The Zookeeper’s Wife, which opens in theaters this weekend, highlights the riveting true story of how one family saved hundreds of Jewish lives in Nazi-occupied Poland. Based on Diane Ackerman’s book of the same name, the extraordinary film boasts a simple message: Everyone has a part to play in helping those in need.
Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and Antonina (Jessica Chastain) Zabinski had taken over running the Warsaw Zoo a few years before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. In that time, they established a fascinating ecosystem in which they lived alongside the animals. Antonina in particular was observant and empathetic enough to share an almost unnatural connection with the orphaned lynxes, bears, birds and more that were brought to the door of their villa. As Ackerman relays it, their lives were any animal lover’s dream.
But that dream was shattered when bombardment by Nazi forces gutted the city and troops killed many of the zoo’s frenzied animals. Those that survived were taken to Berlin, leaving behind empty cages that the Zabinskis used to undermine the Nazi genocide. The couple gradually hid around three hundred people in the zoo, providing them with food and security despite the looming threat that they could be discovered and all condemned to death. Along with an intricate network of allies, including women working in registration offices, the Zabinskis saved hundreds of people over the six-year war.
Ackerman’s book is so rooted in primary sources and research that it’s hard to believe it’s a work of nonfiction. Each quote is pulled from Antonina and others’ diaries or correspondence, and Ackerman traveled to Warsaw to explore the recreated Old Town neighborhood and the Zabinskis’ villa home. All of it comes together to create a comprehensive and human portrait of a particular place and time.
“I found it thrilling,” Ackerman told Paste about the research she undertook. “Walking around the zoo, [Antonina’s] villa, the streets of Warsaw that she walked down. The research was fundamental to writing the book, because I needed to recreate the atmosphere, the texture, the emotional risk and just what she saw and experienced every day.”
That level of detail was part of what captivated screenwriter Angela Workman about the story. Like Ackerman, whose family is from Poland and lived through World War II, Workman was inspired by her own family’s connection to the war.
“I was drawn to the project because, as the daughter of Jewish immigrants whose parents were refugees from Eastern Europe, I felt that writing a film about this subject might honor them,” Workman says in an interview with Paste. “Diane Ackerman’s book is so detailed and colorful that it sparked cinematic images in my head. I felt I could see all the images I needed to make a film.”
Though it was a gratifying experience, Workman experienced challenges adapting the book for the screen. “This is a book of nonfiction, it is heavy with facts and statistics,” she says. “I needed to turn the story into a dramatic narrative, a story about a six-year war that could be told in two hours. The opportunity, though, to tell a female-driven story about zookeepers, animal lovers, who turn their attention to the human animal during the atrocity of the Holocaust, was a great gift for me.”
Ackerman made a conscious decision to write the narrative from Antonina’s perspective, because she feels that Antonina represents a rare form of heroism that juxtaposes against her husband’s more traditional one. While Antonina was caring for the people who lived in their zoo, Jan was fighting in the resistance and eventually spent time in a POW camp.
“This offers another version of what heroism is, and it gives an equally authentic version,” Ackerman explains. “She didn’t pick up a gun; her weapons of choice were love and kindness,”
Like the book, Workman’s screenplay also focuses on Antonina’s story. A compassionate and strong heroine, she stands out among the people who risked their lives to undermine the Nazi regime. “She saved nearly every person who hid in her zoo,” Workman says. “Hitler tried to control nature; he tried to define and perfect the human animal. But he couldn’t control nature, in the end…The Zabinski family, a family of zookeepers, defeated a despot. I loved that idea.”
While the Zabinskis’ story is remarkable, Ackerman is quick to point out that they weren’t the only ones risking their lives. Their story is threaded with individuals who forged documents, acquired food and even drove the Jewish refugees to the zoo. Antonina was the beating heart of the operation, but her bravery didn’t exist in a vacuum. She was one of many people willing to bear the burdens and risks to save lives.
“Human nature is predominantly full of kindness, compassion, empathy, love—otherwise we wouldn’t exist as species,” Ackerman says. “I read testimonies of all the Polish rescuers [during the war], and they all say the same thing: They didn’t do anything heroic. They didn’t do anything special. It was just the right thing to do.”
For Ackerman, the Zabinskis’ story highlights the level of selflessness humanity can reach. While it may sound like a cliché to say that “everyone can help,” for Antonina, a woman who used her resources to hundreds of lives, it rings true.
“It’s an example of what so-called ordinary people rise to all the time,” Ackerman says. “You don’t need to be larger than life. You just need to have a heart that is full of love and compassion for others. One person really can make a difference in the world.”
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. More of her work can be found here.