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Heroic Zookeepers

Saved hundreds of lives

Jan and Antonina Zabinski were Warsaw zookeepers who put their business and their lives on the line to protect Jews after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.

Passionate animal lovers, Jan and Antonina met in the 1920’s at Warsaw University, where they were both studying Life Science. They married and bought the elegant but rundown Warsaw Zoological Garden in 1929. The Zabinskis stocked their zoo with exotic animals, and by 1937, the Warsaw Zoo was a popular destination for tourists from all over Europe. Jan and Antonina loved the zoo animals so much that they would often care for sick ones in their own home.

In 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Much of Warsaw including the zoo was bombed. Many of the Zabinskis’ beloved animals were killed and others, including celebrity elephant Tuzinka, were taken to Germany. Jan had many Jewish friends and former colleagues, and when the Warsaw ghetto was established in 1940, he began making clandestine visits to the ghetto to help Jews escape. Jan and Antonina sheltered twelve Jewish refugees in their own villa on the zoo grounds. As more and more Jews escaped the ghetto, they came to the open-hearted zookeepers for help.

With no more room in their home, the Zabinskis refused to turn any Jew away. They began hiding Jewish refugees in zoo cages that were left empty after the animals were taken by the Germans. Jan and Antonina fed and cared for hundreds of Jews. They procured false identity documents and helped them find more secure places of refuge.

Jan was an active member of the Polish underground, and in 1944 he was arrested and taken to a prison camp in Germany. Antonina continued caring for the few Jews still left in Warsaw. Thankfully, Jan survived and in 1949, the Zabinskis re-opened the Warsaw Zoo.

They were honored by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. Jan visited Israel and planted a tree on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

For using all their resources and creativity to save the lives of over 200 Jews, we honor Jan and Antonina Zabinski as this week’s Thursday Heroes.

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