Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The Zookeeper’s Wife

As some of you know, I’m part of an on-line book club called Literary Wives. Every two months we post a review on a designated book and April’s read is Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007).

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a non-fiction account of the heroic efforts of Jan Żabiński, director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife Antonina to save 300 Jews during WWII.

The Żabińskis were respected owners of the high-profiled and thriving zoo. In 1939, however, when Germany invaded Poland, much of the zoo was bombed, and many of the animals were killed or taken away (the rare/special animals were sent to Germany).

At this point Jan and Antonina began using the zoo and its villa to temporarily house and hide Jews. Jan became an active member of the Polish Underground and later in the Warsaw uprising near the end of the war. Antonina, in the meantime, kept the entire operation at home running; she had, in addition to those in hiding, a young son, an infant daughter, animals in and out of cages, and staff. And she did so while working desperately to keep as upbeat of an atmosphere as she could during this horrific time.

The questions we are discussing in this series are:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

The main story really doesn’t focus on the Żabińskis’ relationship, but I did find some striking passages. During the height of the Żabińskis’ efforts, Jan became increasingly “short-tempered and uneasy.” Antonina wrote in her diary that Jan was “cold and expected more from me than from the rest of the people in our household” and that “nothing [she] did ever seemed good enough, nothing made him proud of [her], and perpetually disappointing him felt wretched.” (page 231)

It is, of course, hard to say if these dynamics were characteristic of what it meant to be Jan’s wife. After all, they were both living under extraordinary circumstances. As Ackerman writes, “To keep their life livable, [Jan] checked and rechecked every ritual and routine, a taxing responsibility, since the tiniest chaos, neglect, or impulse could unmask them. Small wonder that he rigidified from the strain and began addressing [the house guests] as his “soldiers” and Antonina as his ‘deputy.'” (page 231)

One day, Jan suddenly praised Antonina when he heard about her success warding off German soldiers in a narrow escape. Antonina wrote in her diary: “He was talking about my talents, praising me in the presence of other people. It never happened before! . . . He was serious?! He had called me ‘silly’ so often I’d started hearing it as a second name.” (page 235)

Near the end of the book, we learn from various interview excerpts after the war that Jan had always appreciated and admired his wife’s abilities and efforts. In one interview he said, ” . . . she was terrified the Nazis would seek revenge on us and our young son, terrified of death, and yet she kept it to herself, and helped me [with my Underground activities] and never ever asked me to stop.” (page 314) There were more acknowledgements like this about various aspects of Antonina’s character and strengths.

Was Jan condescending and did he assume a superior role in the marriage because of his gender? It is possible, given the times. I also wonder, though, how much was personality. I certainly know of couples in which the woman is the one who condescends or is sparing in praise. From Jan’s detailed acknowledgements of Antonina’s contributions and rare talents, it seems clear that he knew his wife well and appreciated her, but perhaps rarely showed his feelings to her during the war.

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

It seemed important to Antonina to win her husband’s approval. This could have been a function of her status as a wife, or it could have been a matter of personality. It seemed that Jan was rather stoic and sparing in his praise, whereas Antonina was more open with her feelings and wanted the same in return.

The above quote by Jan about how Antonina kept her fears to herself also shows Antonina’s loyalty to her husband. At the same time, I believe her willingness to put others’ needs before her fears speaks to her mindset as a rescuer. Antonina had unique strengths – an uncanny ability to relate to animals, the wherewithal to apply this ability to her interactions with enemy soldiers, and great compassion for fellow humans – and she used these as the perfect complement to Jan’s more analytical and physical work with the Polish Underground. I saw the Żabińskis’ marriage as a partnership with wife and husband sharing the same mission but offering complementary strengths.

. .  .

Overall I had mixed feelings about the book. It took me a long time to finish despite the fascinating (and important) subject matter. I think it was because the story didn’t really feel linear in a way that I wanted it to be in order to stay engaged; Ackerman interrupts Antonina’s story with lots of facts and musings about everything from Nazi ideology to animal behavior. All of it is relevant on some level I suppose, but I found myself confused a lot of the time, not able to really picture how the Żabińskis were actually hiding the Jews, for example, because the story felt so scattered. Every time a chapter went off on a tangent I found my mind wandering.

. . .

Anyway, those are just my thoughts. Please check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library 

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

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21 thoughts on “Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The Zookeeper’s Wife

  1. These are some perceptive comments, Cecilia! You looked at their relationship more in depth than I did. It almost seems as if Jan was OCD at times, doesn’t it?

    • Thanks, Kay! Jan was definitely very intense. I’ve often believed that the qualities that make a person so accomplished outside the home can also make him/her difficult to live with.

  2. I think your paragraph about Antonina’s openness and approval-seeking vs. Jan’s stoicism is very insightful and well-phrased. I’m reminded of other couples (heterosexual and otherwise) in which one partner is more reserved than the other, or one partner is more openly affectionate; it doesn’t mean that there’s a lack of love or respect. I think you’re right that Jan’s coldness during the war was probably a result of (major) stress.

    • Thanks, Carolyn! I definitely have noticed those personality differences in couples regardless of gender. And I guess opposites do attract, don’t they? Jan definitely seemed to have that attitude of superiority but I assumed he exhibited that with everyone and not just his wife.

  3. This sounded like a story that I would love, so I had planned to read along, but every time I picked up the book it felt like a chore. I don’t know if I just wasn’t in the right mood, or if it’s because of the way it was written. I think the story itself sounds fascinating – maybe someone should try fictionalizing it. Despite all that, I find the courage of Antonina and Jan incredible. And, as for their marriage, I think most couples have to adjust to differences in personalities and levels of communication (letting each other know they are valued). I would imagine that, during the war and all they were contending with, it would have been much harder to focus on each other’s needs within their marriage. But, very interesting tho hear some of their thoughts about it.

    • I totally agree, Naomi. So hard to say how they might have been under more normal circumstances. I was probably more sympathetic to them as a couple after having watched my parents. Of course they didn’t go through anything like the Holocaust, but their first couple of decades of marriage were under duress due to immigration and other things. I know that daily life taxed them and their marriage and I saw the worst in my dad during those times, but love got them through it in one piece.

  4. I love the point you make about Jan, that he was living under extraordinary circumstances so perhaps his crankiness was warranted. Even though I noticed this part as on the the few comments on what it means to be married in the book, it was short and seemingly unessential to the story. It was hard to judge their marriage just on that. It was also tough to talk about a “wife” from this book, but I appreciate your positive take on it and on Antonina as a rescuer.

    • I agree! Cecilia, I was glad you saw a positive side of Jan. I was mostly annoyed that he didn’t just outright praise her. But Ackerman writes that Antonina felt loved by her husband and son, so I’m glad of that.

      • As I wrote in my comment to Naomi, I was probably sympathetic to them as a couple because of my parents’ marriage. My parents have always been so cranky with each other but there is love there. I’ve always hated the way my father talked to my mom but my mom seems totally used to it and she knows how to handle him and not take him seriously. I figured, love comes in so many shapes and sizes even if it doesn’t look so great!

    • I totally agree. Halfway through the book I wasn’t sure if I could even answer the two questions about “wife,” and then I found those couple of passages. But it is really hard and unfair to infer too much from what little was provided about their marriage.

  5. Well, you know my thoughts on this book already, but I wanted to comment about Jan’s “praise” for Antonina. That scene that runs several pages, where Jan is telling guests at the dinner table of Antonina’s strengths and actions (sorry, I don’t have the book in front of my to quote from) showed a lot more about Jan than about Antonina. It showed that Jan, though he may have admired his wife, was not kind to her, even mocking and diminishing her in front of other people. What Antonina labelled as praise sounded mostly like condescension to me. It showed me, too, that Jan could not have been free to join the resistance and raise a family had it not been for Antonina working on the homefront to support and provide for their children and “guests.” She really was a strong woman, but the author just didn’t talk enough about her incredible strength and character. Just my two cents. Have a great day!

    • Oh, I do remember that, and doing a double take on what Antonina was bubbling over as “praise.” I think that Antonina is a perfect example of the quiet strength and impact that so many women have exhibited throughout history. It (the quiet strength) reminds me of my mom without whom we just wouldn’t be here, living in the US, still cohesive as a family. I think many women serve as the glue for their families/communities, orchestrating and running complex systems in order to make it possible for their husbands and children to enjoy the more easily recognizable achievements.

  6. Cecilia, I am not familiar with Ackerman’s work, but the premise sounds interesting. It appears, though, after reading your review you wanted more story, rather than facts. I agree that misplaced facts in a non-fiction book can interrupt the flow of the story. I am not advocating that the facts be omitted, but presented in a way that they do not detract from the overall story.

    • Yes, Rudri – you hit it on the nose. What was missing was the feeling that I was reading a story. What was troublesome for me was that many parts read like a story, but then I would run into all these facts. There was little narrative arc and I felt lost much of the time, not sure of where I was in the story or where the story was headed.

  7. Pingback: The Zookeeper’s Wife | One Little Library

  8. “I found myself confused a lot of the time, not able to really picture how the Żabińskis were actually hiding the Jews” – Yes. I could perfectly picture all of the animals, but I didn’t understand exactly how the Guests arrived at the zoo, and how they were smuggled out. At one point in the narrative, it sounded like there were at least twenty people in the house (maybe there were?) and I thought, “Where on earth are they all sleeping?” And then the housekeeper was still coming every day and had no idea?? How did that work?

    • Right! My big question was if the Guests were actually hiding in cages. I mean, that is what I was reading in summaries of the book, but I did not know how they could actually be in cages without being seen by everyone??

  9. I love how well you analyzed Antonina and Jan’s relationship! I was so wrapped up in the unique (to me, at least) aspects of Nazi philosophy and actions as depicted by Ackerman, that I didn’t concentrate as much as their relationship in my post as I probably should have done. I’m glad you did! Hmm…again, I did not experience any disjointedness in reading this book; it flowed for me! Glad you made me think in more detail about the husband and wife!

    • I’m so glad the book worked for you, Lynn! I certainly did start off feeling the same way, until I started feeling lost. But I know that all the different pieces of information also made for a richer story and I’m glad that you experienced that, which is what I am sure the author intended.

      I didn’t really see anything about the Zabinskis’ marriage until those quotes. Despite the book title the story definitely wasn’t centered around their marriage.

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