On Location at the Home of The Zookeeper’s Wife in Warsaw, Poland
The Warsaw Zoo was opened in 1928, just 11 years before the Nazis invaded Poland. During the occupation, the Nazis closed the zoo, and sent the “best” animals to Germany, killing those they deemed less worthy. The zookeeper and his wife stayed on and risked their lives to help some 300 Jews escape the Warsaw ghetto, and continue to safety through the nearly 100-acre zoo grounds.
This is the true story of , a film based on the book by Diane Ackerman, itself based on the memoirs of Antonina Zabinska, the zookeeper’s wife.
In Poland at that time, the penalty for hiding a Jew was instant death for the Jews, their helpers, and the helpers’ whole family, including the children. In a harrowing scene, Jan Zabinski tells Antonina that they need to think hard about helping the Jews, because it’s a bullet to the head for even offering a glass of water to a Jew.
“In a world of total moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations. They stand in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Holocaust. Contrary to the general trend, these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation.” – Yad Vashem
Karen and her family collected documents and sent them to Yad Vashem, and in March 2017, Karen received the momentous news that the family who hid her in-laws will, more than 70 years later, be declared Righteous Among the Nations, taking their places alongside the Zabinskis, Oskar Schindler, and other quiet heroes of the Holocaust.
“That is when I went to see the zookeepers’ villa and became aware of the zoo’s history during the war. Before that it was just a zoo where my family loved to spend our weekends. We lived some 20 minute away in the Praga district, and given how green and vast the area of the zoo and the adjacent Praski Park are, it was our favorite place to spend spring and summer Sunday afternoons.”
Several years ago, she found, to her horror, that during WWII some of the curbstones at the zoo may have been repaired with pieces of matsevas, Jewish headstones from the Jewish cemetery in Praga, destroyed by the Nazis. “My instant thought was: As a child I would step on those tombstones as I was playing and having a happy time.”
What would you do? It’s a profound question, and one that we could ask ourselves every day in these times.
Jewish Heritage in Poland with MIR
Learn firsthand the story of Warsaw, its inhabitants on both sides of the ghetto wall, the Ghetto Uprising, and the Warsaw Uprising that caused Hitler to order the city’s final destruction.
You can still see the zookeepers’ villa in the Warsaw Zoo, standing where it has always been, walk by the very cages where Jews were hidden, and feel the immediacy of the choices that people had to make back then. MIR can even prearrange for you a visit inside the Zabinski’s villa.
The fighting and destruction of those years did not seriously affect the side of the river where the zoo and Praga district are located. This neighborhood offers a genuine glimpse of pre-war Warsaw, a unique enclave in a city 85% destroyed during the war.
MIR has a dedicated team of Private Journey Specialists who can work with on-the-ground staff in any of our destinations to handcraft itineraries that let travelers connect with their family heritage in whatever way they wish.
For more information, call MIR at 111-111-729 or email [email protected].
(Top Photo: Joanna helps her younger sister during one of their many visits to the zoo; the zookeeper’s villa, now open for prearranged tours; Photo credits: Joanna Millick)
PUBLISHED: April 4, 2017