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Zoo Bombing, from flickr

"Survival in Cages"

Book Essay on:
Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife
(New York: Norton, 2007), 368 pages.
UCSB Library: DS134.64. A25 2007

by Anonymous Student
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$16 & searchable
at amazon

About Anonymous Student

My major is Communication with a minor in History; I am a graduating senior with an interest in International Business and Mass Media Communication. In October I begin my MBA in International Business at the American University of London. The extent of my knowledge of German/European history is that of which we have learned this quarter, basic overview from previous classes, personal family connections, and lastly just personal interest in historical films/documentaries about the Holocaust.

Abstract (back to top)

The Zookeeper’s Wife is about a couple in Poland during the years of the German invasion that save over 300 Jews lives by hiding them throughout the Polish Zoo in which they were directors. The couple raises their son among a variety of animals while hiding Jews over the years in animal cages and involving themselves with the underground of the Ghetto. My thesis statement is as follows; t hroughout the book, the Zabinskis show how fragile human life is through the depiction of animal culture in the Warsaw Zoo and the different ways in which people learned to survive the German occupation of Poland. According to Diane Ackerman’s personal website, she explains what she meant for the reader to understand about her book, “The Zookeeper's Wife is about one of the most successful hideouts of World War II. It's a tale of people, animals, transcendence, and subversive acts of compassion.”

Essay (back to top)

Book Summary

The Zookeeper's Wife is the true story of the Polish couple, Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who hid more than 300 Jewish refugees in the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. The Zabinskis lived in a villa on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo since Jan became the director in 1929. When he and Antonina were married in 1931 they decided to devote themselves entirely to the zoo. For several years after their marriage, the couple developed an amazing relationship with the zoo animals and staff. Jan wanted to create a zoo that would be important world round and was the heart of Warsaw’s life, both social and cultural. Over the course of just a few years, Antonina developed an unusual sensitivity to the animals and felt that in order for the animals to survive they must feel at home. Both of the Zabinskis felt that the animals were important to the Warsaw community and promoted the zoo’s beauty and opportunities.

However, in August of 1939 the Nazis began their invasion of Poland, destroying much of what life used to be like. Not as quickly as most, the Zabinskis' life was interrupted by the Nazi occupation. The German invasion and the occupation of Poland forced the Zabinskis to change their lives, closing the zoo and first turning it into a pig farm, then adding small vegetable gardens in order to “support” the war effort. During the German occupation, the Zabinskis hid hundreds of Jews in order to save them. Their work included sneaking food into the confining of the Jewish populace confined in the Warsaw ghetto and forging documents for Aryan looking Jews. Finally with the eventual transportation of the surviving Jews to concentration camps, the final destruction of the ghetto, the destruction of Warsaw, the Zabinskis did all they personally could to support both the Polish resistance and courageous individuals in rescuing and harboring as many Jews as they could. Interestingly enough, the Zabinskis were able to keep their love and dedication to animals throughout the story, keeping the reader involved.


“The Holocaust was different, far more premeditated, high-tech, and methodical, and, at the same time, more primitive, as biologist Lecomte du Nouy argues in a dignite humaine (1944): Germany’s crime is the greatest crime the world has ever known, because it is not on the scale of History: it is on the scale of evolution” (Ackerman, 92). In the book The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman, the Warsaw Zoo is torn apart as a result of the German occupation of Poland during the time of Hitler’s rule and the Holocaust. The zookeeper and his wife, Jan and Antonina Zabinski, were able to save over 300 Jews during the Nazi occupation by hiding them in the animals’ cages. Throughout the book many references to eugenics and racial purity in relation to the human and animal population of Europe are discussed and debated. Without the contribution of the concepts of eugenics, mainly racial purity, the Holocaust would not have been as devastating or successful for the Germans . The lives of those affected by the German occupation would never be the same. There is a correlation between the love and respect for the zoo animals by the zookeepers, and the lack of humanity that the Germans displayed toward the entire Jewish race. This also can be tied into the Nazis’ obsession with trying to breed strong and purebred animals as well as human beings. Throughout the book, the Zabinskis show how fragile human life is through the depiction of animal culture in the Warsaw Zoo and the different ways in which people learned to survive the German occupation of Poland.

The concept of racial purity really boomed with Konrad Lorenz in the early days of the Nazi party (Ackerman, 84). As a Nobel scientist highly respected by the Nazi party, Lorenz sought to show an example of cultural decline through the breeding of animals. Only breeding the strongest animals and those showing the most robust traits, Lorenz was able to eliminate the “degenerate” types and create the ultimate animal population. Eugenics also played a large role in the book; it is a social philosophy that advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention.(Wikipedia) With the introduction of the character Lutz Heck in the book, Ackerman is able to show the extremes to which some went to purify all of Germany, including its animals. The Zabinskis' zoo was in danger of being demolished by the Germans; there were few options that the Zabinskis had in order to save their precious zoo. While the Zabinskis were able to maintain a structured environment with all animals living together in harmony, that would not last long; Heck was able to come in and destroy much of the ideals that the Zabinskis had put into the zoo. This is almost an allegory for what was going on outside of the zoo; Nazis came into Poland destroying everything in their path, ruining the structure of its society.

Lutz Heck was the son of Professor Ludwig Heck of the Berlin Zoo and is an important figure throughout the book. Heck was an avid believer in eugenics, believing that if he is able to capture the most robust of the species, that he would be could produce a dominant race of animals. In order to do this, he would only breed the most favorable looking and physically fit; acceptable enough for the elite Aryan race. As stated in the book at the end of chapter 8, the Nazis were ardent animal lovers and environmentalists; they promoted healthy living, regular trips to the countryside, and far-reaching animal rights policies as they rose to power. More specifically, the Third Reich felt that animals were noble, mythic, and almost angelic, including humans. Just as the Zabinskis, the Germans felt that animals should be a reflection of human society and culture, the original perfect being, untouched or tarnished by less able species. The Zabinskis had to choice but to accept Heck’s offer to help them attempt to keep the zoo from being liquidated, as Antonina put it. Heck was one of the few options that the Zabinskis had. They did not trust Heck, but as a zookeeper himself, he should have been sympathetic to their situation. Also, Heck had friends in high places and with the Zabinskis' country occupied, it was important to keep their options open in order to save the zoo.

As quickly as the Zabinskis became close to Heck, the zoo was in grave danger of being shut down and the land seized. Heck’s bleak agenda was simple; his visits to the zoo were just an excuse to loot it of its finest, most exotic animals, promising the Zabinskis that he was taking them for safe keeping. The bombed-out Warsaw Zoo was in grave danger as Heck swore to the Zabinskis that he had nothing to do with the closing of their zoo and that his influence was not strong enough to persuade those generals above him. The problem with the closing of the zoo was not just the loss of all the animals and the Zabinskis' lifestyle, but the Zabinskis began to work with members of the underground in order to help house Jews attempting to escape death from the Nazis. Heck decided that instead of closing the zoo and taking the lands, the best use of the lands would be to turn it into a pig farm, providing food for the German troops and jobs for the Zabinskis. Jan was soon able to sneak scraps of food into the ghetto for his Jewish friends; even though pork was not allowed in the Jewish religion, heads turned the other way due to the need to survive, and pork provided a large amount of protein.

Soon after the Zabinskis were forced to change their jobs from zookeepers to pig farmers, Jan began to sneak into the ghetto more and more. Jan began to see what life was like directly before and then inside the ghetto; the lack of food, unpaid labor, and warnings and humiliations. Jews were forbidden in restaurants, parks, public toilets, and even city benches. All Jews were required to wears a blue Star of David on a white arm band and were barred from railways and trams. They were frequently being publicly stigmatized, brutalized, denigrated, raped, and openly murdered (Ackerman, 104). On October 12, 1940, the Nazis ordered all of Warsaw’s Jews from their homes and forced them into a district on the north side of town, conveniently located in a hard to escape area. About 400,000 people were confined to only about five percent of the city. As the Zabinskis clearly understood the only way to survive in the ghetto was to smuggle food, bribe Nazis, or to attempt to escape. The Germans wanted to drive the Jews into extinction, German children were taught that Jews were not human and that they are harmful, dirty, and disease ridden.

On the other hand, of all the cruelty outside of the zoo created by the war and the Germans, life inside the villa was usually peaceful and always full of creatures and “Guests.” Ackerman makes a point to include many innocent stories of Jan and Antonina’s son Rys and his experiences as a child growing up in the years of the German occupation. Many times throughout the book Antonina makes a desperate effort to shelter her young son against the war and violence. In comparison to the way Germans treated those that they considered less than the perfect Aryan, Rys was taught from the very beginning that all animals are important and all beings are important to the circle of life. Jan had a very different upbringing compared to most people of the times; he grew up in a poor area of Poland and went to a school with over 80% of Jewish decent. Most of his friends were Jewish and this had a profound effect on his decisions later in life to join the underground and to teach his own son about equality and the wrong doings of the Germans. In the last section of chapter 22, Antonina describes the inner workings of her household, “in a household that porous, where animal time and human time swirled together, it made sense to identify the passage of months not by season or year but by the stay of an influential visitor, two- or four legged.” Inside the Zabinski household life completely contrasted the harshness of the outside war: animals and humans were all valued and there was no elite race or species. Germans such as Heck tried to destroy this through the ideals of eugenics and breeding of the most fit and elite animals. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a stark example of the contrasts between two separate viewpoints, those that believe in equality and evolution of the world and those who believe they can control nature and that there is only one elite species.

Through comparing these two view points, Ackerman makes an overwhelming impression on her readers. Especially because of the reality and truth of the story, the Zabinskis are heroes, saving hundreds of people and risking their own lives and the well being of their only son, Rys. Ackerman is able to clearly show the distinct differences between the Zabinskis' family dynamic of equality to the harsh reality of the outside world and the Germans war on nature and evolution. The experiences of the Zabinski family offer a glimpse into the lives of those who tried to save the Jewish people, those who suffered, and those who caused the suffering. Without people such as this, many more would have suffered as a result of the Nazis need to create the utopian society.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/21/08)

Book Reviews:

  • 2007 review by UCSB history student Amanda Cable
  • Reed Business Information, at amazon: Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) tells the remarkable WWII story of Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife, Antonina, who, with courage and coolheaded ingenuity, sheltered 300 Jews as well as Polish resisters in their villa and in animal cages and sheds. Using Antonina's diaries, other contemporary sources and her own research in Poland, Ackerman takes us into the Warsaw ghetto and the 1943 Jewish uprising and also describes the Poles' revolt against the Nazi occupiers in 1944. She introduces us to such varied figures as Lutz Heck, the duplicitous head of the Berlin zoo; Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, spiritual head of the ghetto; and the leaders of Zegota, the Polish organization that rescued Jews. Ackerman reveals other rescuers, like Dr. Mada Walter, who helped many Jews pass, giving lessons on how to appear Aryan and not attract notice. Ackerman's writing is viscerally evocative, as in her description of the effects of the German bombing of the zoo area: ...the sky broke open and whistling fire hurtled down, cages exploded, moats rained upward, iron bars squealed as they wrenched apart. This suspenseful beautifully crafted story deserves a wide readership. 8 pages of illus.
  • Seaman, Donna, at amazon:
    Jan Zabinski, the innovative director of the Warsaw Zoo, and Antonina, his empathic wife, lived joyfully on the zoo grounds during the 1930s with their young son, Ryszard (Polish for lynx), and a menagerie of animals needing special attention. The zoo was badly damaged by the Nazi blitzkrieg, and their bit of paradise would have been utterly destroyed but for the director of the Berlin Zoo, Lutz Heck, who wanted Jan's help in resurrecting extinct "pure-blooded species" in pursuit of Aryan perfection in the animal kingdom. Resourceful and courageous, the Zabinskis turned the decimated zoo into a refuge and saved the lives of several hundred imperiled Jews. Ackerman has written many stellar works, including A Natural History of the Senses (1990) and An Alchemy of Mind (2004), but this is the book she was born to write. Sharing the Zabinskis' knowledge of and reverence for the natural world and drawing on her poet's gift for dazzling metaphor, she captures with breathtaking precision and discernment our kinship with animals, the barbarity of war, Antonina's unbounded kindness and keen delight in "life's sensory bazaar," Jan's daring work with the Polish Underground, and the audacity of the Zabinskis' mission of mercy. An exemplary work of scholarship and an "ecstasy of imagining," 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.

Books and Articles

  • Rosemary Sullivan, Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille, Harper Perennial 2007, 426pgs
    Villa Air-Bel is about three Americans who turn a Marseille château into a safe haven for fleeing Jewish artists and intellectuals during WWII.
  • Lisa Fittko, Escape Through the Pyrenees Northwestern University Press, 2000, 221pgs
    Escape Through the Pyrenees is about a couple, one Jewish and one Protestant trying to flee out of France during WWII. The couple manages to save a famous philosopher and eventually are able to return to France as citizens.
  • Lisa Fittko, Solidarity and Treason: Resistance and Exile, 1933-40, Northwestern University Press, 1985 120pgs
    Similar to Escape Through the Pyrenees, this book follows the life of a woman trying to help refugees flee France into Spain during WWII. As an anti-Nazi activist she was dismissed from her job and declared illegal.

Web Sites .

  • Barbara Makuch “Conditions for Polish Jews during WWII” (1985) http://www.humboldt.edu/~rescuers/book/Makuch/conditionsp.html (accessed March 5, 2008)
    This article discusses the conditions in which the Polish Jews lived in the 1920s and 1930s then after the war in the 1940s. Makuch writes of the differences in lifestyles and how the war affected the millions of Jews.
  • Polonia Media Network “A Brief History of Poland during WWII” (1994) http://www.poloniatoday.com/history12.htm (accessed March 5, 2008)
    The Polonia Media Network wrote about the history of Poland during WWII and has a specific timeline of events. Each of these events affected the Jews and the Nazis in their decision for the “final solution” to the Jewish problem.
  • Cyber Work Networks “Polish Jews in WWII” (1996) http://www.cyberroad.com/poland/jews_ww2.html (accessed March 5, 2007)
    This article is separated into several parts, each of which goes into details about different areas of Poland during WWII. More specifically it talks of the Warsaw ghetto and Treblinka. The main focus is the devastation to the Jewish culture and how it changed the Jews all together.
  • Jason Pipes “Polish Volunteers in the German Wehrmacht and Auxiliary Forces during WWII” (1996-2005) http://www.feldgrau.com/poland.html (accessed March 5, 2008)
    Pipes explains that Poland suffered the most during the German occupation in the 1940s. Then Pipes goes onto explain about the initial milita groups and the Selbstschutz and how the Poles attempted to resist the Germans.
  • Kennedy, R.M., The German Campaign in Poland, 1939 (1956); Klukowski, Zygmunt, Diary from the Years of Occupation 1939-1944 (1993); Rudnicki, K.S., The Last of the War Horses (1974)
    This article focuses on a diary of a Polish physician working in Lublin. Dr. Klukowski wrote about what he saw for a number of years, giving a good account of all that was going on around him.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/20/08; last updated: 10/2011 anonymized on request
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