The Zabinski Family

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Story of the Żabiński Family

During the years of German occupation in Poland, the Warsaw Zoological Garden, run by Director Jan Żabiński, became a place of hiding for many Jews. The Żabińskis’ modern-style villa, located on the ZOO grounds and known as “The House Under the Wacky Star”, provided refuge for, among others, writer Rachela Auerbach, sculptress Magdalena Gross, as well as for Samuel Kenigswein and his family. For extending this help, in 1965, Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina were honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.


Did Jan Żabiński and Antonina Erdman share a passion for natural sciences? Perhaps they did. They met in the 1920s at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences. Jan was a researcher at the Department of Zoology and Animal Physiology, Antonina was an archivist. They were both social activists engaged in various altruistic initiatives, convinced that it was the only right thing to do. 

The engineer, the physiologist, the artist

Jan Żabiński inherited a love for animals from his mother.

“She was passionate about keeping animals at home, even the tiniest ones. […] She began with fish and would come back from each outing with frogs or newts.”

Jan Żabiński had hoped to study zoology in Belgium, but The First World War put an end to his plans. Instead he completed a course of industrial agriculture and was awarded doctorates in agronomy engineering and physiology. He was also an art lover and spent several years studying painting and drawing at the School of Fine Arts.

“I followed my interests while choosing my subject of studies, but only after I had become a director of the newly established Zoological Garden in Warsaw did I finally feel at the right place,” he recalled years later.  

Antonina Żabińska spent the first years of her life in Russia where her father, Antoni, worked as a railway engineer. She lost both parents in 1917, at the age of 9; as members of the intelligentsia, they were murdered by the revolutionaries. Antonina fled to Tashkient together with her aunt, who took the young orphaned girl under her care. Later Antonina studied piano at the music conservatory. At the age of 15 Antonina came to Warsaw, where she studied languages as well as drawing and painting. To earn her keep she worked as a tutor while embarking up her studies of archival science, which eventually enabled her to get a job at the Warsaw School of Life Sciences. 

Warsaw Zoological Garden

Jan Żabiński was appointed Director of the Zoological Garden in 1929. He was passionate about developing the newly founded institution and Antonina became his closest associate. Their villa became a sanctuary for injured animals that used to recover there under the Żabińskis’ loving care. A wide variety of animals actually resided at the villa: lynxes, cockatoos, a hamster, an arctic hare, a piglet, a badger, a muskrat and many more. The director of the zoo used to say:

“It is not enough to research animals at a safe distance – you need to live with them to truly understand their habits and psychology.”

As social activists and lovers of the natural world, the Żabińskis communicated the results of their research on the radio, in the press and via books. Even as early as 1926, the inaugural year of Polish radio, Jan Żabiński was delivering talks on zoological matters. Antonina was a keen author and wrote about her pets’ adventures in several books. The Żabińskis were also very active within the International Association of Zoological Gardens’ Managers. In fact the annual convention of the Association’s members was due to be hosted at The Warsaw Zoo in the autumn of 1939.

The German Occupation

When the war broke out, the Żabińskis became involved in underground resistance activities. Ryś, their young son, helped as well. They provided a safe hiding place for many people as well as secretly storing weapons and ammunition in empty cages and abandoned pavilions. Over the course of the war many Jews found shelter at the zoo.

Jan, a lieutenant in the Home Army, supported his family during the first years of the war by delivering lectures and tutorials in underground schools. In 1944 he fought in the Warsaw Uprising and was taken to a prison camp in Germany.

The Żabińskis were able to make contact with the ghetto due to Jan’s involvement with the Horticultural Department at the Town Council.

“Jan […] was granted a permit to enter the ghetto on the pretext that there was ‘greenery’ there as well,” recalled Antonina after the war. “In fact there was hardly any greenery in the ghetto! So Jan had no ‘green’ business to attend there; instead, he used the permit to visit people who needed support and for whom he used to smuggle in food or messages.”

Jan often provided false documents to those in need and he also helped to locate safe hideouts. During the ghetto’s existence he managed to take a number of people to the “Aryan” side. 

The tenants

The Żabińskis were approached by Jews looking for safe refuge after they had escaped from the ghetto and by those who had to flee their shelters on the “Aryan” side. The zoo director and his wife were affiliated to Żegota (The Council for Aid to Jews in Occupied Poland). Amongst the people who found shelter at the zoo were: Magdalena Gross, Maurycy Paweł Fraenkel, Rachela Auerbach, Regina and Samuel Kenigswein, Eugenia Sylkes, Marceli Lewi-Łebkowski and their family, Marysia Aszer, Joanna Kramsztyk, Eleonora Tenenbaum, the Keller family, Irena Mayzel, Mr Lewy a solicitor, Mr Kinszerbaum and Dr Anzelm.

“The Director and his wife arrived, a bottle of vodka in hand, and welcomed us warmly in the basement,” was how Regina Keningswein described the Żabińskis’ friendly welcome. “They offered us warm soup, and then we drank one shot each.” For the first few nights at the zoo the family lived in the corridor next to the old lion’s house, but then they were moved to the basement of the villa. In the hours of daylight, Samuel used to sneak into the aviary, and wait until the evening, wrapped in a fur coat with the door locked from the outside. Regina and the children cautiously climbed upstairs from the basement.

“The children were at home with danger and well-acquainted with conspiracy. […] They could stay quiet for hours, walk soundlessly and lie still.”


 


When the alarm was raised that there was danger approaching, the secret tenants in the villa “under a wacky star” used to hide in the attic, the bathroom and a built-in wardrobe or else they would escape the villa through a specially built tunnel that led from the basement to the garden. Impending danger was announced to the “guests” by a pre-arranged musical code, which was either performed by Antonina on her grand piano or sung – it was a piece from Offenbach’s operetta La belle Hélène entitled “Go, go to Crete!”

Antonina recalled Magdalena Gross, a sculptress: “She became an integral part of our family. She lived our life, shared our hardships, worries and dangers”. The artist took an active part in everyday life at the villa and her strong sculptor’s hands proved very useful. One day, when Ms Żabińska started baking bread, Magdalena immediately began to help by kneading the dough. “This is unheard of! Such an artist, handling pots and pans?” remarked Antonina. “It is only temporary. Who would have thought that such a petite person will not manage? Really? Eh! Sculptors are very sturdy.” When the Żabińskis suspected that some of their workers had found out that Magdalena Gross was being hidden at the zoo they organized a new place of refuge for her. Magdalena moved to live with the Rendzner family

Commemoration after the war

“I am a Pole and a democrat,” wrote Jan Żabiński in his personal account to the Jewish Historical Institute.

“My deeds were and still are the effect of a certain frame of mind acquired during my progressive-humanistic upbringing and education at the Kreczmar’s Gymnasium. I tried to analyze the roots of hostility towards Jews many times, and yet I have not found any, aside from those factitiously conceived.”

Antonina and Jan Żabiński were honoured as Rigtheous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel on 7 October 1965 and a tree was planted in commemoration at a ceremony at the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem on 30 October 1968.

Other Stories of Rescue in the Area

Bibliography

  • Archiwum Yad Vashem, 2888, YV-03
    Regina Kenigsewin's testimony.
  • Jan Żabiński, Relacja, "Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego", nr 1 (65/66)
  • Gutman Israel red. nacz., Księga Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, Ratujący Żydów podczas Holocaustu, Kraków 2009
  • Auerbach Rachela, Arka Noego i żubry, których nie otrzymaliśmy, „Nowiny Kurier”
  • Auerbach Rachela, Wojenne Zoo dyrektora Żabińskiego, źródło nieznane, nr 248 (6045)
  • The Zookeeper’s Wife, Niki Caro, 2017, USA, Drama film, 126 min

    Azyl (The Zookeeper’s Wife) is the story of Antonina and Jan Żabiński who, during World War II, hid Jews in the Warsaw Zoo. The film is based on Diane Ackerman’s book, The Zookeeper’s Wife, published in 2007. The book was based on the memoirs of Antonina Żabińska who is the film’s central character. Her role was played by Hollywood star, Jessica Chastain.