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"Our Only Chance of Survival Was Getting to That Zoo"

wikicommons/ C.Puisney

Each week we bring you the story of someone who, in the recent or distant past, has proven to be an advocate and an ally of the Jewish people. Today's story comes to us from JTA, and tells of Jan Zabinski, who was not only the director of the Warsaw Zoo during World War II, but who used the zoo to save 300 Jews during the Holocaust:

In a carriage bound for the Warsaw Zoo, Moshe Tirosh could sense his parents’ fear and the strong odor of alcohol wafting from the direction of the driver and his horse.

The trepidation that rainy night in 1940 was from the Nazi soldiers guarding the Kierbedzia Bridge separating the family’s home from the zoo where they hoped to find shelter. As for the smell, it was the result of a successful ruse designed by Tirosh’s father to get them there safely.

His father, a carpenter, had instructed the driver to douse himself with vodka so the Nazi guards on the bridge, aware of German stereotypes about Polish drinking habits, would wave them through without inspection.

“The risk was enormous, but my parents knew that our only chance of survival was getting to that zoo,” recalled Tirosh, 78.

Tirosh is one of 300 Jews whose lives were saved thanks to the little-known heroism of the menagerie’s director, Jan Zabinski, and his wife, Antonina. A lieutenant in the Polish resistance, Zabinski sheltered the Jews in underground pathways connecting the animal cages. He also used the zoo to store arms for the resistance.

A meticulous scientist whose curt style could sometimes come across as uncourteous, Zabinski also cut an intimidating figure.

“When Zabinski gave an order, people did what he said,” said Jan-Maciej Rembiszewski, the zoo’s director from 1982 to 2006, who began volunteering there after the war. “I’m sure even the Nazis respected his authoritarian style, which allowed him to run the place as his own fiefdom.”

Tags: Partnerships and People , Advocacy , IFCJ

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