Jan Żabiński: The zookeeper who saved hundreds of lives during WWII

The Żabińskis villa turned into a museum commemorating their lives. Kalbar/TFN

Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina created a series of secret hideouts at Warsaw Zoo where Jews fleeing Nazi Germany’s death squads could seek shelter.

Using their villa located in the Warsaw Zoo as a cover, they helped people and animals alike, protecting them from the horrors of WWII.

Warsaw Zoo, which turned 100 in March this year, was established in 1928. Largely thanks to the efforts of Jan Żabiński, a physiologist and zoologist, who became its director in 1929.

In 1939 the zoo, which was immensely popular with Warsaw residents and visitors from further afield including abroad, was bombed. Many animals were killed by the explosions while those that survived, such as lions, had to be put down to avoid them running loose in the streets.

Seeing their life work destroyed, Jan joined the resistance as a Lieutenant. Keeping an open house, with friends, relatives and even Germans coming and going allowed them to hide their more clandestine activities.

Visitors can see the tunnels those escaping the Holocaust hid.

Under the guise of looking for pig food (they were keeping them in the zoo for meat), Jan would enter the ghetto and help Jews escape. Once out of the ghetto, they would were taken to the Żabiński’s villa were they would hide.

To warn them of approaching Germans, Antonina would play Offenbach’s ‘Beautiful Helen’ as a signal to hide and Chopin when the coast was clear. This system allowed them to save and give temporary shelter to almost 300 people.

In August 1944, he took part in the Warsaw Uprising where he was captured and taken to Germany as a prisoner of war.

After the war the Żabińskis began rebuilding the Zoo, but Jan was forced to resign as director.

The Communist authorities refused to allow a former member of the Polish resistance, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), to hold a public post. Jan continued his educational pursuits as a professor at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences and a host of widely popular radio programmes.

He died in Warsaw at the age of 77.

Antonina Żabińska warned the hiding Jews playing the piano.

The villa where they lived still stands in Warsaw Zoo and was turned into a museum commemorating their lives and accomplishments.

Visitors can see the piano Antonina played and the tunnels those escaping the Holocaust hid.

The story of Antonina’s and Jan’s ingenuity and heroism was portrayed in the 2017 movie “Zookeeper’s wife” starring Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh.

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