"People and Animals" is the story of a place where animals had people’s names, and people were disguised with animal nicknames. This place was the Warsaw zoo during the Second World War and the German occupation. Its founder and director, Jan Żabiński, and his wife Antonina, née Erdman, saved about three hundred Jews brought out of the Warsaw ghetto. Until a better refuge could be found for them, they hid them in empty animal cages, underground tunnels and other hiding places, finally in their own villa, which stood within the grounds of the zoo, which had been destroyed by German bombardments in September 1939. Once the surviving animals had been requisitioned, it had been changed into a piggery, a fox farm and allotments. In 1965 the Żabińskis were awarded Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Among Nations” medal.
This occupation-era adventure was described by Diane Ackerman in her book, "The Zookeeper’s Wife", which reached number thirteen on the "New York Times’" list of bestsellers. These memoirs (first published by Mrs Żabińska in 1968) cover the period from 1939 to 1949, and describe the destruction of the zoo, efforts to save it, and finally its post-war rebuilding. They give us an extremely interesting picture of the daily life under occupation of two people who had quite frequent brushes with death and who always carried vials of cyanide on them. The services rendered by the Żabińskis, who had two children, were only a small part of their resistance activities. Their house was an underground contact point and also served as a hiding place for weapons and people involved in the resistance movement. As a Home Army soldier, Jan Żabiński also fought in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, was wounded and ended up in German captivity. Antonina remained with the children on the right bank of the River Vistula – the last few months of the war in particular were rich in a series of dramatic episodes, including the time when some SS-men staged the murder of her small son before his mother’s eyes. But it was just a joke, and the victim was little Rysio’s pet cockerel... As well as stories about people, these memoirs by Mrs Żabińska – who was just as eminent a biologist as her husband, and was a precursor of animal psychology – also include lots of tales about the favourite household pets in this “Noah’s Ark”, as one of the refugees who hid there, Rachela Auerbach, called the Żabińskis’ home. Antonina Żabińska also wrote several children’s books, the heroes of which were the creatures in her care.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Antonina Żabińska (1908-1971) was the author of books about animals and wife of the director of Warsaw Zoo from 1929 to 1950. In 1965 she and her husband were both awarded the title “Righteous Among Nations”.
By a strange twist of fate it was thanks to our friendship with the Tenenbaums that we met someone who indirectly and not entirely knowingly helped us to have more regular contact with the ghetto.
The beginning of this story caused me palpitations. One Sunday in the summer of 1941 I saw a German limousine outside our house. Out of the limousine came a German in plain clothes, who rang the doorbell and moments later entered the dining room.
“Does the former director of the zoo live here?”
“I am Ziegler. How jolly it is here!” he said, pointing towards the study, where the piano was frantically belting out a couplet from La Belle Hélène, “Au pays cretain”. It was a signal that informed all the “illegal persons” that they should get into their hiding places, because danger was approaching.
“Oh, yes, ours is a musical home... We love Offenbach.”
“A pleasant, but shallow composer,” replied the German. “Though one must admit the Jews are generally very talented.”
We glanced at each other: where was this heading? What did he want?
“You will be surprised,” he began, surely noticing our confusion, “but I have authorisation from Doctor Tenenbaum to inspect the insect collection that is located here.”
Another split second went by, but what a painful one! Something had to be said at once in answer – in a natural way, without giving the man cause to think we were afraid of a subterfuge on his part.
“Yes... Professor Tenenbaum did leave his collections with us when he moved into the ghetto.... we have a dry room, central heating... you understand: in a cold, damp place they could be ruined.”
“I know that very well – I myself am an entomologist, though more of an amateur. Here I serve as manager of the Jewish Arbeitsamt. I am being treated by Doctor Tenenbaum, and I often see her husband, the professor... I sometimes take him out of the city by car... he looks for his insects in roadside ditches. He is a very learned man.”
We listened in amazement. Was it provocation? But to what end? He could take away the collections whenever he liked anyway. Irena Tenenbaum, the professor’s daughter, had risked her life to bring them to us. Eight hundred glass cases are impossible to hide. Incidentally, the collections survived: before the Uprising we took them to the museum on Wilcza Street, and in 1946 Miss Tenenbaum bequeathed them to the Zoological Institute... So we invited Ziegler to view the collection.
Once he had got his hands on the exquisitely beautiful beetles and butterflies, the manager of the Arbeitsamt forgot about the world outside.
“Wunderbar! Wunderbar!” he muttered. “What a collection! How much work has gone into it! And now...” he shook his hand, clenching his fingers slightly, and on his pink, smoothly shaven face a look of disgust appeared.
But we were still staring at him in disbelief.
“The doctor asked to be visited... I could perhaps arrange that, but...” he broke off. We guessed what he was thinking: he was taking a risk, it was rather a delicate matter. But Jan instantly took up this very hesitant proposal: it would be truly excellent if Ziegler would take him to the ghetto right now, because he needed to see the Tenenbaums to get advice on how to protect a box of insects that was growing mouldy. And making a deliberately naive face, Jan showed Ziegler his pass into the ghetto, so there would be no doubt he wanted to go there by a legal route. The German’s courtesy would be limited merely to taking him there by limousine. After a moment’s hesitation Ziegler agreed, and they drove off.
Only later did I understand what Jan was thinking. The building on the corner of Leszno and Żelazna Streets, where the so-called Arbeitsamt for Jews was housed, had a gateway on the Aryan side. It was permanently shut, but there was no sentry from the Gestapo or the Wehrmacht guarding it. There wasn’t even a Polish policeman posted there; the building’s caretaker simply opened the gate for Arbeitsamt officials who did not want to walk through the ghetto on their way to the office or going home from work. Taking advantage of this lucky coincidence, in other words Ziegler’s company, Jan had decided to do a bit of reconnaissance and find out if this route could help him to implement a plan he had been mulling over ever since the future fate of the ghetto had become clear to all.
The limousine drove up to the Arbeitsamt, from the Aryan side of course, the chauffeur hooted the horn and a door in the gateway immediately opened. Jan went through it at Ziegler’s side, warmly and lengthily expressing his thanks to him, which elicited a polite response from the slightly surprised Ziegler, though he already had one foot on the first step of the stairs leading to the offices; the caretaker on the other hand spent the whole time watching them both with curiosity. Jan drew this moment out for as long as he could, suddenly getting into insurmountable difficulties in choosing the right German words, putting in Polish words out of the blue, and finally asking the increasingly impatient Ziegler whether in case of further problems with the collections he would be allowed to report to him by this route. Without guessing the meaning of this game, Ziegler agreed and said to the caretaker: “Please let this gentleman in whenever he comes to see me,” after which they went upstairs together, where Ziegler showed Jan the way to his office and the way into the ghetto.
However, Jan did not run off to Orla Street to see the Tenenbaums. He hung around in the dirty Arbeitsamt rooms for a while, among a crowd of down-and-outs; then he went downstairs, and in the gateway on the Aryan side he hailed the caretaker, wanting him to remember him well, and in a confident tone told him to open the door for him.
Two days later Jan hammered on the gate, and in the same tone told the caretaker to let him in, which he did with a humble bow. Naturally, Jan had no business with the manager of the Arbeitsamt, went through a different stairwell, got into the ghetto and visited the Szymons there, to whom he gave a precise account of Ziegler’s visit to us, and asked them what they thought about the German’s unusual behaviour. As he had some very serious dental problems, he had started going to Doctor Leonie Tenenbaum for treatment; so not only had he found himself an excellent dentist, on top of that he had all that long-term care for free. In any case, while possible, we had to take advantage of his entomological zeal.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones