The Zoo Director Who Saved Jews
June 25, 2008
A Warsaw zoologist and his wife saved hundreds of Jews during World War II by hiding them in animal cages in the Warsaw zoo and sheltering them in their home. After the war, the state of Israel thanked the couple by awarding them Righteous Among the Nations medals.
Many cages in the zoo had been emptied of animals during the Germans' September 1939 bombing campaign on Warsaw, and zoo director Jan Żabiński used them as hiding places for fleeing Jews. Over the course of three years, hundreds of Jews found temporary shelter in these abandoned animal cells, located on the eastern bank of the Vistula River, until they were able to relocate to places of refuge elsewhere. In addition, the Żabińskis sheltered Jews in their two-story private home on the zoo's grounds.
The Żabińskis executed their private rescue project like a well-planned military operation, under the noses of the Germans, who stationed an army unit in the zoo. Everyone who was sheltered in the Żabińskis' villa received the name of an animal and was thus addressed by the others. The Żabińskis hid between seven and 12 people at a time in their home in addition to those in the cages.
Jan Żabiński was born in Warsaw in 1897 to an affluent family. His father was a notary and his mother came from a family of landowners. Totally by chance, the Żabińskis lived in a poor Jewish section of Warsaw. In the school Jan attended, one of the first secular high schools in Warsaw, 80 percent of the students were Jews. "Father treated the Jews as equals," says Żabiński's daughter, Teresa Zawadzki, who was born in 1944 and lives in Denmark. The friendly relations between Żabiński and the Jews were strengthened during his military service in World War I, when he was a university student, and after at Warsaw's College of Agriculture, where he specialized in zoology and was a lecturer. It was also there that he met his wife, Antonina Erdman.
The zoo, which housed some 1,500 animals, was an ideal location for underground activity, a perfect place to hide weapons. The obscure corners of the zoo were familiar only to Żabiński and his wife.
At one point, Lutz Heck, the director of the Berlin zoo and a former friend of the Żabińskis, paid a visit to the occupied city. He carried an order to transfer all the living animals to Germany. Żabiński, who wanted to stay in control of the vacated zoo grounds, persuaded Heck to use the site as a pig-breeding farm for sustaining the troops of the Third Reich stationed in Warsaw. According to testimony Żabiński gave after the war in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, he envisaged the possibility of smuggling food to his friends in the ghetto.
The pig farm in the zoo began to operate in March 1940; the animals were fed with leftovers from restaurants and hospitals, and from garbage Żabiński collected in the ghetto. He could enter the ghetto on the basis of a permit he received from the municipal authorities because of his new task: general supervisor of the public parks in Warsaw. Even though the ghetto had nothing for Żabiński to "supervise," he was able to move about there freely. This marked the onset of the large-scale smuggling ring in which he played a key role.
In the summer of 1940, Żabiński got a phone call from a member of the underground. He was to expect Jewish "guests," who needed shelter for a transition period, until they could regain their strength and move to another refuge after being provided with false papers. That was the beginning: The Żabińskis' home gradually filled up with more "guests," both Jewish and non-Jewish, who were on the run.
Jews of German origin with Aryan features were housed in the villa and presented to the housekeeper-whose sympathy for Jews was dubious-as distant relatives. Jews with dark hair and eyes were moved to the basement or into cages.
Antonina created an illusion of constant gaiety. Large numbers of people came and went, and guests were invited deliberately for meals and musical evenings. She believed that only openly, amid a general hubbub, would it be possible to shelter those in need.
Why did Żabiński rescue Jews? According to his daughter, "It was obvious that he would help. He had friends and acquaintances among the Polish intelligentsia, among them many Jews, and it started from that. He told me that there was never any question of whether to help. It was simply a matter of basic decency. One must be decent. He always said that."
In the summer of 1942, Catholic writer Zofia Kossak-Szczucka established Żegota, a group of Poles who operated within the framework of the underground Home Army, with the aim of helping and rescuing Jews. According to Holocaust researchers, Żegota rescued about 28,000 Jews in Warsaw alone. Members of Żegota knew Żabiński, some of them from before the war, and they were aware of his underground activity in the zoo. They referred fugitive Jews to him and gave him money for their upkeep.
One Żegota activist was Władysław Bartoszewski, who was honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial institution in Jerusalem, with a Righteous Among the Nations title and twice served as Poland's foreign minister after the fall of communism in the country.
In the winter of 1942-1943, the Germans decided to forgo the pork project at the zoo in favor of a fox farm. The pelts, they reckoned, would warm the German troops on the eastern front, and what was left over could be sold in aid of the war effort. Żabiński was absolutely delighted. He was allowed to remain in the villa.
Żabiński was wounded in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising. A bullet entered his neck, slashed through vital organs and exited from the other side. Everyone was sure he would die, but he recovered and was taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, from where he returned in October 1945. Toward the end of the war the zoo was shut down and Antonina Żabińska and her two children were sent to Germany. On the way, she managed to escape with the children and reached a village, where they remained until the end of the war.
After the war the Żabińskis decided to reestablish the zoo. They renovated the grounds and the villa and collected new animals. The official reopening took place in 1949. Żabiński was reappointed director. However, in 1951 he resigned. "His self-respect did not allow him to continue," his daughter explains. "All kinds of party officials wanted him to hire their cronies, and he could not accept that. He remained supervisor of the public parks for another two years, and we stayed in the villa until 1953. After that we left the zoo for good."
Żabiński worked in education, wrote more than 50 books, and had a popular radio program about animals. On Oct. 7, 1965, in a modest ceremony at Yad Vashem, he and his wife were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. They received a certificate and a gilded medal from the State of Israel. A tree was planted in their name on the grounds of the memorial institution to signify their rescue operation during the Holocaust. Żabiński attended the ceremony, having been invited by those he rescued and who settled in Israel after the war. In interviews he gave to the Israeli press at the time, he explained: "It was not an act of heroism, just a simple human obligation." Antonina died in 1971, and her husband three years later.