The Zabinski Foundation

A brand new WordPress website for a foundation dedicated to protecting and projecting the legacy of Jan & Antonina Zabinski
A WordPress website utilising the Vast theme

The story of leading to the Zabinski Foundation is one of extraordinary bravery, decency and humanitarian spirit at enormous personal risk in the most challenging circumstances possible.

The largely accurate portrayal captured in Diane Ackerman’s book and subsequent 2017 Hollywood movie, The Zookeeper’s Wife, reached millions. But a great many more remain completely unaware of the extraordinary tale of personal heroism, bravery and human kindness that took place within the grounds of Warsaw Zoo during World War II, and their enormous legacy and lessons for wider humanity in rescuing more than 300 people, mostly Jews smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto, at enormous personal risk.

The mission of the Zabinski Foundation is to protect and project the legacy and the lessons of the wartime deeds of the Zabinskis in Poland and internationally, focusing on the restoration of the villa and its establishment as a fittingly world class educational exhibit and monument to humanitarian duty, including building an extension to the villa for educational, profile building and fundraising activities.

Other goals of the foundation include a campaign to change the name of the zoo to the Zabinski Warsaw Zoo, and to support and partner with other organizations, nationally and globally, aimed at uniting humanity and honoring humanitarian deeds, including the eventual launch of an annual Jan & Antonina Zabinski award for humanitarian achievement.

“Because it was the right thing to do”

Even fewer are aware that the little zookeeper’s villa at the centre of the story, in the middle of the Warsaw Zoo, still stands today. A powerful but hidden and relatively neglected symbol of human unity and shared purpose, cared for over the years by a small group of people associated with the zoo and with the Zabinski family, on something less than a shoe-string budget.

The newly established Zabinski Foundation aims to restore the villa to a world class museum, educational centre and beacon of humanitarian hope and kindness.

Co-founder of the Warsaw Zoological Gardens, and its director from 1929, Dr Jan Zabinski was highly regarded in zoological circles for developing the institution into one of Europe’s most celebrated and diverse zoological gardens, and lived an idyllic life with his wife Antonina and their young son Ryszard in the zookeeper’s villa, where their daughter Teresa was born during the war. The couple had met at the Warsaw University’s Institute of Zoology and Antonina shared Jan’s passion for animals, and was also a recognized author of children’s books.

During the years of German occupation in Poland, the Warsaw Zoo became a place of hiding for many Jews and other minorities from The Warsaw Ghetto with a certain death sentence. The Żabińskis’ modern-style villa, located on the ZOO grounds and known as “The House Under the Crazy Star”, was used as a perfect hideout. The secret “tenants” were hidden in the attic, the bathroom and a built-in wardrobe, when danger was announced they could escape the villa through a specially built tunnel that led from the basement to the garden. Approaching danger was announced to the “tenants” by a pre-arranged musical piece. An accomplished pianist, Antonina would play the piano in the drawing room of the villa, which was performed on her grand piano located in the living room of the Villa – it was a piece from Offenbach’s operetta La belle Hélène entitled “Go, go to Crete!” and Chopin when it was safe, among a series of coded messages to maintain the highly organized conspiracy.

At the outbreak of the war in 1939 they were thrown into the role of protectors of the zoo’s history, knowledge bank and community, but in the ensuing bombardment of Warsaw they were forced to kill many of the animals, largely for public safety reasons, and eventually to turn the zoo into a pig farm to provide food rations for the occupying forces. Some of the most valuable animals were transported to zoos in the Reich for “safe-keeping”, including public favorite “Tuzinka”, only the 12th elephant to be born in captivity and the first in Poland.

Responsibility for the pig farm, and the subsequent allotment garden following the pig farm’s closure due to a dysentery epidemic, together with Jan’s appointment as Superintendent of the city’s public parks – as well as Jan’s less public role as a lieutenant in the underground Home Army – provided the Zabinskis with the access, networks and pretext to smuggle Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto and provide them with refuge in the villa’s basement and in abandoned animal enclosures around the zoo. Some stayed for months, some for only a few days, as the Zabinskis helped to arrange counterfeit papers and safe houses for the fugitives to transit to. All crimes for which they and their whole family would have been summarily executed.

All but two of the people they were able to help survived the war. And despite the occupying forces having a munitions store within the zoo grounds under constant surveillance, they also managed to conceal a weapons store for the underground Home Army there for eventual use in the Warsaw Uprising in which Zabinski himself participated, and was taken as a prisoner of war after being injured and captured.

Returning to Warsaw in 1945, Zabinski eventually resumed his duties and the couple set about rescuing what remained of the zoo’s assets and rebuilding it, officially re-opening the zoo in 1949 and continuing to live with their children Ryszard and Teresa in the little villa in the middle of the zoo grounds until 1951.

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