animals, exotic and pedestrian, to health, becoming important elements of the zoo life. The birth of elephants (the twelfth in captivity), lynxes, rhinos, Przywalski horses, big cats, and so on paints the picture of loving, caring people whose life centers around protecting and preserving the creatures of nature.

When the Nazis arrived, zoo officials from Berlin carted off the most exotic animals and dispersed most of the others to German zoos after a private hunt on the zoo grounds. The wife had a premonition that this brutality was what was in store for Warsaw. Bombing of Warsaw then destroyed much of what remained. The Nazi official responsible for the Berlin Zoo was determined to re-create extinct species, such as the legendary bull aurochs, even has his cohorts were exterminating human beings. Ancient animals were venerated to saintly status, as noble people were ground under foot.

The zookeeper became active in the underground , as his wife devised intricate strategies to shelter Jews as they were able to extricated from the Warsaw ghetto across the river. Amazingly, this process worked throughout the war.

The poignancy of the story is emotionally overwhelming. The non-Jewish zookeeper and his family (wife and son) put their lives on the line on a daily basis for the Jews in a far more dangerous and devoted manner that their life of caring for the animals of the zoo. They nurtured friendship and community with those passing through their hands.

The son is raised in those years loving animals that Germans would shoot for sport or eat. He lived in a largely self-imposed shelter of his own out of fear that he would breath a word that would result in a Nazi reprisal to his family and all whom they protected.

The reader is drawn into this life. Ackerman tells this story with simple humility, without directly examining the emotions of the characters that she brings to life, as the zookeepers did their four and two-legged wards. As readers, we are left to ponder their emotions. How would each of us react under such circumstances? If we were the zookeeper, risking the lives of his family and fighting with the underground? Or the wife, who respected her husband’s mission and did her best to care for each new inhabitant of the zoo. Or the young son who wanted to fight with the underground, but understood that he would put his family and their wards at risk with even the slightest wayward word. Or the Jews who found respite in the zoo grounds. Or the Nazi soldiers who were ordered to murder these innocent people and animals.

This is a wonderful story, written with just a light touch to allow all of these emotions to rise to the surface for each of us to find our own truths in the lives of heroes under stress.

A great and meaningful read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Clif
The primary source for this book is the diary of Antonina Zabinski (the zoo keeper's wife). Her detailed descriptions of how she and her young son cared for a variety of animals (many as in-house pets) provides some relief from the otherwise depressing story of the Holocaust that was taking place
Show More
around them. The story branches out from there to tell of the efforts of the Polish resistance to subvert the Nazi occupation and rescue as many as possible from the Jewish Ghetto. The Warsaw Zoo ended up being a hub of resistance activities and a way-station for moving fugitives to safer locations (Noah's Arc in more than one way). They used the cover of "gathering food scraps for the animals" and other gutsy ruses as a means to transport food, information and documents in and out of the Ghetto. The book reads much as a series of short stories, many with life or death close calls. The book reminded me of Shindler's List except this story focuses on the activities of the Polish resistance outside the Ghetto and concentration camps.

Life as viewed by a mother raising a young child during a very dangerous time provides the combination of the human element and war to provide the suspense to make it a gripping story. And the situation becomes even more tense when she gives birth to a baby daughter just a few weeks before the Russians approach Warsaw. And we all know enough history to realize that the Russians didn't exactly bring peace and freedom. The Russian Army's advance stopped 10 miles outside of Warsaw and let the Nazis and Polish resistance fight it out. This resulted in the decimation of Polish resistance (85% of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed). Did the family at the zoo survive this final show down? You'll need to read the book to learn how it ends.

Early in the book we learn that Antonina possessed the gift of calming animals (a la horse whisperer). Numerous times later in the story, when she found herself in the presence of hostile German or Russian solders, she was able to use this same gift to calm their evil intentions. Perhaps there was a bit of luck involved, but it's clear that a less controlled response in those same situations would have resulted in violence to her and her family. Her husband also had a cool and quick wit that got him out of some close calls. But, I was particularly impressed with Antonina's apparent God given ability to look into the souls of others and will them to relax and be calm. It's an amazing story.

During the first half of the book I thought I'd rate the book at three stars. It has a slow beginning. As I got closer to the end I decided perhaps I'd give it four. Now that I've finished I've decided to give it five.
Show Less
LibraryThing member claudiabowman
An unfortunate disappointment, as the story the book is about is an interesting one. The style though is horribly off-putting, akin to watching Ken Burns Civil War spliced with North and South. Having heard the author interviewed, I sincerely wish she had stuck to a style similar to the one she
Show More
uses to *talk* about the people in her book.
Show Less
LibraryThing member sbenne3
While the story is interesting, in my opinion, it just wasn't written very well. I had a hard time following the characters and didn't feel connected to this account of WWII like I have in the many other books I have read on this subject. I didn't get a feel for the city or the "guests" that were
Show More
being hidden at the zoo. I expected a lot more.
Show Less
LibraryThing member InsatiableB
The Zookeeper's Wife is an incredible true story about a Christian Polish couple that used their dilapidated zoo grounds in war-time Warsaw to hide renegade Jews.

The premise for this book seems like it would be absolutely riveting, exciting and a fantastic read. I found it a bit lackluster at
Show More
times. Ackerman used Antonia's journals and other various research as her basis for the book and she didn't deviate from the facts. With that as the foundation for her book there were some gaps and a story that should have been action-packed ended up being just a little...dull at times.

I wish there had been more detail. But the details the reader did get were hilarious - the zookeeper's family kept an exotic menagerie of animals in their home along with humans - and heartbreaking.

I got a bit more insight into World War II; a time in history that never fails to capture my mind. The bravery and compassion of this couple was a story I will not forget in a long time.
Show Less
LibraryThing member writestuff
Diane Ackerman is a poet and naturalist who has written a moving, true account of heroism. Set in Warsaw during WWII, The Zookeeper’s Wife is the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski who managed the Warsaw Zoo and took advantage of the Nazi’s obsession with genetic engineering (to bring extinct
Show More
animals back to life) to hide Jews within the walls and cages of the zoo during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Their story spans the years from 1939, with the invasion of the Nazis into Warsaw, through 1945 when Poland was liberated. Ackerman describes the terror of the initial invasion through Antonina’s eyes with a poet’s flair.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is large in scope, exposing the ingenuity and daring of the Polish Underground and Resistance movements in which Jan was deeply involved, and extending to the individual acts of bravery which happened daily within the confines of the Warsaw ghetto. One of the more touching stories which Ackerman brings to her readers is that of Janusz Korczak - a pediatrician and writer - who dedicated himself to the orphans living within the Ghetto. When faced with the choice to escape to safety, Zorczak instead boarded a train to Treblinka and certain death in order to provide comfort to the nearly 200 children being deported.

Ackerman’s gift is in showing the beauty and courage of people faced with unspeakable horror. She weaves the story of the zoo animals into the daily challenges faced by the individuals who hid among them. The healing power of animals is evident, as is the amazing relationship which Antonina had with them.

This book was difficult to read at times - the cruelty of the Nazis, the devastation of the zoo and most of its animals, the personal stories which unfold. It is almost unbearable to contemplate - and yet, written with sensitivity and skill, the book also exposes the goodness which came from one of the most horrible times in our history.

Show Less
LibraryThing member murraymint11
A book whose subject matter promised much, but which the writing failed to deliver. Was this a biography, or a work of fiction? I was disappointed in this book as I found the writing mostly flat and one-dimensional; there were too many sojourns into superfluous details which added nothing to the
Show More
story (the beetles, for example). And I hated the embedded quotes.
I barely made it to the end.
Show Less
LibraryThing member nicole_a_davis
Enjoyable, but I would have appreciated a stronger narrative and a little more depth to some of the secondary 'characters.' And I would have liked even more animal stories too! I learned a lot about the war experience of the Poles, though--which is something I had never really known about before
LibraryThing member wwlw
Detailed description of the living conditions and actions of the Warsaw zookeeper and his wife during WWII in Poland. Also discussed the very active resistance and life in the Warsaw ghetto. I listened to audio book.
LibraryThing member justjill
Beautifully written true story of Warsaw zookeepers who worked with the Polish resistance during WWII. It seems to have everything a good book needs, but somehow still left me feeling like it should have been more.
LibraryThing member gooutsideandplay
I found this book to be absolutely amazing, even more so because it was a true story. I liked how the author portrayed Antonina and Jan warts and all -- it made them even more admirable -- real true heros who risked everything to save others. I had read a bit about the Warsaw Ghetto but I never
Show More
knew about the nearby zoo and its life during that period. I also wasn't aware of the Nazi's ideas about genetically perfect animals, or about the environment. I really can't recommend this book enough -- really fantastic.
Show Less


Orion Book Award (Winner — 2008)
Sophie Brody Medal (Honorable Mention — 2008)
Notable Books List (Nonfiction — 2008)




Page: 0.7308 seconds