Commemorating Bravery: Opening up the Warsaw Zoo that saved Jews during the Holocaust

The new exhibition is dedicated to the story of the Zabinski's, a family of righteous gentiles during World War II.

Warsaw Zoo Villa - From The Depths and CJP
Seventy years ago in Warsaw’s Zoo, a remarkable act of bravery took place. During the darkest days of the Holocaust, with anti-Semitism eating away at the previously thriving Jewish community, professor Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonia risked their own lives and the lives of their two young children to do the unheard of - taking in, giving shelter to and providing food for over 300 Jews in the zoo.
Zabinski was a professor of biology and an author who had many popular books about the natural world. He was allowed entry to the ghettos because he was a municipality worker, and he used this fact to help his Jewish friends. When the situation worsened, he smuggled Jews to safety. According to testimonies, the zoo acted as a fast track to refuge in which the Jews were assisted with acquiring documents, finding more permanent accommodations, and making travel plans. Many families lived in the abandoned animal habitats for as long as they needed until they could find better, longer term hiding places. In addition, close to a dozen Jews were sheltered in Zabinski's two-story private home on the zoo's grounds. Some might say the zoo acted as a modern day Noah’s ark.
From the Depths, a non-profit organization that uncovers and celebrates the history of Eastern European Jewry, is an umbrella organization for an initiative called the Matzeva Project. The Matzeva Project has helped to preserve over 1200 cemeteries in Poland. The project uncovers gravestones, or “Matzevas” and finds Jewish stories often hidden in structures of towns and villages. These stories are brought to light and presented to those who may or may not be culturally aware. “The project aims to heal the painful wounds that have been made in Poland, by directly involving people and social groups. The project also has a didactic function, which helps the discovery and acknowledgement of this part of traumatic national history. The objective of the project is to go beyond the trauma, through building common ground of collective memory and understanding on a large scale,” says the website
“Our focus is on two things, understanding prewar Jewish Diaspora, and understanding the Holocaust and what’s to be learned from it. We see the importance in uncovering individual stories of those murdered, those who survived, and those who acted in heroism,” says Jonny Daniels, founder and CEO of From the Depths.
This zoo will be the first museum that group tours can visit that isn’t a ghetto or a death camp. Its intention is to share the history of the Zabinskis and other righteous gentiles, and encourage students to look up to the righteous gentiles as role models. That encouragement will promote a generation of people ready to take action and do the right thing. In a video made by From the Depths and the Matzeva Project, Daniels says, “So many people come to Poland and see such unfortunate things. We see the Nazi death camps; very rarely we have the opportunity to come to a place where something good happened, to come to a place of positive history. For me, this place bears so much importance. The story isn’t as well known as it could be.”
“In terms of our generation, we need to do a lot more then we are doing now. I’m 29 years old and our generation is the last generation that will have the opportunity to meet survivors of the Holocaust and the righteous gentiles. Our children won’t have the opportunity to meet the Holocaust survivors, they won’t have them coming to their high schools. They won’t meet them on the street, there won’t be any more in their synagogue. There for, it falls on our generation to stand up and become the witnesses of the witnesses,” says Daniels.
“We need to make sure that we, through social media, share this story with the world,” Daniels says.