Imagine having your life threatened for simply offering a glass of water to a Jewish person. That was the real-life consequence that zookeepers' Jan and Antonina Zabinski faced when Germany invaded Poland during World War II. But the couple embarked on a much bolder act of rebellion than offering a glass of water. For three years, they chose to hide and shelter close to 300 Jews and political insurgents at their zoo. Based on Antonina's diary, their heroic story is now the focus of the film, The Zookeeper's Wife, which stars Jessica Chastain and premieres in theaters today.
At the height of Hitler's reign, Jan Zabinski was director of the Warsaw Zoo and superintendent of the city parks. He was also secretly part of the Polish resistance and used his distinct professional standing to smuggle food and Jews in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Although Antonina knew her husband was involved in the resistance, she didn't know the full extent. In fact, Jan was deeply active — smuggling weapons, building bombs, overthrowing trains, and even poisoning meat that was being fed to the Nazis.
As a staunch atheist, Jan credits his willingness to fight for the Jews as an opportunity to show his humanity. "I do not belong to any party, and no party program was my guide during the occupation...," he said. "My deeds were and are a consequence of a certain psychological composition, a result of a progressive-humanistic upbringing, which I received at home as well as in Kreczmar High School. Many times I wished to analyze the causes for dislike for Jews and I could not find any, besides artificially formed ones."
Eventually, though, his part in the resistance caught up with him. In 1944 he fought in the Warsaw Polish Uprising and was caught by the Germans. While he was a prisoner, his wife Antonina and their son, Ryszard, continued helping Jews at the zoo.
Born as a strict Catholic and having lost her parents during the Russian Revolution by the Bolsheviks, Antonina knew the costs of war in a very personal way. Despite being characterized as nervous and fearful, she did not let that nor the loss of her parents prevent her from helping those escaping the Nazis. As a lover of animals and believing that every living creature was important, Antonina played an indispensable role in saving hundreds of Jewish lives. "I looked at them with despair," she said. "Their appearance and the way they spoke left no illusions. … I felt an overwhelming sense of shame for my own helplessness and fear."
Although much of the zoo was damaged due to bombing, Antonina, Jan and their son allowed Jews to hide in empty animal cages, in their house (sometimes up to a dozen at a time), and secret underground tunnels. Antonina used music to communicate to the escapees, playing a particular tune to signal when they needed to hide and then playing a different tune when the coast was clear. She even dyed the hair of an entire Jewish family so they could disguise their background. To conceal their Jewish names, Antonina gave some of the families animal nicknames (e.g. The Squirrels, The Hamsters, The Pheasants) and gave some of the zoo animals human names.
Just like in the movie, the real-life fate of the Zabinskis had a happy ending: Jan survived the prison camp and returned to his family. He later took on a position at the State Commission for the Preservation of Nature and authored 60 science books.
Out of the 300 people the Zabinskis saved, only two died during the war; all the others remarkably found refuge and safe passage elsewhere.
In 1968 the state of Israel honored the Zabinskis with the title "Righteous Among the Nations," a recognition that was given to all those brave citizens who helped save Jews during the Holocaust.