Wednesday, April 12, 2017

World War Wednesdays: The Warsaw Zoo: Story Behind the Film

    Welcome back, history buffs! Now that I'm in the middle of my last undergraduate exam season, I can't help but think of all the things I'd rather be doing than writing an endless pile of papers. Right near the top of the list is going to the movies, because there is what looks to be a fantastic film in theaters that portrays an amazing true story about the Holocaust. The Zookeeper's Wife draws from the unpublished diary of Antonina Zabinska, and recounts the true story of she and her husband Jan's incredible act of bravery as part of the Polish resistance.
Jan Zabinski, Yad Vashem

     The Warsaw Zoo under acclaimed director Jan Zabinski was one of Europe's largest zoos during the 1930s, and its expanded area was home to many animals including Tuzinka the elephant, its star attraction. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, vast sections of the zoo were destroyed in the bombings, many animals were killed, and others (including Tuzinka) were taken to Germany. Despite these horrors, Zabinski was aware of the immense human suffering on behalf Warsaw's Jews at the hands of the German occupiers. When the Warsaw Ghetto was established, he and his wife Antonina took it upon themselves to help their Jewish neighbors.
Antonina Zabinski, Yad Vashem

     As an employee of the Warsaw municipality, Jan was allowed to enter the ghetto, and under the pretext of supervising the trees and small public garden on the other side of the walls, would regularly visit and assist its inhabitants. As the situation in the ghetto rapidly deteriorated, Zabinski took his aid one step further by offering shelter to the Warsaw Jews, taking them over to the Aryan side, providing them with essential lifesaving documents, finding them accommodations, and, when necessary, sheltering them on the zoo's grounds and at his personal home. Regina Koenigstein describes the Zabinski villa as a modern Noah's Ark, and according to many testimonies numerous Jews found temporary shelter in the zoo's abandoned animal cells.

     The Zabinkkis' dangerous undertaking was not limited to the physical assistance of Warsaw Jews. Rachel Auerbach, who participated in attempts to establish a ghetto archive of sorts which documented the story of life behind the walls in Warsaw, was in touch with Zabinski throughout that period. She went into hiding after the ghetto liquidation and continued recording events in her diary, but as the front came closer to Warsaw, she gave one of her notebooks to Zabinski. He put it into a glass jar and buried it at the zoo, and in April 1945 she was able to retrieve her manuscript and publish it.

     Jan Zabinski also participated in the Polish uprising in Warsaw of August and September 1944 as a member of the Polish underground Home Army. He was taken as a prisoner to German upon its suppression, but Antonina was able to continue his work and attended to the needs of Jews left behind in the city's ruins. In his own testimony in explanation of his motives, Zabinski later reflected:
 “I do not belong to any party, and no party program was my guide during the occupation... I am a Pole – a democrat. My deeds were and are a consequence of a certain psychological composition, a result of progressive-humanistic upbringing, which I received at home as well as in Kreczmar High School. Many times I wished to analyze the causes for dislike for Jews and I could not find any, besides artificially formed ones.”

     Jan and Antonina Zabinski were recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations on September 21, 1965. All information is courtesy of Yad Vashem, and some incredible primary resources can be accessed here:
Please let me know if you've seen the film, I'd love to hear more about it and look forward to seeing it myself!
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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