On Location at the Home of The Zookeeper’s Wife in Warsaw, Poland

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 The Zookeeper’s Wife, a film based on the book by Diane Ackerman, itself based on the memoirs of Antonina Zabinska, the zookeeper’s wife.

Hazardous ChoicesIt’s a story about the hazardous choices that ordinary Poles had to make during the Nazi occupation. Antonina Zabinska and her husband Jan Zabinski, keepers of the zoo in Warsaw, chose to smuggle Jews from the crowded and filthy Warsaw ghetto, where they were surely doomed, into the zoo to hide them and help them seek a safe haven for the rest of the war.

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.

SanctuaryBeautifully filmed (though unfortunately in picture-perfect Prague, rather than the gritty, down-to-earth Praga district of Warsaw where the story unfolded), The Zookeeper’s Wife conveys the harmony and safety of the zoo before it was bombed, and the extension of that precarious safety to the human beings who passed through, hidden like animals in the tunnels and abandoned cages.

Righteous Among the NationsOn September 21, 1965, Jan Zabinski and his wife, Antonina Zabinska were recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel,

“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

Closer to HomeMIR’s resident expert on Jewish heritage in East and Central Europe, Joanna Millick, is well aware of the honor that being named Righteous Among the Nations bestows. In 2016, she was instrumental in helping writer Karen Treiger find the Polish farmers who chose to care for her husband’s parents as they hid from the Nazis in the woods near their home.

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.

Joanna’s ZooJoanna says that the Poles didn’t really hear much about the Zabinskis until Ackerman’s book was translated into Polish in 2009, although Antonina’s memoirs were published there in 1968. Joanna grew up in Warsaw, and even with a reputation as someone with a passion for learning about the Holocaust in Poland, she had never heard of these heroic people until she read the book.

“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.”

Zabinski’s villa at Warsaw zoo. Photo: Joanna Millick

Zabinski’s villa at Warsaw zoo
Photo: Joanna Millick

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.”

Joanna's nieces enjoying a fun summer day at the zoo Photo: Joanna Millick

Joanna took her nieces to the zoo to enjoy a fun summer day as she used to do
Photo: Joanna Millick

What Would You Do?The question that arises watching The Zookeeper’s Wife is the inevitable one: What would I do if this happened in my neighborhood? Would I pass the test? Would I risk my own life, and the safety of my family, to help strangers escape? To resist, like the Zabinskis? To continuously come down on the side of the outcasts of society?

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 zookeeper's villa at Warsaw Zoo Photo: Joanna Millick

The zookeeper’s villa at Warsaw Zoo
Photo: Joanna Millick

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 800-424-729 or email privatejourneys@mircorp.com.

(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

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3 thoughts on “On Location at the Home of The Zookeeper’s Wife in Warsaw, Poland

  • Mary Beth

    I start reading The Zookeeper’s Wife last year,but never finished it. I thought it was fine film. Thank you for the history, Mariana!

  • Judith Litchfield

    My 2017 tour with the Holocaust Center for Humanity, Seattle WA to Warsaw and Krakow Poland was the journey of a life time, mainly due to Joanna Millick, who is not only an expert guide but also opened rare and meaningful experiences to us that we wouldn’t have had with local guides. She was part of the tour family. The quality of the trip was of the highest quality. Judy L., Portland OR