The Zookeeper’s Wife was a Literary Wives first for us: we branched out from fiction into non-fiction. And it was well worth it. This story is fascinating. In fiction-like prose, Diane Ackerman takes us into the life of Antonina Zabinski, a Polish woman who helped her husband care for the animals in the Warsaw Zoo before World War II. When the German blitz destroyed most of the cages and killed many of the animals, Antonina and Jan turned the old zoo into a stop on the Underground, smuggling Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto and saving hundreds of lives. As hard as it was to read some parts, I was very impressed by the book and highly recommend it.
But as part of the series, we’re particularly interested in how Antonina’s role as a wife was instrumental in this story.
In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what was is she defined by “wife”?
When I think of “wives” and “World War II,” I imagine it in my American context: Rosie the Riveter, Bomb Girls, women working in factories, growing in independence and status. It was no small victory for women. But Antonina’s story reminded me that not all wives experienced World War II like that.
Antonina valued “traditional” wifely roles like cooking and cleaning, and embodied traditional wifely virtues: hospitality, peacemaking, humility, sacrifice, and service. Those qualities were part of the reason so many lives were saved and so many people felt that the zoo was a safe haven for them. Over and over, we are told that Antonina didn’t just provide food and shelter. She made the zoo a welcoming home to wounded and weary travelers. Ackerman writes:
One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel, and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties.
Antonina embraced the traditional view of being a “wife,” and she was very good at it. Her acceptance had all of the positive effects that are supposed to come when wives act that way. But her acceptance seemed to have negative effects as well:
Jan ruled the villa and the Guests couldn’t disobey him, but the atmosphere began to sour because, as a volatile dictator, Jan apparently made daily life tense by often yelling at Antonina, despite her efforts to please him.
Jan does recognize her bravery after a particularly close call with German soldiers, but it is a rather backhanded compliment. As her son, Rys, gets older during the war, he begins saying things like, “I know better than you do! These things aren’t for women.”
Antonina puts up with this treatment meekly. She holds her husband’s risky behavior in awe, without recognizing that she herself lived through terrifying situations and made split-second decisions that saved lives. “She had had close calls, too, but whereas she ranked Jan’s as heroic, she deemed hers merely lucky.”
She attributes her own moments of bravery to “the ferocity of motherhood,” without realizing that the empathy that leads her to continuously take in wanderers and even stop German soldiers is truly something special. Luckily, everyone else saw it, even her husband Jan.
“Antonina was a housewife… she wasn’t involved in politics or war, and was timid, and yet despite that she played a major role in saving others and never once complained about the danger. …Her confidence could disarm even the most hostile,” [Jan] told an anonymous reporter, adding that her strength stemmed from her love of animals. “It wasn’t just that she identified with them,” he explained, “but from time to time she seemed to shed her human traits and become a panther or a hyena. Then, able to adopt their fighting instinct, she arose as a fearless defender of her kind.”
This is not the story of a woman who struggled with being a wife, a conflict so many of our “wife” books seem to discuss. This was the story of a woman who used her talents and belief in traditionally female roles and attitudes to do something truly brave and subversive: to do what was right, disobey authority, and save hundreds of lives. I have to admire her for that.
If you’ve read The Zookeeper’s Wife, what did you think?
Our next book is going to be The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness and I can’t wait to read it! Get it now and read along!