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The Zookeeper's Wife
Author Diane Ackerman
Country United States
Language English
Genre History
Publisher W. W. Norton
Publication date September 4, 2007
Pages 288
ISBN 0-393-06172-8
OCLC Number 227016807
Dewey Decimal 940.53/18350943841 22
Library of Congress Classification D804.66.Z33 A25 2007

The Zookeeper's Wife is a non-fiction book written by the poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman. Drawing on the unpublished diary of Antonina Żabińska, it recounts the true story of how she and her husband, Jan Żabiński, director of the Warsaw Zoo, saved the lives of 300 Jews who had been imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto following the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.[1][2] The book was first published in 2007 by W. W. Norton.

Plot Summary

In the 1930s, Jan Żabiński was the director of the thriving zoo in Warsaw, Poland; his wife Antonina had a remarkable sympathy for animals, and their villa in the zoo was a nursery and residence for numerous animals as well as their own son. This life came to an abrupt end with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, which started World War II (1939-1945). Most of the zoo's animals and structures were destroyed in the bombings and siege of the city. The zoo was closed under German occupation, but the Żabińskis continued to occupy the villa, and the zoo itself was used first as a pig farm and subsequently as a fur farm.

Jan and Antonina Żabiński became active with the Polish underground resistance. At the villa and in the zoo's structures, they secretly sheltered Jews, most escaping from the doomed Warsaw ghetto. As many as 300 such "guests" passed through the zoo, and many did survive the war with the assistance of the Żabińskis and other members of the underground. The German occupiers executed those they discovered helping Jews. Nonetheless, Antonina Żabińska maintained a semblance of prewar life at the villa, harboring a menagerie of animals - otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes - as well as the secret guests. While Jan Żabiński was wounded in the armed, August 1944 Warsaw uprising against the German occupiers, the Żabińskis survived the war. The zoo reopened in 1949, with Jan as its new director.

On September 21, 1965, Yad Vashem (Israel's official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust) recognized Jan and Antonina Żabiński as Righteous Among the Nations.[3]


Donna Seaman wrote enthusiastically in her Los Angeles Times review, "It is no stretch to say that this is the book Ackerman was meant to write. Ever since A Natural History of the Senses, she has been building a galaxy of incandescent works that celebrate the unity and wonder of the living world. But every rapturous hour she has spent communing with plants and animals, every insight gleaned into human nature, every moment under the spell of language is a steppingstone that led her to Poland, the home of her maternal grandparents, and to the incomparable heroes Jan and Antonina Zabinski. The result of her tenacious research, keen interpretation and her own "transmigration of sensibility" is a shining book beyond category."[1] D. T. Max wrote in The New York Times, "This is an absorbing book, diminished sometimes by the choppy way Ackerman balances Antonina’s account with the larger story of the Warsaw Holocaust. For me, the more interesting story is Antonina’s. She was not, as her husband once called her, “a housewife,” but the alpha female in a unique menagerie."[4]

On February 10, 2008, the book was number 13 on The New York Times non-fiction best seller list.[5]

In 2008, The Zookeeper's Wife won the annual Orion Book Award from Orion Magazine; the selection committee noted, "The Zookeeper’s Wife is a groundbreaking work of nonfiction in which the human relationship to nature is explored in an absolutely original way through looking at the Holocaust."[6]


In 2013 plans were announced for a feature film adaptation. The film will be based on a screenplay by Angela Workman, it is set to be directed by New Zealand director Niki Caro (Whale Rider - 2002), and is to star American actress Jessica Chastain as Antonina Żabińska.[7][8]


Further reading

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