The Warsaw Zoo to the Rescue

The Fellowship  |  March 30, 2021

Jan Zabinski with lion at Warsaw Zoo
Jan Zabinski with lion at Warsaw Zoo

As the world hurtled toward the Second World War, life in Warsaw, Poland, grew harder, for people and animals alike.

Nazis Overtake the Zoo

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 died during Nazi bombings, and the conquering Nazis took others, including the zoo’s star attraction, Tuzinka the elephant, back to Germany.

Life proved even worse for the Jewish community of Poland. Like other cities and towns, the Nazis crammed the Jews of Warsaw into the city’s ghetto before ultimately deported them to  death camps.

From the Warsaw Ghetto to the Warsaw Zoo

Powerful people in Warsaw — they ran the zoo, both wrote renowned books, and he produced popular radio programs — Dr. Zabinski and his wife Antonina had many Jewish friends, and vowed to do all they could to help the Jews being mistreated, and worse, by the occupying Germans.

Since Jan worked for the city of Warsaw, he had access to the ghetto. And since he supervised the plants and gardens within the ghetto, he had unlimited access to the ghetto — and the Jews 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 accommodations, and when necessary hid them at his villa or on the zoo’s grounds.

The Zabinskis hid 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 provided food and other necessities for the many Jews under their watch, both at the zoo and in the family’s home.

Rising Up Against Evil

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 unsuccessful, the uprising showed that good could stand up to evil. And while Jan did not lose his life like so many of his countrymen, the Nazis took the zookeeper prisoner. While imprisoned, Jan’s wife continued to help the few Jews left in Warsaw.

After the war, Yad Vashem named the couple Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. The Zabinskis visited 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.

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