For my major project I am illustrating the book "The Zookeeper's Wife" by Diane Ackerman. When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw - including the city's zoo. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen "guests" hid inside the Zabinski's villa, emerging after dark for dinner and socializing. Jan was active in the resistance, burying ammunition in the elephant enclosure and stashing explosives in the animal hospital. And Antonina, refusing to give in to the penetrating fear of discovery, kept her unusual household afloat.
The Zabinski executed their private rescue project like a well-planned military operation, under the noses of the Germans, who stationed an army unit in the zoo. Everyone who was sheltered in the Zabinski's villa received the name of an animal and was thus addressed by the others. The Zabinskis hid between seven and twelve people at a time in their home in addition to those in the cages.
The zoo, which housed some 1,500 animals, was an ideal location for underground activity, a perfect place to hide weapons. The obscure corners of the zoo were familiar only to Zabinski and his wife.
At one point, Lutz Heck, the director of the Berlin zoo and a former friend of the Zabinskis, paid a visit to the occupied city. He carried an order to transfer all the living animals to Germany. Zabinski, who wanted to stay in control of the vacated zoo ground, persuaded Heck to use the site as a pig-breeding farm for sustaining the troops of the Third Reich stationed in Warsaw. According to testimony Zabinski gave after the war in the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw, he envisaged the possibility of smuggling food to his friends in the ghetto.
The pig farm in the zoo began to operate in March 1940; the animals were fed with leftovers from restaurants and hospitals, and from garbage Zabinski collected in the ghetto. He couldenter the ghetto on the basis of a permit he received from the municipal authorities because of his new task: general supervisor of the public parks in Warsaw. Even though the ghetto had nothing for Zabinski to "supervise" he was able to move about there freely. This marked the onset of a large scale smuggling ring in which he played a key role.
In the summer of 1940, Zabinski got a phone call from a member of the underground. He was to expect Jewish "guests" who needed shelter for a transition period, until they could regain their strength and move to another refuge after being provided with false papers. That was the beginning: The Zabinski's home gradually filled up with more"guests", both Jewish and non-Jewish, who were on the run.
Jews of German origin with Aryan features were housed in the villa, and presented to the housekeeper as distant relatives. Jews with dark hair and eyes were moved to the basement or into cages.
Antonina created an illustion of constant gaiety. Large numbers of people came and went, and guests were invited deliberately for meals and musical evenings. She believed that only openly, amid a general hubbub, would it be possible to shelter those in need.
In the winter of 1942 - 1943, the Germans decided to forgo the pork project at the zoo in favour of a fox farm. The pelts, they reckoned, would warm the German troops on the eastern front, and what was left over could be sold in aid of the war effort. Zabinski was absolutely delighted. He was allowed to remain in the villa.
Zabinski was wounded in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising. A bullet entered his neck, slashed through vital organs and exited from the other side. Everyone was sure he would die, but he recovered and was taken to a prisoner-of war camp in Germany, from where he returned in October 1945. Toward the end of the war the zoo was shut down and Antonina Zabinska and her two children were sent to Germany. On the wayh she managed to escape with the children and reached a village, where they remained until the end of the war.
After the war the Zabinski's decided to re-establish the zoo. They renovated the gounds and the villa and collected new animals. The official reopening took place in 1949. Zabinski was reappointed director. However, in 1951 he resigned. "His self-respect did not allow him to continue, " his daughter explains. "All kinds of party officials wanted him to hire their cronies, and he could not accpet that. He remained supervisor of the public parks for another two years, and we stayed in the villa until 1953. After that we left the zoo for good"
Zabinski worked in education, wrote more than 50 books, and had a popular radio program about animals. On Oct. 7, 1965, in a modest ceremony at Yad Vashem, he and his wife were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. They received a certificate and a gilded medal from the State of Israel. A tree was planted in their name on the gounds of the memorialinstiution to signify their rescue operation during the Holocaust. Zabinski attended the ceremony, havin been invited by those he rescued and who settled in Israel after the war. In interviews he gave to the Israeli press at the time, he explained "t was not an act of heroism, just a simple human obligation." Anatonina died in 1971, and her husband three years later.
Warsaw Voice June 25th 2008.