90th Anniversary of the Opening of the Warsaw Zoological Gardens

Mateusz Szczepaniak / English translation: Andrew Rajcher, 9th March 2018
"An asylum", "a safe haven", "an "ark" - during World War II, this was how the Warsaw Zoological Gardens were referred to when it provided shelter for many Jews, among them writer Rachel Auerbach, sculptor Magdalena Gross and Samuel Kenigswein with his family. For the help that they provided during the Holocaust, in 1965, Zoo Director Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina (nee Erdman) were honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. 11th March 2018 marks the 90th anniversary of the day when the Zoo first became open to the public.

The Warsaw Municipal Zoological Gardens were established by a decision of the Warsaw City Council on 14th June 1927. As a modern facility with cultural, educational and research characteristics, it was to distinguish itself from the way animal shelters and menageries had been organised, to that time, in Warsaw. The Zoo was allocated twelve hectares in the northern part of Praga Park (until 1916, called "Aleksandria"), which was established in the years 1865-1871, with the consent of the Russian authorities, on the terrain of the old Napolean fortifications. Zoo management was entrusted to naturalist Wenanty Burdziński, former director and founder of the Zoological Gardens in Kiev.

Following a six-month construction period, the Zoo was opened to the pubic on 11th March 1928. It contained 475 animal specimens of which 75% were birds and 25% mammals. There were provided by, among others, the Studium Biologiczne-Zwierzyniec (Animal Biology College) on Al. 3 maja in Warsaw, at the initiative of  its nature teachers. Some were also purchased from Mieczysław Pągowski, who conducted similar activities on Al. 3 maja (on the corner of ul. Solec). Over its first two weeks, the Zoo had over 6,500 visitors.

Following Burdziński's sudden death in December 1928, a search began for a new Zoo Director, following which, on 1st June 1929, Jan Żabiński (1897-1974) was appointed as Director. He had been an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Zoology and Animal Physiology at Warsaw University. Over the thirty years of his directorship. the Zoo developed dynamically. New breeding and animal care facilities were created, including a monkey house, a hippopotamus enclosure, an elephant enclosure and a giraffe enclosure. New animals were introduced. New animals were born.

Recalling the birth of lions in 1930, Jan Żabiński wrote:

The birth went well. It took place at night, but it worried me that the little ones were quite weak. For the first time, I experienced a severe nervous tension. What should be done? (...) The little ones were weak, they couldn't suckle. They needed to be strengthened by bottle-feeding them with a few sips of milk. However, I knew that cow's milk was not recommended for feline babies. I regretted that, beforehand, I hadn't tried to find an appropriate bitch. And then it dawned on me - what about human milk? My sister had just finished feeding her three-month-old daughter. A telephone call, a taxi ride ... and, twenty minutes later, each little lion had drunk some fresh human breast milk. (...) All ended well.

The Zoo's development was interrupted by World War II. During the defence of Warsaw in September 1939, many of the animals perished. Some escaped and some of the more dangerous and predatory animals were shot on the decision of Warsaw Mayor Stefan Starzyński. In December 1939, the most beautiful of the specimens were sent into the Reich, They including bison, hoppopotami and, most loved by Warsaw,Tuzinka the elephant, born in 1937. To that time, only the twelfth elephant born in captivity and the only one to have been born in Poland.

I took the risk and provided help, not because they were Jews, but because they were being persecuted. If it had been Germans who were being persecuted, then I would have done the same - wrote Jan Żabiński in telling his story to Yad Vashem.

During the period of the German occupation, Jan Żabiński continued his work at the Zoo. Since 1931, together with his wife Antonina and son Ryszard (and, from 1944, his daughter Teresa), he had lived in the Director's modernistic villa, which soon became a hiding place for ghetto fugitives. It became known as "The House Under the Wacky Star”.

The story of Jan and Antonina Żabiński, as well as the Jews they were hiding, can be read in our virtual exhibition "The House Under the Wacky Star - Jews Hidden in Warsaw Zoo, which won the 2015 Sybilla Museum Events Award:

View our virtual exhibition: "The House Under the Wacky Star - Jews Hidden in Warsaw Zoo”

During a conference announcing the Zoo's 90th anniversary, Director of Warsaw City Council's Environment Protection Bureau, Grażyna Sienkiewicz, announceed: 

The Zoological Gardens are a part of Warsaw and its 90th anniversary is inextricably linked to the history of our city. It has been the site of, not only extremely joyful and emotional events, but also of moving and tragic events. Over that time, not only have the area and gardens changed, but so have also the people who have worked here. However, the one thing which they all have in common is their passion.

The main anniversary celebrations will take place, at the Zoo, on Sunday 11th March, however anniversary events are also planned to take place throughout the year. A new entrance to the Zoo, on Plac Hallera, will soon open as will a temporary exhibtion which will present the stories of the animals, their curators and the Zoo management since its establishment in 1928 until today.

According to the exhibition's curator:

The central part of the exhibition will be devoted to the animals and their stories - they will be the highlight here. Their perspective will be the most important. We will especially provide details about the pre-War elephants, about the camels donated by the Soviet Union and about the bears from East-West-Trail. We will recall thei rnames, their living conditions and the birth records. It turns out that animal biographies can be very similar to human ones.

The exhibition can be viewed at the Warsaw Praga Museum, at ul. Targowej 50/52, from 18th April until 17th September 2018. More information about its anniversary celebrations can be found on the Warsaw Zoo website.


Katarzyna Majcherczyk, Heca na Brackiej, czyli o warszawskich zwierzyńcach, „Stolica” 2008, No.1(2190).
Jan Żabiński, Dyrektor Ogrodu Zoologicznego (in) Jeszcze o Warszawie, Warszawa 1958.
Jan and Antonina Żabiński, Jewish Historical Institute Archives, File No. 2079/24/349.