Diane Ackerman has skilfully woven Antonina Zabinska’s
writings about her time at the Warsaw Zoo before and during World War II into a
book that both terrifies and delights.
Antonina, her zookeeper husband Jan, and their son Ryszard, lived in a villa on
the zoo grounds.
“Each morning, when zoo dawn arrived, a starling gushed a medley of stolen
songs, distant wrens cranked up a few arpeggios, and the cuckoos called
monotonously like clocks stuck on the hour.
“Suddenly the gibbons began whooping bugle calls so crazy loud that the wolves
and hunting dogs started howling, the hyenas gibbering, the lions roaring, the
ravens croaking, the peacocks screeching, the rhino snorting, the foxes yelping,
the hippos braying. Next the gibbons shifted into duets, with the males adding
soft squealing sounds between their whoops and the females bellowing streams of
long notes in their ‘great call.’ The zoo hosted several mated pairs and gibbon
couples yodel formal songs complete with overture, codas, interludes, duets and
Warsaw’s first zoo came into being in 1927. Jan Zabinski had the good fortune to
be named director two years later. The Warsaw Zoo was selected to host the 1940
International Association of Zoo Directors’ annual meeting.
On Sept. 1, the hum of German bombers ripped apart life as the Zabinskis had
known it. The zoo stood on the banks of a river with a number of bridges that
became military targets. A Luftwaffe attack destroyed the polar bears’ mountain,
freeing terrified bears. When Polish soldiers found the panicky, blood-stained
bears, they shot them, and then proceeded to kill other dangerous animals who
might escape – lions, tigers and a male elephant.
When her husband is sent to the front, Antonina is left to work with a few
keepers to care for the animals. Sympathetic restaurant owners and housewives
shared leftovers and vegetable and fruit peelings to help the remaining animals
The occupation government decided that Warsaw no longer needed a zoo. Lutz Heck,
a colleague and director of the Berlin Zoo, visited them, promising protection
in Berlin’s zoo to some of their animals and leniency for the rest.
Heck was obsessed with resurrecting three pure-blooded, extinct species:
Neolithic horses (forest tarpans), aurochsen (the wild forbearers of European
cattle) and the European or forest bison.
He believed he could selectively breed existing animals to create ones that more
closely resembled the extinct ones that caught his fancy. The animals he chose
all thrived in Poland –some in the Warsaw Zoo.
Not trusting Heck’s promises, the Zabinskis understood their zoo was lost. They
offered a proposal: using the remaining buildings to house a pig farm. They
hoped the German need to feed soldiers would make the idea acceptable. Even
more, they hoped the arrangement would be approved because the Germans needed
food for soldiers, but it would also give cover to resistance work and allow
them to aid friends and acquaintances in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Having the farm allowed Jan to go regularly into the Ghetto to collect scraps
for the pigs. It also allowed him to carry notes and small packets of food.
Jan had an affinity for Jewish people. His atheist father had sent him to the
only school in Warsaw that didn’t require studying religion. About 80 percent of
the students there were Jewish.
The shell of the zoo provided a place for Jews in hiding and on the move to
rest. Ones who could blend in with Poles received false papers and moved onward.
Others spent years at the zoo. Some of these guests stayed in the villa where
the Zabinskis lived; others stayed in the empty cages where animals had once
been. A flow of legal guests – uncles, aunts, cousins and friends – came often
and randomly, helping to camouflage the hidden ones. In all, they were able to
save more than 300 doomed people.
This book contains heart-wrenching scenes of inexplicable cruelty to animals.
But it also soars on wings of great courage and kindness.
© Jeannette M. Hartman, 2010