Animal lovers Jan Żabiński and his wife, Antonina, are directors of the Warsaw Zoo. Animals roam freely in their villa. This couple has committed their lives to learning about and nurturing the many species in their care.
Everything changes in 1939, when Germany invades Poland. Many of their animals are killed in bombings. Jan goes to war, so Antonina and her young son, Ryś, stay with shopkeepers in another part of the city. Antonina sometimes returns to the ruined zoo to check in on the animals they’ve left in the care of teenage boys.
Jan returns, Warsaw surrenders to the Germans, and the family moves back to the villa. Berlin zoo director-turned-Nazi Lutz Heck visits and tells them he will be “borrowing” their animals. He promises to take good care of them in German zoos. Jan and Antonina must do as he says.
Heck has grand plans for back-breeding animals. He intends to restore the purity of various species the way the Nazis are determined to create Aryan purity within the human race. Heck is an animal lover, but his desire to rise in the Nazi ranks trumps all else. While animals are still at the Warsaw Zoo, he brings a number of drunk Nazi officials for a hunt. They shoot caged animals without conscience.
Jan begins working for the Polish resistance. His code name is Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. His activities include storing weapons used to sabotage the Germans. Antonina doesn’t learn about Jan’s weapons-related activities and other dangerous feats until after the war.
But Jan and Antonina begin hiding Jews in their home and on the grounds of the zoo, even in animal cages and habitats. Jews nickname the villa The House Under a Crazy Star. Jan and Antonina try to keep a number of “legal” guests, including visiting family members, on the premises so their Jewish visitors can hide in plain sight.
The couple runs a pig farm on their property for a while. This venture helps Jan obtain access to the Jewish Ghetto. Their son has a beloved pet pig, which is mercilessly slaughtered by German soldiers in front of the boy.
After the Germans close the pig farm, Jan gains access into the Ghetto through a German entomologist named Zeigler. Jan’s old Jewish classmate, Tenenbaum, meticulously researched and collected beetles and gave Jan the collection for safekeeping. Tenenbaum sends Zeigler to Jan’s home to see the collection. Jan is suspicious at first but befriends Zeigler when he realizes the man really is enthralled by the beetle collection.
Soon, Jan begins smuggling Aryan-looking Jews out of the Ghetto, pretending they are his non-Jewish colleagues. After Tenenbaum’s death, Jan is nearly caught when he sneaks the man’s widow out with him. Jewish visitors, both human and animal, move in and out of Jan and Antonina’s home.
Jan secretly teaches biology in and outside of the Ghetto, since the Germans have outlawed education. Antonina’s friend Magdalena, a sculptor who once created award-winning pieces based on Warsaw Zoo birds, hides at their home. According to Antonina’s journals, Magdalena brings joy and energy to the villa.
A number of prominent Polish Jews pass through their home, too. It’s estimated that over 300 Jews stayed at the zoo throughout the Nazi occupation. Others Poles who were not guests are mentioned for their acts of selflessness and bravery during the extermination of the Warsaw Ghetto.
One example is a man named Henryk Goldszmit, who refuses to leave the Ghetto when opportunities arise. Instead, he opens an orphanage. He voluntarily accompanies the children when they are being taken by train to the gas chambers of Treblinka so he can comfort them.
In the fall of 1942, Jan and Antonina begin working with a new underground organization called Żegota. This group doesn’t sabotage Germans but works only to rescue Jews. Around this time, the Germans decide to use the zoo property for a fur farm. The eccentric operator, whom Jan and Antonina call Fox Man, turns out to be sympathetic to their cause.
The Fox Man is also an amazing pianist, who eventually shares his musical gifts with the other tenants. He brings pets with him, including a cat he uses as a wet nurse to feed baby foxes. Magdalena’s true love, Maurycy, also comes to stay at the zoo.
Meanwhile, the Nazis have begun destroying the Jewish nation in earnest. They load trains full of Jews and send them to the gas chambers. One high-level Nazi gives Hitler a birthday present: He promises to wipe out the rest of the Jews in Warsaw. Despite resistance from the remaining Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Nazis ultimately burn the Ghetto and most of its inhabitants.
Jews who were able to escape continue to come to the zoo for refuge. Antonina tries to help members of a Jewish family bleach their hair to look more Aryan. The author talks about the length to which Jews went to hide their heritage. Some received extensive training about how to behave in a non-Jewish manner. Many changed their hairstyles and clothing. Some had surgery on their noses, and some Jewish men even underwent a painful procedure that helped them appear uncircumcised.
Ryś and a friend concoct a dangerous plot to harm German soldiers. They also plan to hang an anti-Hitler banner. The other boy’s mother gets wind of the plan and speaks with Antonina. She and Jan curtail these activities and punish Ryś.
Antonina, who is pregnant and has been on bedrest for a number of months, starts getting up and moving around again. Jan and Antonina experience some tension in their marriage when Jan makes frequent belittling remarks. He makes up for it by complimenting her in a lengthy speech in front of the guests. Antonina gives birth to a daughter.
Jan is needed to fight in a Polish uprising. Hitler sends in his most savage units to destroy the Poles. Antonina and her children come face to face with Nazi soldiers. The soldiers take Ryś out of sight, and Antonina hears gunshots. A few moments later, Ryś returns with his bullet-ridden chicken, and the soldiers laugh at the funny joke they’ve played on her.
As German and Russian troops work to destroy Warsaw, pillagers come to Antonina’s house and start to take what they like of her possessions. Using her broken Russian, she reminds the head soldier of his own female family members. He sends his men out of the house, telling them not to take anything. Then he asks her to play The Star-Spangled Banner on the piano as he belts out the words.
The Germans decide to relocate the fur farm to Germany and kick everyone off of the zoo property. Antonina and her children start out for Germany with Fox Man, but Antonina is worried for their safety. She gets permission to stay in an old schoolhouse in a small, peaceful town.
They’ve had no word of Jan, but they later learn he was shot in the neck and lived. They eventually discover he’s in a German POW camp. Sometime later, Antonina and her children return to a decimated Warsaw and examine the remains of their villa and the zoo. They find Fox Man’s cat alive.
In the aftermath of the war, Jan returns. He and Antonina begin to rebuild the zoo on a smaller scale. They incorporate a number of Magdalena’s sculptures. It opens in 1949. Jan writes numerous books and does radio broadcasts about animals. Antonina pens children’s books. Antonina and Jan die in the 1970s.