Walking in the Footsteps of the Zookeeper’s Wife

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Ever visited a country with so much history that it gives you the chills? Guest contributor, Susan Guillory from The Unexplorer, recently traveled to Poland where she had an incredible experience exploring the former home of the Żabińskis, guardians of the Warsaw Zoo during the Holocaust, whose story was turned into the book and movie, The Zookeeper’s Wife.

Imagine going about your life, working and playing, when suddenly everything changes. People you are friends with suddenly are forced to live in a designated part of the city. Soldiers flood the streets, and you become afraid to even look them in the eye. You witness such human indignancies, it takes all your self-restraint to keep from fighting against the system.

Żabiński Home Warsaw Zoo
The Żabiński villa sits on the property of the Warsaw Zoo.

This is what life was like for those who lived during World War II and the Holocaust, particularly in Poland.

This is what life was like for Jan and Antonina Żabiński, who cared for the Warsaw Zoo when things changed for the worse in the 1940s.

A True Animal Kingdom

I recently visited Poland on a media trip, and was privileged enough to tour the home of the Żabińskis, located on the property of the Warsaw Zoo. While I knew that there was a book and film out called The Zookeeper’s Wife, I was unfamiliar with the story.

Turns out, it was a pretty amazing one.

Żabiński Home Warsaw Zoo
Lions, tigers, and bears were popular attractions at the zoo.

Before they became known for their aid in rescuing Jews from Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto, they were innovators in the zoo world. The animals became their extended family, and a visitor to their home would be surprised to run into a badger, lynxes, or even a chimpanzee in the house.

Jan and Antonina had two children, who grew up with the zoo animals as their siblings. It would have been a beautiful life, but then the war happened.

Brave Beyond Measure

Most Americans know that Jews were horribly mistreated in Germany, but more than 3 million Jews were killed in Poland. In Warsaw, before they were trucked to concentration camps like Auschwitz, they were herded into part of the city designated for Jews only.

Living conditions were horrible. Dozens of Jews lived in tiny apartments. Many were forced into labor, and those who weren’t able to work were sent to the death camps.

But still, some citizens of Warsaw fought to make a difference. Jan Żabiński was one such man.

He managed to get access to the Ghetto, where he fought for the right to secure some Jews as labor for the zoo, which by that time had become a pig farm under German authority. Other Jews found their own means to escape, and sought sanctuary in the zoo. The Żabińskis hid Jews in empty animal cages and their own basement until they found a means to leave the country to safety.

Żabiński Home Warsaw Zoo
The piano where Antonina would warn the Jews in hiding of a Nazi soldier.

Whenever a German soldier happened by (which was fairly often once they occupied the zoo), Antonina would play a special song on the piano, which let everyone in hiding within earshot know to be silent.

In total, the couple saved about 300 Jews. A drop in the bucket, but still an accomplishment, given what they risked to do so.

Żabiński Home Warsaw Zoo
An escape tunnel from the basement of the villa that led into a bird cage in the zoo.

You can visit the Żabiński home and learn about their amazing story of bravery by appointment only. It’s a great way to spend a few hours on your next trip to Warsaw, Poland.

What a fascinating place to visit. Have you been to Poland? Come join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook. Or send us an email with your thoughts.

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