The Zookeeper’s Wife



  • The zookeeper’s wife : a war story / Diane Ackerman.


Publication Info

  • New York : W.W. Norton, 2008, c2007.


  • 9780393333060 : PAP $15.95
  • 039333306X : PAP $15.95


  • 368 p. :


  • Hardcover
  • Paperback
  • eBook
  • Compact Disc
  • eAudiobook
  • Large Print
  • Pre-loaded Audio Player


  • Popular nonfiction
  • Nonfiction that reads like fiction


5Q, 4P

Reader’s Annotation

Zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski rescue Polish Jews from the Nazis by hiding them in the zoo.


The Zookeeper’s Wife is the compelling story of Antonina Zabinski. Antonina and her husband Jan were keepers of the Warsaw Zoo at the time of the Nazi invasion of Poland. In the air raids, much of the zoo was destroyed. The rest was carried off to Germany by a German zookeeper who was a member of the Nazi party.

Jan was a leading figure in the Polish underground, and he and Antonina became involved in hiding and moving Jewish friends out of the city. They carried on right under the noses of their Nazi occupiers, using the old habitats of the zoo to hide their “guests.” Life was fraught with hardships and constant danger, with many near misses.


Ackerman presents a woman of great strength and quiet resolve, able to calm animals and humans alike. It is a story of survival and personal triumph over the evil of the day. It is suspenseful as they daily face the danger of discovery by Nazi officials or sympathizers.

The author’s perspective on the war is unique. She is a naturalist, not a historian. The animals figure largely in the story. Descriptions of the way Antonina cared for them, how she related to them,  and how that related to the events of the story are prominent. Jan and Antonina’s knowledge of biology and animals also provides the backdrop to an explanation of the Nazi views on animal husbandry, race, life, and eugenics. It explains the “reasoning” behind the Nazis’ policies towards Jews, Poles, and Poland in general.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is an intriguing look at little-known heroes of the Holocaust. The Zabinskis can be counted with the likes of Corrie Ten Boom, Oskar Schindler, and Miep Gies—Gentiles who risked their lives to save countless others. For history- lovers or those who like heroic stories, this book is highly recommended.


This book tells the story of two lesser-known heroes of the Holocaust.


Visit the author’s website.

An interview on PBS



The Washington Post

New York Times

Appeal Factors

This book will appeal to those who love history, especially in the period of World War II, and also to anyone who loves a heroic story of self-sacrifice. Fans of The Diary of Ann Frank, Schindler’s List, or The Hiding Place will probably like this book.


Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Keneally. The basis of the movie Schindler’s List, this book also tells the story of a righteous Gentile who rescued Jews from the Nazis.

The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom. These novels share the genre popular nonfiction and real-life characters who risked their lives to hide Jews during the Holocaust. This book is set in the Netherlands, while The Zookeeper’s Wife is set in Poland.

The Dog Who Could Fly, by Damien Lewis. Both novels are nonfiction that reads like fiction and are set during World War II. This novel features a heroic dog.


Orion Book Award

Booktalk Ideas

Following Ackerman’s naturalist point of view, a booktalk could compare the Nazi’s views on animal husbandry and purification of species with their views of people–Jews and Poles. It is a very chilling description. Probably more exciting, however, would be to recite a close call the Zabinski’s and their “guests” had with the Nazis.

Discussion Questions

The Zabinski’s had a very traditional, patriarchal relationship, yet in later interviews Jan praised his wife for her actions. What did you think of this relationship? How did it affect their work?

How does the author’s background as a naturalist impact her telling of this story? How is she particularly suited to tell the story of these zookeepers?

What did you know about the war and holocaust in Poland before reading this book? Was anything new or surprising to you?

If you were placed in similar circumstances, do  you think you would do as the Zabinski’s did? Why or why not?

Why I chose this book

I love historical nonfiction that reads like fiction, and especially set in World War II. The people who hid Jews or others during the war are some of my greatest heroes.

Other Information

This book is coming out in 2017 as a movie starring Jessica Chastain.

Memory Hooks

Zookeeper, Holocaust, Warsaw


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