As the world hurtled toward the Second World War, life in Warsaw, Poland, grew harder, for people and animals alike.
The Warsaw Zoo, under the direction of Dr. Jan Zabinski, had become one of the largest zoos in Europe during the 1930s. But as war broke out, many animals were killed during Nazi bombings, and others, including the zoo’s star attraction, Tuzinka the elephant, were taken back to Germany by the conquering Nazis.
Life was even worse for the Jewish community of Poland. Like other cities and towns, the Jews of Warsaw were crammed into the city’s ghetto before being ultimately deported to Nazi death camps.
Dr. Zabinski and his wife Antonina were somewhat powerful people in Warsaw — they ran the zoo, were both authors of some renown, and he was also a popular radio producer. The two also had many Jewish friends, and vowed that they would do all they could to help the Jews being mistreated, and worse, by the occupying Germans.
Since Jan was an employee of the city of Warsaw, he had access to the ghetto. And since one of his jobs was supervising the plants and gardens within the ghetto, he had unlimited access to the ghetto — and the Jews who were imprisoned there.
One of the Jews he helped, Irena Meizel, remembers:
Dr. Zabinski, with exceptional modesty and without any self-interest, occupied himself with the fates of his prewar Jewish suppliers…different acquaintances as well as strangers. He helped them get over to the Aryan side, provided them with indispensable personal documents, looked for accomodations, and when necessary hid them at his villa or on the zoo’s grounds.
Yes, the Zabinskis were able to hide Jewish refugees in the cages of their zoo, with the enclosures’ bars providing safety. Another Jew they saved, Regina Koenigstein, called their home “a modern Noah’s ark.” Jan’s wife Antonina and their son Ryszard helped provide food and other necessities for the many Jews under their watch, both at the zoo and in the family’s home.
And Dr. Zabinski did more for the war effort than just save Jewish lives. He also took part in the Warsaw Uprising which occurred during August and September of 1944. While the uprising was unsuccessful, it showed that good could stand up to evil. And while Jan did not lose his life like so many of his countrymen, he was taken prisoner by the Nazis. While Jan was imprisoned, his wife continued to help the few Jews who were left in Warsaw. And after the war, the couple was named Righteous Among the Nations in 1965, visiting the Holy Land to plant a tree of remembrance three years later. You also might recall the Hollywood movie from a couple of years ago, The Zookeeper’s Wife, which told their story. If not, check out that film, as well as the above documentary that tells more about these Righteous Gentiles, these Advocates and Allies of the Jewish people, and their modern day Noah’s Ark.Tags: Advocates and Allies Holocaust Jan and Antonina Zabinski Poland Video Warsaw Zoo