In 1939, the relentless Nazi bombardment of Warsaw destroyed the city’s zoo. What the Nazis didn’t know, however, is that what they had destroyed was not an ordinary zoo, but the extraordinary creation of an unusual Christian Polish couple, Jan and Antonina Zabinski. Thanks to them and their son Ryszard’s efforts, approximately 300 Jewish women, men, and children were saved from certain death.
They were able to do it because, at different times, the zoo and the Zabinski’s home hid dozens of Jewish women, children, and men from Nazi persecution. They hid them in their home’s closets, rooms, and even in the animals’ old cages in the zoo. All while trying to maintain a normal life in very abnormal times; times of cruelty and ruthless persecution.
Jan and Antonina were a married Christian couple from Warsaw. Jan was a zoologist and zoo technician, and also a scientist, organiser, and director of the renowned Warsaw Zoo before and during World War II. He became the director of the zoo before the war broke out, and during the occupation of Poland, he held the prestigious job as superintendent of the city’s public parks.
During all that time, Antonina Zabinski and her young son Ryszard looked after the needs of the many Jews hidden in their home. Although Jan Zabinski initially paid with his own funds to feed and hide his new guests, he was later helped by Zegota (Council Aid to the Jews.) After the Nazi bombing of the zoo, Jan joined the Polish resistance, while at the same time teaching biology at an underground university. He would also bring food into the Warsaw Ghetto and use the zoo to hide arms for the resistance. A true war hero, Jan also built bombs, sabotaged trains, and poisoned meat sent to the Germans.
To hide these activities, Antonina tried to show a brave face, inviting guests, holding receptions at their home, and trying to show to the world outside a normal face even though the three of them were under the constant threat of being found out and, if so, of probable torture and death.
Both Jan and Antonina were quite different from each other. While he was a courageous risk-taker who had befriended many Jews, Antonina was often fearful, and it was her connection to the animal world that they kept in the zoo that made her aware of other beings’ suffering.
An orphan since she was nine, Antonina was a cultured woman who spoke several languages and loved animals. After marrying Jan in 1931, she raised animals in their own home, among them orphaned lynx and lion cubs. When her husband, Jan, smuggled Jews out of the ghetto where they were living, she also adopted them and brought them to their home.
The Zabinskys went through some grueling times when all this was happening. Lutz Heck, a German zoologist who took most of their animals from their zoo to the Berlin zoo decided one day to ingratiate himself with his Nazi friends and SS higher-ups. So he invited them to a private hunting party, this time in the Warsaw zoo.
When Heck and the Nazi officers arrived at the zoo wielding pistols, Antonina took her terrified son and ran indoors. From her son’s room they could see through the drawn curtains the carnage of animals taking place outside. That “sheer gratuitous slaughter” made her wonder how many human beings would later lose their lives that same cruel way.
In 1944, Jan participated in the Warsaw Uprising to liberate the city from the German forces. He was injured and became a prisoner of war. Two years later, he returned to Warsaw from the prisoner of war camp where he had been held after his arrest by the Germans.
Soon afterwards, the Zabinkis started the difficult process of rebuilding their zoo. Antonina also wrote several children’s books, all of which feature animals in the story. Before Jan died in 1971, he spoke admiringly about his wife and told a reporter how a “timid housewife” had found the strength to face brutality and hatred.
Can it surprise anybody that a movie was made of the Zabinski’s lives and that they were recognised by the State of Israel as the Polish Righteous Among the Nations for their heroic rescue of Jews during the Holocaust in occupied Poland?
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a winner of several journalism awards.