New museum pays tribute to Warsaw zookeepers who saved Jews
PR dla Zagranicy
Journalists have been given a sneak preview of a new site which commemorates Polish righteous gentiles, the former villa of Jan Żabiński, a director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife Antonina, where up to 300 Jews were sheltered during World War II.
Thoroughly refurbished, the building has been turned into a museum and contains numerous photographs, books and personal memorabilia of the Żabiński family, as well as the renovated cellar in which the Jews were kept and an underground tunnel through which they could escape to an abandoned pheasant enclosure.
The exhibits include the grand piano on which Antonina Żabińska played an arrangement of Offenbach’s La belle Hélène to warn the Jews of approaching Germans and using this musical code ask them to be quiet. Another tune indicated that the danger was over.
The official opening of the museum in the Żabiński house, which was dubbed ‘Villa under the Crazy Star’ by the Jews themselves, will be held on Saturday night. It will be attended by 78-year-old Moshe Tirosh from Israel, who spent three weeks at the place as a boy of three and a half.
Tirosh is one of two living survivors among those whose lives were saved thanks to the heroism of Jan Żabiński and his wife. Their daughter and grandson will also be present. The museum will open to the general public in the first weekend of May.
Three months after the outbreak of World War II, Lutz Heck, the director of the Berlin Zoo who had professional contacts with the Żabińskis before the war, paid a visit to the Warsaw Zoo with the task of transferring all the living animals to Germany.
Żabiński managed to persuade him to use the site as a pig-breeding farm for sustaining the German troops stationed in Warsaw. The pigs were fed with leftovers from restaurants and hospitals, and from garbage Żabiński collected in the Jewish ghetto, which he could enter thanks to a permit which he received from the municipal authorities because of his new post of the general supervisor of Warsaw’s public parks.
In the summer of 1940, Żabiński, who worked for the Polish resistance, was asked to provide shelter for Jews for a transition period until they could move to a refuge place elsewhere. The Żabińskis hid between seven and 12 people at a time in their home in addition to those in the cages. After the war Jan Żabiński remained the director of the Warsaw Zoo but was forced to resign in 1951.
In later years, he worked as a lecturer, wrote books and made a career in broadcasting as the presenter of highly popular radio programmes about animals. In 1965, he and his wife received the Righteous Among the Nations medals from the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem. Antonina Żabińska died in 1971, and her husband three years later.
The story of the Żabińskis is the subject of the novel The Zookeeper’s Wife by American writer Diane Ackerman. It was published in the United States in 2007 and several years later in a Polish translation. (mk/jb)