We took some pictures of “Old Town” Warsaw, but in fact, there is no old town in Warsaw. It is all rebuilt from pictures of the town before World War II. In 1939, Warsaw was a free city with of 1.3 million people. In 1943, 900,000 people lived there, and many of those no longer wanted to. In 1945, after a failed uprising, 1,000 people lived in Warsaw, most in fear and desolation. Warsaw was so decimated that real film clips of the city could be cut from authentic film clips and pasted right into a sci-fi movie about a future dystopian colony after a nuclear holocaust.
Right in the middle of Warsaw, however, was an unexpected haven of hope. If you’ve ever seen the movie Zookeeper’s Wife, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The locals called it The Villa Under the Crazy Star because it was a home in the middle of the Warsaw Zoo that always had diverse inhabitants. The director of the zoo and his family lived there, but they were constantly inviting animals in, from badgers to tiger cubs and more. Jan and Antonina Zabinski were the kind of people I would hope to be in a situation like that. They couldn’t stand by and see Jews moved into concentration camps and killed, so they joined the underground resistance, began sheltering Jews in their basement and started getting forged documents for many to escape from Poland.
The Zabinskis saved 300 Jews in this way. Their basement, which was designed for storing food for the animals, had no windows and was completely dark. Not only that, but behind one of the cabinets, it had a trap door that led to a tunnel and then to a series of aviaries filled with bushes and trees in which to hide. You would think the birds would have squawked and given their location away, but we were at the zoo. Birds were squawking all the time anyway! What a perfect place to house refugees. They housed from 20-35 people at a time. Some stayed a few days. Others stayed for up to three years.
Antonina had set up a brilliant warning system that the Germans, who would inspect almost daily, would never recognize. She would sit at the grand piano in their parlor and play regularly. But there were two composers whose music she only played in specific situations. If she saw Germans on the premises, she would play music from the composer Offenbach. This would warn her guests to retreat to the basement. If soldiers were coming inside, or worse, headed toward the stairs, she would play Offenbach with a faster tempo. This would be their signal to head to the tunnel, taking with them any evidence of their existence. Finally, if she played Chopin, it was a signal of safety. They could come upstairs and join the family again.
One of the people this brave family saved was Magdalena Gross, a renowned sculptor, who stayed for three years. We got to see some of her sketches and sculptures and were reminded that she completed her work mostly in the dark! Before going “underground,” Miss Gross had been a single woman in German occupied Warsaw. You can imagine what she had gone through. Because of the safety and kindness she found at the villa with the Zabinsky family, she said that Antonina Zabinski was “not a woman but an angel,” and that the three years the artist had spent there, even though they were spent mostly in darkness, were the “best three years of her life!”
Not all of the crazy star villa residents were quite so fortunate, but there were victories in spite of loss. One example was Professor Szymon Tenenbaum, a Jewish entomologist. He, worried his priceless collection of preserved insects would become a casualty of the war, so he entrusted them to the Zabinski family. They successfully hid 865 cases holding several hundred thousand specimens that are still studied today. The Zabinskis also hid his wife and daughter and helped them to relocate after the professor had died in the Jewish ghetto. Sadly, his daughter was caught and never heard from again, and his wife mourned her husband and searched for her daughter for the rest of her life.
Warsaw’s thriving zoo, with its healthy, growing population of animals, began to experience trouble as soon as Germany occupied Warsaw. The director of the Berlin Zoo started taking its animals for his own zoo, for testing and for private hunting parties. As the war raged on, they even shot the zoo’s elephants and fed the meat to soldiers. In order to continue having the zoo as a refuge for Jews, Jan made a deal with the German Army that he would raise pigs for them so they would have meat to eat. This allowed him a pass to travel throughout Warsaw to get food for the pigs. He would hide Jews in the food, as well as in coffins, suitcases, and whatever else they could find.
After three years of being active members of the underground resistance of Warsaw, the Jan Zabinski was caught and put in a German prisoner of war camp. He survived the camp, and when Warsaw was liberated by the Red Army, he was allowed to come back and rebuild his zoo. By 1948, the Warsaw Zoo was up and running again. Alas, the Russians soon took it over and sent Jan and his family away. They stayed in Warsaw writing books, and everyone but Jan frequently continued to visit the animals there. Jan never returned to the zoo. His son still visits from time to time.
After the war, survivors who had been sheltered by the Zabinskis recommended them to be awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Jewish community. What did Jan say about what they had done? “I risked and gave shelter to them not because they were Jews but because they were persecuted. If the Germans had fallen victim to persecution, I would have done the same thing. After all, it is people that we are talking about. People who had been convicted even though they had done nothing wrong. That I found terrifying. It was my obligation as a human being to help them. Nothing more than common decency.”
This “common decency” Jan refers to was punishable by death. I pray my family and I will never have to face that choice. If we ever do, I pray we will also act with “common decency,” no matter what the consequences.