A refuge, a shelter, an ark – that is how the Warsaw ZOO was dubbed by those who survived WWII thanks to the help of Jan and Antonina Żabiński, the zookeeper and his wife. Fifty three years have elapsed since the time when the Żabiński family were awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
The Warsaw ZOO which was a hiding spot to nearly 300 Jews is still existing zoological garden which sees around 1,000,000 visitors annually, making it one of the busiest zoos in Europe.
“I was risking and gave shelter not because they were Jews, but because they were victimized. If the Germans were victimized, I would have done the same. We’re talking here about people who were sentenced, but they did nothing wrong. It was terrifying. My obligation as a man was to help them. It was a simple decency”
Jan Żabiński, Yad Vashem 1965
The secret tenants of the house “Under the Wacky Star”
It was exactly there, in that spacious, modernistic villa where several hundreds of people found the chance to survive in the cruellest time for humanity. At the times when giving a Jew a glass of water could result in immediate death, not paying heed to consequences that could be incurred on them, two people decided to give shelter to those who were victimized for the sole membership to a particular nation. The walls of the villa witnessed the courage, humanity and the attempt to fight with the inhuman system.
Nearly 300 “guests” were hidden at the villa “Under the Wacky Star” during German occupation. Some stayed there years, others just a few nights. Two guests, Rosa Anzelowna and her mother were killed after they moved to a boarding house in Warsaw. All the rest survived.
A space which welcomed art
Before the war director Żabiński and his wife Antonina were very keen on art and artists, therefore they made sure that the ZOO became a space which welcomed art. They held regular concerts in the park and invited artists who made good use of park alleys. The Żabińskis’ villa, located on the ZOO premises, was built according to the most recent architectural trends, in the modernist style. It was soon dubbed the villa “Under the Wacky Star”, due to the level of engagement and activities of its owners. No wonder among hiding Jews during the war were many personalities of prewar times:
- One of the “guest”: Magdalena Gross fascinated with the animal world began sculpting animals and that is how she became most famous – as an animalier. In 1913, at the age of 22, she exhibited three pieces at the Salon in Zachęta, Museum for Contemporary Polish Art. Several years later she went through a creative crisis and thought she was “finished, artistically”. The artist’s visit to the Warsaw ZOO put an end to the crisis.
- The other “guest” Regina Kenigswein: Before the war, her father Soból delivered apples, cherries, tomatoes and cucumbers to the ZOO. He had his stall on Ząbkowska Street. He walked around with pockets full of goodies for children and animals. “He always brought traditional matzo for the holiday of Passover. And when his daughter Regina was marrying Kenigswein, a carpenter and boxer [member of the Maccabi and Stern sport clubs], he invited us to the wedding party”, noted Antonina Żabińska. His brother lived in New York. Soból himself declared: “ I do not want to leave Poland! Poland is like a mother to me. I was born here, and here shall I die”.
- One more “guest”: Rachel Auerbach came from a poor peasant family from Eastern Małopolska (Lesser Poland). Having obtained her academic education in Lwów, Rachel Auerbach was gradually building a career amongst the literary milieu of prewar Poland. She was a writer, journalist and literary critic writing in both Polish and Yiddish. She was one of the three surviving members of the covert Oyneg Shabes group led by Emanuel Ringelblum that chronicled daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto, and she initiated the excavation of the group’s buried manuscripts after the war. In Israel, she directed the Department for the Collection of Witness Testimony at Yad Vashem from 1954 to 1968.
The Villa under a Crazy Star
The Villa was built as an official flat in 1931, three years after the zoo had been opened. The contemporary director of the Warsaw ZOO, Jan Żabiński together with his family – the wife Atnonina, the son Ryszard and little daughter Tereska who would be born in 1944 took up residence in the villa. The building is the only building that wasn’t destroyed during the war and till present day only minor changes have been made to it. It is surrounded by a garden in a French style, where a tree planted by the hand of doctor Żabiński still grows – a beautiful specimen of maidenhair tree.
Pig breeding farm – brilliant idea of Jan Żabiński
The Żabińskis continued to reside in the run-down villa. Despite the fact that German army warehouses were located nearby, Jan Żabiński engaged in activities which allowed him to reach his conspiratorial goals. The Żabińskis’ villa became a shelter for many Jews; its owners never turned down requests for help. In the subsequent years of the occupation a bulk of the garden was divided into allotments for local residents. Silver foxes were bred in the ZOO up until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising.
The grisly safari at the Warsaw ZOO
Jan Żabiński, the director of the Warsaw Zoological Garden in Warsaw was an engineer agronomist, physiologist and animal lover. His wife, Antonia and he jointly developed the institution bringing in subsequent animal species to the ZOO.
When the war broke out, most animals from the ZOO were killed. The garden was bombed regularly in September 1939, and many animals died from the bombs, bullets (i.e. apes) or missiles (i.e. an elephant, a giraffe). Some of them were shot by the employees for safety reasons – their escape during a bombardment could pose a threat to the safety of people. Others were killed to feed people or during a safari organized at the ZOO on the New Year`s Eve. Some of animals were taken away by the Germans. Lutz Heck the director of the Berlin Zoological Garden took part in the pillaging of Warsaw Zoo, stealing the most valuable animals and taking them to German zoos. The ZOO itself was closed.
Jan Żabiński managed to persuade Lutz Heck to use the site of the ZOO as a pig-breeding farm for sustaining the German troops stationed in Warsaw. The pigs were fed with leftovers from restaurants and hospitals, and from garbage Żabiński collected in the Jewish ghetto, which he could enter thanks to a permit which he received from the municipal authorities because of his new post of the general supervisor of Warsaw’s public parks.
Jan Żabiński was seriously injured during the 1944 Warsaw uprising, and taken prisoner. When he returned, animals started being reintroduced to the zoo, which was reopened in 1949. After the war Jan Żabiński remained the director of the Warsaw ZOO but was forced to resign in 1951. The main reason was his work for the Polish resistance most hated by the communists.
If you want to learn wartime secrets of the villa “Under the Wacky Star”, you should plan a visit to the Warsaw ZOO on the first Sunday of any month.
Learn the history of the villa`s secret tennants
Thoroughly refurbished, the building has been turned into a museum and contains numerous photographs, books and personal memorabilia of the Żabiński family, as well as the renovated cellar in which the Jews were kept and an underground tunnel through which they could escape to an abandoned pheasant enclosure.
The exhibits include the grand piano on which Antonina Żabińska played an arrangement of Offenbach’s “La belle Hélène” to warn the Jews of approaching Germans and using this musical code ask them to be quiet. Another tune indicated that the danger was over.
The atmosphere and climate of the 1930s have been restored to the villa’s interior. In the first room it is worth to take a closer look at several showcases with rich, interesting specimens of insects. This is a priceless collection of Szymon Tenenbaum – a world-famous entomologist of Jewish nationality, who in 1940 was closed in the Warsaw ghetto together with his family. He managed to trust his whole collection of approx. 500,000 specimens of invertebrates with his friend – Jan Żabiński. The collection was overlooked by SS troops during the robbery of the Warsaw Zoological Garden and in 1944, three weeks before Warsaw Uprising, it was moved to the Zoological Museum. With a daring action, director Żabiński managed to rescue from the ghetto the professor’s wife and hide her at the Aryan side. Unfortunately, Tenenbaum himself (reportedly he didn’t want to go from behind the walls) died in the ghetto in 1941.
On the shelves that take up the entire wall there are superbly preserved Żabiński’s books, most of them in German and with zoological content. In the study, on a small table there is an original ashtray of director Żabiński, given by his daughter. On the walls and on the desk there are family photos.
In the living room there is a grand piano. In situations of approaching danger e.g. German officers walking around the Garden – Antonina used to sit at the instrument and played various pieces, whose choice gave the illegal residents specific information. Most of the time this was the signal for all who were hiding in the house and in the basement that the situation is dangerous and that they must “disappear”.
Many fugitives from the ghetto found a refuge in the villa`s basement. It was them who after the years gave testimony to the couple’s heroism at Yad Vashem Institute. Their names are listed on the wall.
From the basement the underground tunnel led into the outside of the building. Upon the musical signal given by Antonina the illegal residents moved outside the Villa in order to find shelter amid the bird houses.
In the basements we can see a room commemorating Magdalena Gross, who while hiding here filled the lengthy hours sculpting with clay the zoo’s animal residents. Here there are numerous photos of the works of Ms. Gross and the cast of a sculpture showing Tuzinka – a small female elephant that was born in 1937, the favourite not only of the sculptress, but also of all residents of pre-war Warsaw.
In the basements the visitors can watch two films. One shows the lively pre-war Jewish district, the second film provides the account of the Żabiński couple about their activity during the occupation.
The Warsaw ZOO`s history has become well-known in the world…
… thanks to an American writer Diane Ackerman who published her non-fiction biography titled “The Zookeeper’s Wife” in 2007. It tells the story of the Żabiński family’s activities during WWII that draws upon Antonina Żabińska’s diary. The book was made into a movie in 2015 and released on March 31st, 2017, starring American actress Jessica Chastain portraying Antonina and Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh portraying the director of the ZOO Jan. “The Zookeepers Wife” movie`s opening night took place 89 years and 20 days after the Warsaw ZOO was opened.
Believe it or not, the foreigners I have already met knew more about the history of the Warsaw ZOO than many Poles. The point is many of us had history class at school under communist regime. Nobody taught us forbidden history.
The 12th elephant in the world to be born in captivity
Although the current ZOO was opened on March 11th 1928, its roots can be traced to 17th century private menageries, often open to the public. King John III Sobieski kept a court menagerie in Wilanów, and the 19th century saw several private zoos opened in the city. One of them was an animal exhibition at the corner of Hoża and Krucza Streets organized by a private collector in 1871. He was going to present the residents of Warsaw with a couple of monkeys, wolves, roes, parrots and other species from his collection. He was not granted permission to charge a fee at the entrance, but his application resulted in a special commission being set up. The commission consisted of zoologists and townhall officials. Together, they decided that the city of Warsaw – for both didactic and scientific reasons – needs a zoological garden.
The first zoological garden was located on Bagatela Street in 1884. It was closed down seven years later. The present-day premises of the ZOO were chosen in 1912. The meadows on the right bank of the Vistula River, at the time referred to as Alexandrian Park, were expansive and wild.
Mieczysław Pągowski opened a small zoo on Koszykowa Street in 1926, and moved this zoo to a new 10,000-square-metre (110,000 sq ft) area on Maja Avenue in 1927. He was not a zoologist. In fact he worked as a confectioner.
On March 11th 1928, a special event took place – Grand Opening of Warsaw ZOO. Its collection consisted 475 of animal specimens at that time, of which about ¾ were birds, and ¼ were mammals. A garden for the first two weeks has been visited by more than 6,5 thousand people.
When Jan Żabiński took up his post in 1929, an international team of experts deemed the Warsaw based initiative worthy of the name Zoological Garden. Only those institutions which possessed suitable units to keep and breed animals and were managed by people with adequate qualifications could be granted such a name.
The Zoological Garden on the right bank of the Vistula River was developing dynamically under Jan Żabiński’s management. Subsequent breeding successes attracted not only residents of Warsaw, but also excursions from all over Poland to visit the beautifully groomed park. In 1937 Tuzinka was born, the first Indian elephant born in a Polish ZOO and the 12th elephant in the world to be born in captivity.
The Warsaw ZOO, the refuge to the Jews during WWII is still an existing zoological garden
Today, it is home to over 12,000 animals representing more than 500 species. There are Polish endemic animals, such as otters, brown bears and storks, but there are also a number of exotic species, such as African elephants, Rothschild giraffes, Indian rhinoceros, gibbons, various species of birds, reptiles and tropical fish. Most animals can be viewed from runways, but they are kept inside the buildings in winter. Birds can be found wandering freely around the zoo, living around its ponds and aviaries. The majority of them stay in the main aviary, a part of which is the only ‘Hall of Free Flight’ (Hala Wolnych Lotów) in all of Poland.
Special facilities include the gorilla and chimpanzee residence, the aviary with its free-flight hall resembling an Asian jungle, the hippopotamus house with hippos frolicking underwater on view, and the state-of-the-art aquarium inhabited by sharks and stingrays.
There are several restaurants in the zoo, as well as various souvenir shops. At the centre of the ZOO is the special ‘Fairytale Zoo’ (Baśniowe Zoo), where children can stroke the animals and feed them carrots and apples. There is also a large, modern, safe playground.
I would be thrilled if you decided to visit the Warsaw ZOO. That`s where I grew up. The ZOO was a place which I visited as a little girl almost every day. Below you can see the pictures from family album taken by my parents in 1967.
If you decide to take a trip to the Warsaw ZOO, have in mind that the villa “Under the Wacky Star” is open only on the first Sunday of every month.
I hope I have encouraged you to visit my wonderful country and learn its stirring history.
See you there!
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski and family archives of Agata Szostkowska’s
© Copyright www.communications-unlimited.nl, 2018. All rights reserved.
The Villa “Under the Wacky Star”
The grand piano on which Antonina Żabińska played an arrangement of Offenbach’s “La belle Hélène” to warn the Jews of approaching Germans and using this musical code ask them to be quiet.
The interior of spacious modernistic villa
The villa`s basement where the Jews were hidden.
An underground tunnel through which the Jews could escape to an abandoned pheasant enclosure.
The Żabiński family were awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations in 1965.
The Warsaw ZOO, the refuge to the Jews during WWII is still an existing zoological garden
Before the war director Żabiński and his wife Antonina were very keen on art and artists, therefore they made sure that the ZOO became a space which welcomed art.