Polish couple Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina became the directors of the Warsaw zoological garden in 1929. Their large collection of exotic animals brought in tourists from all over the world.
The couple opened the zoo up to many artist and musicians, who came to work, get inspired, or give outdoor concerts. This period of inspiration and colorful guests soon earned the couple’s residential villa the nickname “the house under a wacky star.”
The zoo thrived until World War II, when the German army invaded Poland. It was 1939, and the bombings immediately killed many of the animals the couple had raised or nursed to health. Jan had no choice but to put down most of the predatory animals for fear that they’d run amok in the streets of Warsaw after the bombings.
What happened next is even worse: The German army organized a hunt at the zoo, shooting any animal they deemed “not valuable.” A few animals were transported to other zoos, but the ones that remained all this became food sources for locals and the invading German army.
Strangely, the German army appointed Jan Żabiński as superintendent of Warsaw’s public parks. This gave him the unique opportunity to secretly help the Jewish community evade capture by the Germans. He convinced the Germans to allow him into the Jewish Ghettos, where over 83,000 people died of starvation and disease. Jan lied and said he was going there to care of the greenery when in fact he was connecting with his Jewish friends and colleagues. Soon, he began bringing them food and messages. He also began breeding pigs in the abandoned zoo and smuggled the meat inside the ghettos.
Żabiński also forged documents and smuggled some Jews out to organized “hideouts” in the Aryan sections of Warsaw. The couple and their son also opened their home, where the zoo was located, to Jews seeking a hiding place. When there was danger of oncoming German officers, Antonina, who would play “Go, go to Crete!” from Offenbach’s La belle Hélène operetta on the grand piano to send them running and hiding. These Jews were also given nicknames – the names of the animals in the zoo – to avoid suspicion from outsiders.
During the war, Jan Żabiński took part in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. He was arrested and taken away to a German prison camp. During this time, Antonina continued to care for the Jews left in the ruins. Fortunately, Jan survived and was able to witness the official reopening of the zoo in 1949.
American author Diane Ackerman published a book about the Żabiński family in 2007. The Zookeeper’s Wife was inspired by Antonina’s diaries. The book is currently being made into a movie with Jessica Chastain in the role of Antonina and Johan Heldenbergh as Jan. The movie’s release date is scheduled in 2016.