History is full of stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things for other people. Some of those stories get told, passed down through generations, written into history books, displayed in museums, an archive reminding us that no matter how bad things can get, how bleak the present may seem, there is always good in the world and people willing to stand up for what is right, no matter what the risk may be.
This is one of those stories.
Jan and Antonina Zabinski ran Warsaw Zoo in 1939. At the outbreak of war there were 380,000 Jews living in the city, most of them did not survive the Holocaust. Jan and Antonina saved 300; smuggling them out of the ghetto, hiding them in animal cages, coming up with ploys to be able to legally enter the ghetto and get people to safety. Putting themselves in enormous danger.
We see a family unit living through occupation, seeing the zoo they’ve built destroyed and the animals they love slaughtered or stolen by the Nazis under the orders of Lutz Heck, who then organised an SS hunting party in the zoo grounds New Year’s Eve. The brutality of the actions taken in the zoo led Antonina to worry about what would happen to the people in the city, she has a foreboding sense of horror, history tells us that her intuition was right.
“How many humans will die like this in the coming months?”
Despite this fear, she and her family stay, the book takes us through the next six years.
It’s written through the use of interviews with the couple’s son Rys, friends, surviving members of the Polish underground army and Antonina’s diaries.
She’s described as a woman who has an empathy with animals, she has a desire to care for and look after others, she’s able to think quickly and respond to dangerous situations to protect her family and the people she’s hiding.
Her husband, Jan, was a Lieutenant in the Polish underground army and a Professor at Warsaw university. He was involved in sabotage – detailing how he poisoned meat destined for German soldiers – and fought in the Warsaw uprising in 1944. The Russian army sat outside the city waiting for the Germans and Poles to fight to the death.
It’d be an obvious choice to write about Jan’s exploits, he had the more dramatic lifestyle but it’s Antonina who keeps the zoo villa running and cares for the people trying to escape. It’s her deepest, darkest fears that we read about. It’s her who offers a slice of sanctuary while the very worst in humanity is living all around them.
The story flits between the goings on at the zoo and the bigger picture of the war. The liquidation of the ghetto and Himmler’s desire to clear it completely as birthday present for Hitler forms part of the book alongside how the war was ended but this doesn’t turn into a history lesson. The Zabinskis and what they did to help others is always at the centre of the story.
This isn’t a woman who went along blindly with her husband’s plans and played the housewife at home. She was able to lie and act in front of the SS, she truly ruled the roost at home. She was clever, she admits she didn’t know the full details of what Jan was up to, knowing it would be safer if she didn’t. She knew what the penalty would be were they to be caught hiding Jews, she and her family would be killed. They both carried a cyanide capsule with them throughout the war. They remained determined to do what was right.
Like many people who put their lives at risk to save others, the Zabinskis didn’t think anything of it, they were simply doing what they always had as zookeepers, nurturing and protecting, caring for others.
“I don’t understand all the fuss. If any creature is in danger, you save it, human or animal”.
I imagine Antonina would be embarrassed by the book and Hollywood film but it’s a story that deserves to be told, a story of courage and love and one that teaches us all to be kind.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm