The Zookeeper’s Wife tells heroic story set during World War II
It was his first transport from the Warsaw Ghetto: food scraps, a small group of young boys and a teenage girl he witnessed being raped by two Nazi soldiers.
His palms were sweaty on the steering wheel. It would take only a word from the soldiers at the checkpoint for all the passengers, including his school-age son, to be shot on the spot.
The soldier gave the word. The truck drove away, undisturbed.
Historians were not able to provide a solid figure as to how many Jews were rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto by Dr. Jan Zabinski, a zoologist. The possible figures range from dozens to hundreds. Of those, only two did not survive the war.
Jan’s actions were undoubtedly heroic. Beside smuggling Jews out of the ghetto, he fought in Armia Krajowa, or the Home Army, and used his house as storage space for weapons. However, his wife Antonina is the hero of this movie.
Prior to the war, Antonina’s presence in the zoo could not be questioned. She fed the animals, cared for the newborns and welcomed the zoo’s guests each morning. Soon enough, the audience learns that she always put the animals ahead of herself.
In one of the first scenes of the film, the couple is hosting a party in their villa. When the conversation touches on Hitler’s aggression in Europe, one of the zoo’s employees rushes into the room to tell Antonina that a newborn elephant is about to die because it cannot breathe and the mother is not letting anyone come near the baby.
Antonina runs out of the villa and calms down the mother enough to let her come near the baby. Even when the mother is trying to pull Antonina away, she continues to plead with her while using her bare hands to pull out the fluids blocking the baby’s trunk that were preventing him or her from breathing.
When the Blitzkrieg begins and Warsaw is bombed, the zoo is severely damaged. Some of the cages are torn apart, releasing wild animals onto the streets.
The citizens, already terrified by the air raids, cannot leave their homes because of the lions and other wild animals that roam the streets.
In order to prevent more chaos, the Polish army rounds up and shoots the most dangerous animals. The viewers are not spared the horrid sight.
For many, the decision was a gruesome surprise they did not expect. The film never explains why the army decides to shoot the animals—it simply shows them rounding up the animals and shooting them on the spot.
The sensitivity of the scene calls for more explanation than viewers receive.
Unfortunately, this is a prevailing error. Viewers who are unfamiliar with Poland’s history will not learn why the Warsaw Ghetto was burned down. They will not know they are watching a depiction of the Warsaw Uprising until it is named in a conversation after the event takes place.
They will not know that the destruction of the city is a punishment for the uprising.
While the dates presented on the screen provide clues, they are only useful to those who already knew what happened on those days.
When the zoo was destroyed and the remaining animals were either killed or taken away, Jan successfully petitioned to have the grounds transformed into a farm for the Nazi soldiers. The Jews Jan smuggled out of the ghetto were hidden in animal cages and storage rooms in the villa’s basement.
In the evening, Antonina would play a tune on the piano that signaled it was safe to come out. If the tune was played during the day, everyone knew they had to hide.
To make the house look as inconspicuous as possible, Antonina always invited her family and made it a point to never close the curtains. Even the slightest mishap could have alerted the cook or the Nazi soldiers who were always outside of the villa.
In current days, hiding humans in animal cages seems grotesque and insensitive. However, during World War II, Poland was the only country where hiding Jews was punishable by death. The couple knew this when they decided to hide Jews, but this may have been the only plausible way for everyone to survive the war.
Coming into the movie theater, it was easy to expect The Zookeeper’s Wife to be another romance set in World War II. During the first 10 minutes of the movie, Jessica Chastain’s Antonina and Johan Heldenbergh’s Jan seemed awkward and unnatural.
However, the film quickly picked up pace and the characters became more refined. Jan blossomed from a hard-working husband to a hero of the underground, while his wife stood up to the role of having to care for a large household and keep the “guests” a secret from the Nazi soldiers who were seemingly always around.
If one were to judge the movie based on those first 10 minutes and leave the theater, he or she would have missed out on the highly impactful story that followed.
While the movie is not meant for a sensitive audience, it is an important lesson about heroism, loyalty and togetherness that is needed in today’s difficult political situation.