People and Animals
Only real life could have scripted this story. Incredible, astonishing… and as inspiring as it gets. An ark was created in a zoo in occupied Warsaw, under the very nose of the Nazis. An ark with not a single animal on board. Animals were replaced with humans seeking shelter. Over one hundred humans.
One hundred humans, smuggled out of the ghetto at different times. When danger was approaching, Antonina Żabińska sat down at her piano. An aria from Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène became the password. For some, to flee along a specially excavated tunnel. For others – the basement dwellers – to keep absolutely still. Germans were but a few metres away.
Loud piano music concealed the presence of stowaways – when the instrument was not at hand, “Go, Go, Go to Crete” was whistled or hummed. The tune served its purpose: it sounded the alarm.
Hideouts were abundant
Some stayed for days, others for weeks, still others for months. This was how long fugitives used the Warsaw zoo as their refuge, to then be taken over by others – members of an extensive, precisely designed transit network. People waited in line to be rescued, after all. Yet this venue was vital: sprawled across an extensive area, overgrown with plants and chock-a-block with quarters formerly occupied by somewhat different residents, it could shelter more people. It had been developed well by an enlightened administrator. Hideouts were abundant.
Zoo-based assistance was secured by its pre-war director Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina, whose heroic actions – requiring heart, courage, and fortitude as well as resourcefulness, cold blood, and bravura, not to mention the daily arduous work and ingenuity – were described years later in her own words as something entirely natural. Due credit was not emphasised. Neither were terror or tension. The latter were only added in the new millennium in The Zookeeper’s Wife, a book by Diane Ackerman.
The lynx and the pheasants
Antonina Żabińska, in a tome she titled People and Animals (Ludzie i zwierzęta), first edition: 1968, republished in 2009, stayed true to the style. She told a warm and positive story – of people and animals. Only when one takes a closer look at the phrases used and events recalled do threats and dangers emerge – part and parcel of the wartime reality of Nazi occupation. Of a time when life and death were a thing of daily change and scrutiny.
Consider a scene in 1939: the zoo was bombed and a decision was made to cull all predators. At large, in a city under siege, they would have become an additional threat. When troops received orders to set out for the zoo, Antonina Żabińska cried her eyes out at home, her head under covers to muffle the sounds.
Consider another situation, months later: a German patrol decided to go bird-hunting in the abandoned zoo. A young boy was seized and taken behind a building, his mother watching. Shots rang out. A few excruciatingly long minutes later, the soldiers returned with the stunned boy, carrying his winged and feathered friend – a dead cockerel.
That boy was Ryś [Richard, in Polish meaning also “lynx”], Jan and Antonina’s son, eight years old when the war broke out. A clever assistant and courier, he carried food and messages to people concealed in hideouts. He was assigned his first task in 1941, after two young Home Army soldiers found shelter in the zoo. Staying in the pheasantry, they used to joke that only in times of war would the lynx, a predator, take care of birds. Later on, people sheltered at the pheasantry would be referred to as “pheasants”. Ryś also carried food for other “animals” – “lions”, for example.
When hyenas wept
The wartime history of the Warsaw zoo is worth telling properly.
This is how Antonina Żabińska begins: “When I found myself in the green kingdom of wild animals east of the River Vistula in 1931, the zoo was still a toddler – it had been officially registered on the world zoological garden list a mere two years before.” She goes on: “It looked really impressive in the summer of 1939.” But: “In early September, Germans began bombing the zoo ferociously. A half-tonne bomb smashed the polar bears’ rock to smithereens. These most fierce of all predators were about to begin wandering around! Any minute, the same thing could happen to quarters occupied by lions, tigers, leopards [...]."
As of 15 September, Germans began using heavy artillery against Warsaw. “Kasia the elephant died of a shrapnel wound, some monkeys were shot, others scattered. Chimpanzees and exotic birds burned to death in their pavilions [...]. Camels, llamas and deer wandered the riverbank.”
The aforementioned Diane Ackerman offers a much more dramatic description: “Elephants honked. Hyenas wept in dreadful giggles interrupted with something akin to hiccups. Dogs howled in the yard. Excited with all the anxiety, rhesus monkeys fought among themselves, shrieking and calling hysterically."
Germans transferred some of the surviving animals to zoos in the Reich; those less valuable were shot on New Year’s Eve 1939. The Nazis took over the zoo, including the villa occupied by the Żabiński family. A weapons and ammunition storage facility was set up in the northern section of the zoo. The Żabiński house was the only one exposed to any attack. Żabiński saw that as an opportunity for undercover work.
The weapons on lion island
He accepted an offer to organise a hog-fattening farm. With the enterprise doing very well, in time Żabiński managed to convince the German administrator of Warsaw to convert the zoo’s green areas to garden allotments for use by local residents. They became more than a source of food for the capital city – they offered the potential to control the area. Allotment owners, always coming in and out of the former zoo, were a distraction keeping German eyes away from hideouts for people and weapons (Żabiński, a Home Army officer himself, concluded that the moat-surrounded lion island would be the best place to hide munitions). People taking leisurely strolls were a decoy for soldiers in hiding, under the very nose of the Germans.
“Once the animals were gone, Warsaw residents as well as Germans took to spending free time in the zoo. Praski Park was right next door. People were milling around morning, noon and evening – only a madman could have assumed that something untoward was going on in such exposed terrain, in a house with no drapes, so to speak. Yet things were going on. And how…” Teresa, a daughter born to Jan and Antonina during the occupation, recalls in 2009.
The hog-fattening unit enabled the former zoo director to organise a free ghetto access permit to collect food waste. He was also resourceful in taking advantage of the fact that the Jewish job agency employed a man called Ziegler, a Nazi and amateur entomologist, who arrived at the Żabińskis’ villa one day to take a look at an insect collection entrusted to Żabiński by a renowned entomologist, professor Szymon Tenenbaum, upon having been forced to move to the ghetto. The German having offered a visit with the professor in return, Żabiński jumped at the opportunity to show himself to ghetto guards accompanied by a Nazi official. Upon approaching the ghetto barrier, he kept chatting with Ziegler to be remembered as someone with connections. This came in handy when Jews were moved. Professor Tenenbaum’s wife recalled that when ghetto exit guards became too inquisitive, Żabiński knelt right in front of a guard to calmly tie a shoelace. She thought she would die of fright. And Żabiński actually approached the guard and asked him for a light.
Feed the squirrels
Teresa Żabińska believes that this was the nature of her father’s character. She tells a story of the Warsaw Rising: “Father was the commander of a unit charged with crossing Widok, a street guarded by a sniper. He ordered his troops to duck. Everyone ran across the street unharmed. Yet his officer’s honour wouldn’t allow him to hide. And father was hit in the neck. He shouldn’t have survived, but only one nerve was damaged. From that day on, his right hand twitched and he had issues with writing. But he remained unyielding.”
People rescued from the ghetto usually stayed in the basement of the villa – or in the lion house, monkey house, or pheasantry. There were quite a few people to be fed. Teresa Żabińska recalls that her mother was resourceful and never gave up easily. Thanks to the hog farm, she could occasionally feed those in hiding with meat. She grew vegetables in one of the allotment gardens. When the Germans shot and killed all the rooks, she collected the carcasses and made a stew. She was also in charge of preparing her guests for their onward journey.
The family tells an anecdote of Antonina attempting to change the looks of an obviously Semitic family. She decided to dye them all blond. Ryś, who was standing guard, saw them and exclaimed: “It’s a squirrel colour!” The Kenigsweins were dubbed “squirrels”, and the name stuck. When Jan Żabiński travelled to Israel after the war, upon his arrival he told his family that he had “met up with the squirrels.”
The right thing to do
Antonina Żabińska returned to Warsaw with her children in February 1945 (her husband was in a P.O.W. camp for officers). She managed to raise some money to get the zoo going. Somehow she found out when a city budget planning meeting would be held, and she made an appearance with, of all things, an otter in her briefcase. During one of the breaks, the critter slunk into the meeting room, and everyone loved it. Someone said, laughing, “Well, we have to let in this delegate.”
“The credit was obviously not all due to the otter. My father was well-known and appreciated as the person who had designed the Warsaw zoo – a very modern project in pre-war Poland,” Teresa Żabińska emphasises. Yet the gratitude of the new authorities did not last. Żabiński managed to import exotic animals as one of his last moves – yet he was dismissed as director in 1951, and forced to leave the zoo in 1953, accused of having collaborated with the Germans, among other crimes.
He never visited the zoo again. He died in 1974, three years after his wife, and nine years after the Żabiński family had been honoured as Righteous Among the Nations. Once, when asked why he had become involved and whether he hadn’t been scared, he responded, “It was the right thing to do.”
The American asylum
The script could only have been penned by life itself. The Americans found out about Żabiński when an Anglo-Saxon writer produced her sensational story of the Warsaw zoo. Diane Ackerman published The Zookeeper’s Wife in 2007, using Antonina Żabińska’s memoirs as the backdrop. The book made the New York Times bestseller list. Two years later, the Polish translation was published (Azyl. Opowieść o Żydach ukrywanych w warszawskim zoo). Another edition of Żabińska’s People and Animals came out at the time as well. Nonetheless, predictably, an American film has been based on Ackerman’s book. Telling the story of a number of fugitives from the Warsaw ghetto seventy-seven years after the actual events, it is also titled The Zookeeper’s Wife. It will debut on the big screen on 24 March, in the United States and Poland simultaneously.