She was a homemaker. A mother. The zookeeper’s wife. In 1939, Antonina Zabinski was enjoying a happy life with her husband Jan, who was the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and their young son Rys. Together they cared for an array of animals, including baby lynxes, lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, monkeys, a cat, a badger, and a hamster. Antonina’s greatest joy was to spend time studying and understanding them, reading their behavior and body language, and learning their techniques for keeping their babies safe.
When Poland was overrun by the Nazi army in 1939, the zoo was damaged by bombs and gunfire. But Jan and Antonina stayed at their villa in the zoo as long as they were able, and became a part of the Polish underground. Jan kept on friendly terms with some of the Germans, knowing that they valued prized animal specimans such as they had in their zoo. When the Jewish citizens were confined to the ghetto area of town, Jan was able to smuggle food and fake ID papers in to them.
Antonina’s role was to keep the appearance of normalcy at the zoo, and make anyone who was spotted there appear to be a staff person or visiting relative. Over the course of the war, about 300 Jews were hidden in the zoo park until they were able to be smuggled out of the country. Whenever Nazi soldiers would come to the door, they were totally disarmed by her calm, nonchalant demeanor. She showed no fear, a skill she learned from the animals.
So it was that the Warsaw Zoo, imperfect and damaged as it was, became a sort of ark. Like the ark that was written of in the Bible, the zoo-grounds became a place of refuge for both humans and animals, a place where they lived side by side, waiting for the flood of war to go away. After World War II ended, Jan and Antonina were included in the Jewish list of “The Righteous Among The Nations”.
I listened to this book in audio form, and thought the narrator – Suzanne Toren – was fantastic. When she was reading a word-for-word quote from Antonina, she effortlessly broke into a strong Polish accent. There were many lengthy descriptive parts in the book, especially describing animal behavior and scenery. Some people may find this tedious, but once I became accustomed to it, it was enjoyable. This is not a book to rush through, but to savor.
A picture of Antonina Zabinski from: