Co-founder of the Warsaw Zoological Gardens, and its director from 1929, Dr Jan Zabinski was highly regarded in zoological circles for developing the institution into one of Europe’s most celebrated and diverse zoological gardens, and lived an idyllic life with his wife Antonina and their young son Ryszard in the zookeeper’s villa, where their daughter Teresa was born during the war. The couple had met at the Warsaw University’s Institute of Zoology and Antonina shared Jan’s passion for animals, and was also a recognized author of children’s books.
During the years of German occupation in Poland, the Warsaw Zoo became a place of hiding for many Jews and other minorities from The Warsaw Ghetto with a certain death sentence. The Żabińskis’ modern-style villa, located on the ZOO grounds and known as “The House Under the Crazy Star”, was used as a perfect hideout. The secret “tenants” were hidden in the attic, the bathroom and a built-in wardrobe, when danger was announced they could escape the villa through a specially built tunnel that led from the basement to the garden. Approaching danger was announced to the “tenants” by a pre-arranged musical piece. An accomplished pianist, Antonina would play the piano in the drawing room of the villa, which was performed on her grand piano located in the living room of the Villa – it was a piece from Offenbach’s operetta La belle Hélène entitled “Go, go to Crete!” and Chopin when it was safe, among a series of coded messages to maintain the highly organized conspiracy.
At the outbreak of the war in 1939 they were thrown into the role of protectors of the zoo’s history, knowledge bank and community, but in the ensuing bombardment of Warsaw they were forced to kill many of the animals, largely for public safety reasons, and eventually to turn the zoo into a pig farm to provide food rations for the occupying forces. Some of the most valuable animals were transported to zoos in the Reich for “safe-keeping”, including public favorite “Tuzinka”, only the 12th elephant to be born in captivity and the first in Poland.
Responsibility for the pig farm, and the subsequent allotment garden following the pig farm’s closure due to a dysentery epidemic, together with Jan’s appointment as Superintendent of the city’s public parks – as well as Jan’s less public role as a lieutenant in the underground Home Army – provided the Zabinskis with the access, networks and pretext to smuggle Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto and provide them with refuge in the villa’s basement and in abandoned animal enclosures around the zoo. Some stayed for months, some for only a few days, as the Zabinskis helped to arrange counterfeit papers and safe houses for the fugitives to transit to. All crimes for which they and their whole family would have been summarily executed.
All but two of the people they were able to help survived the war. And despite the occupying forces having a munitions store within the zoo grounds under constant surveillance, they also managed to conceal a weapons store for the underground Home Army there for eventual use in the Warsaw Uprising in which Zabinski himself participated, and was taken as a prisoner of war after being injured and captured.
Returning to Warsaw in 1945, Zabinski eventually resumed his duties and the couple set about rescuing what remained of the zoo’s assets and rebuilding it, officially re-opening the zoo in 1949 and continuing to live with their children Ryszard and Teresa in the little villa in the middle of the zoo grounds until 1951.
Number of Jewish people hidden & helped
The Zabinskis coped with the challenges thrown at them during the war and Nazi occupation, using the zoo grounds and the villa itself to engage in clandestine activities to support the underground Home Army and managing to hide and help save more than 300 Jewish people “in plain sight” in the basement of the villa and in the zoo grounds, as well many others in great peril.
Number of days that World War II lasted
September 2, 1945, the day the Japanese delegation formally signed the instrument of surrender on board the USS Missouri, marking the official ending of World War II. 2,194 days between the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, through tp September 2, 1945, when Japan signed the unconditional surrender.
Number of Jews killed during the Holocaust
The Holocaust was the World War II genocide of the European Jews. Between 1941 and 1945, across German-occupied Europe, Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically murdered some six million Jews, around two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population.