As it turns out, a zoo is the perfect place to hide people.
Before World War II, the Warsaw Zoo rivaled any of the great European zoos. Its director, Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonia, devoted themselves to shaping the zoo into a well-respected institution and to the care of its animals. Jan was a renowned zoologist who was often in demand at conferences across Europe. Visitors to the Warsaw Zoo could see penguins, wolves, hyenas, peacocks, rhinos, lions and even a baby elephant–the first to be born in a Polish zoo.
When the war broke out and the Nazis occupied Poland, the future of the zoo was not bright. Fortunately for the zoo residents, a Nazi officer, Lutz Heck, had a special interest in animals. He was a former zoo director himself and was obsessed with the idea of bringing back original German species which had been extinct for centuries. With his intervention, many of the animals at the zoo were transferred to Berlin. The Zabinskis had no choice but to accept this intervention and used his goodwill towards the zoo to their advantage.
Jan saved the zoo by convincing the Nazis that it was the ideal location for a pig farm, to supply the soldiers and community with food. They also grew a small vegetable garden to support the war effort–and to cover for all the activity taking place at the zoo, with refugees coming and going at all hours.
Jan was heavily involved in the Polish Underground Resistance, which consisted of thousands of people working to oust the Nazis from Poland, from bombing railways and destroying weapons caches, to helping Jewish people escape from the Ghetto, to getting out illegal newpapers, to helping refugees flee the country. The zoo was a meeting place for many involved in the underground, including Irena Sendler. Jan used his position at the zoo and his wartime position as the director of all Warsaw parks to shuttle Jewish people to safe hiding places. He had access to the Ghetto by virtue of his position, and often smuggled food in.
Antonia, while not active in the underground like Jan, was as much involved in her own way. While Jan was out, involved in many dangerous activities, Antonia faced danger at home. Soldiers were stationed on zoo property, frequently passing by the house. She was responsible to care for her son Rhys, all the guests they had hidden on their property, and the various animals which were still under their care.
Keeping everyone hidden was a very delicate operation. There could not appear to be a suspicious number of people coming and going, so Antonia often invited friends and family to visit and stay, as a cover for the other “guests” who were staying with them. The “guests” were hidden in passages under their villa and in empty cages scattered throughout the zoo. She constantly had to be careful about how much food was being brought into the house and had to ensure that a suspicious amount of garbage was not thrown out.
Jan once told reporters that Antonia was the real heroine of the family. She was a housewife, not involved in war or politics, she was timid and yet “she played a major role in saving others and never once complained about the danger.” Antonia was often frightened by the possible consequences of their clandestine activities but kept it to herself and never once asked Jan to stop his activities with the Underground.
Even when pregnant with their second child and on bed-rest, Antonia directed all the activities at the house and kept everyone safe. It was difficult for their son Ryszard to understand everything that was happening, and much had to be hidden from him because of his young age. He was often given the task of taking food to people hidden in the cages. At one point, Antonia discovered that he and a young friend were plotting to destroy the weapons cache the Nazis had hidden at the zoo. Admiring her son’s bravery, she nonetheless had to admonish him for his foolhardiness, which, if realized, could have brought all their rescue activities to a premature end!
In all, Jan and Antonia were responsible for saving more than 200 people over the course of the war, some of whom stayed at the zoo for a few nights, others for a few years. The Zabinskis have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Jan once remarked that he had often wished to “analyze the causes for dislike for Jews and [he] could not find any, besides artificially formed ones.” Like many of those who are responsible for saving lives, he claims that “I only did my duty- if you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.”