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ISBN: 9781935552017
Movie Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife
Jose Polanco

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a film based on a book that tells the true story of a Polish couple, Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who rescued about 300 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust by sheltering them in their zoo.

At the beginning of the movie, the Germans invade Poland and bomb the zoo. Most of the animals are killed. After the German soldiers capture the zoo, they kill every remaining animal, except for the ones considered rare. Then they start using the zoo as a training camp, but let the Zabinskis to stay in their residence.

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The movie then cuts to the Zabinskis a year later. They hear on the radio that Jews are being put in ghettos in other cities in Poland and are being sent to concentration camps. Although the Zabinskis aren’t sure what actually happens in the camps, their Jewish friend, Maurycy Fraenkel, tells them about the atrocities.

Antonina devises a plan to help save Jews who are still living in the Warsaw ghetto. She convinces Lutz Heck, who is a zoologist and now works for Hitler, to turn the zoo into a pig farm. The Germans approve of this plan since it will provide their soldiers with a food source.

In order to feed said pigs, they use trash from the ghetto. Each time Jan enters the ghetto to get garbage to feed the pigs, he helps a few Jews into the back of the truck and then dumps garbage on top of them to hide them. After, Jan sneaks them into the zoo where they hide in secret tunnels. Then he works with a group that creates fake passports for the Jews so they can escape Poland.

Their plan was mostly successful. In one scene two Jewish women are killed after the German soldiers find out their true descent. But unless I missed it, the movie fails to show how the German soldiers know those two women are Jewish. Also, the scene felt like it came out of nowhere. When I looked around in the theater I could see other audience members looking confused too.

image by Focus Features LLC

German soldiers escort them outside, they are put to their knees, and shot. But there was no blood. Maybe that’s because the movie is rated PG13, but showing this gruesome scene without blood is weird.

Confusing Questions

There are other parts of the movie that confused me. For example in the beginning, when Warsaw was being bombed, it wasn’t clear to me where Jan and Antonia were. And how was Maurycy able to escape the Warsaw ghetto to explain to the Zabinskis what was going on there? Why did he go back to the ghetto instead of hiding in the zoo? Perhaps these questions were answered in the film but not clearly enough for me.

It wasn’t all confusing though. One well-developed scene made a big impact on me. At the train station, Jan sees crowds of unwitting Jews being loaded onto trains. He says he has his truck waiting, so that he can take some kids back to the zoo. His colleague says the plan is too risky; there are German soldiers surrounding the whole area. So Jan gives up his plan and just stands near a train. Then children come up to him, raising their arms with smiles on their faces: They ask for help boarding the train. Although Jan is hesitant, he ends up helping the children so they can be with their families. It is a terrible, conflicting moment.

I think the movie title, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and the poster of the actress holding a snow leopard to her face is misleading. It’s easy to think the film is a sweet story about how a woman tries her best to save her zoo and all the animals in it, and not a story of how a woman and her husband save hundreds of Jews from being gassed by the Germans.

In spite of its flaws the movie is about people standing up against evil and for their beliefs. So it is worth seeing. This movie put me in the zookeepers’ shoes and I realized if I had lived in that era and had the same resources, I would have done the same knowing the risks.

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