Friday, February 24, 2012

Antonina Żabiński: The Zookeeper

Antonina Żabiński lived with wild animals in her own house and asked herself why "animals can sometimes subdue their predatory ways in only a few months, while humans, despite centuries of refinement, can quickly grow more savage than any beast?"  Anyone to ask this question, though in her diary, deserves a spotlight, as she treated her animal friends as humans and saw humans more beastly and barbaric than animals.

With her husband Jan, Antonina Żabiński owned and managed the Warsaw Zoo.  She had a way with animals that even when she was a child, animals calmed themselves around her.  Everyone she met said she was infectious; she knew how to read animals (though to a lesser extent people), and she knew how to keep liveliness in a time of complete disaster by playing piano, inspiring laughter, and keeping care of everyone she knew and didn't know.

It was Antonina's strength that, during Jan's absence as a POW, allowed her and their son Ryszard ("Rys") to live at the zoo and in hiding during the winter when they were starving. She did what she could to not only feed herself and her son, but also feed others.  The bombing of Warsaw brought destruction to much of the zoo, releasing many of the animals into the streets, only to be gunned down by Nazis.

When Jan returned, they had acted like nothing happened at the zoo, feeding the animals like normal.  They were treated with respect, as Hitler and the Nazis had a fascination with animals and back-breeding to bring the Aurochs out of extinction.  But soon they found that one who they thought to be an ally led Nazis into the zoo to go on a multi-day exotic hunting spree with the sounds of dying animals filling the air.  She could only salvage so many animals.

Though Jan respected his wife as an equal, he never told her, nor allowed her to think she was intelligent in any way, in fact, quite foolish, as she had faith in everyone...that they were inherently good and trustworthy.  He admired her way with animals, though.  It was this allowance as an equal that led Antonina to become a ring leader in the Underground movement that led to the safe passage of Jews out of Warsaw and hopefully into safety.  Even in the face of adversity, with Germans residing on her property beside a house full of guests, Antonina handled the Nazis with great fortitude.  When her son set fire to the German encampment in the zoo, Antonina quickly covered the tracks and blamed it on the careless Nazi soldiers that lay with women in the hay when approached by a swarm of soldiers investigating.

Antonina died in 1971, but not before she and Jan were recognized Righteous Among the Nations, a recognition of being a Jewish WWII hero, by Yad Vashem on September 21, 1965.

Read Diane Ackerman's The Zokeeper's Wife to be enthralled by her thoughts and experiences during WWII in Warsaw and the Warsaw Zoo.

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