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Born: March 24, 1977
Sacramento, California, USA
Birthplace: Warsaw, Poland
Born: May 11, 1967
Wilrijk, Flanders, Belgium
Born: April 8, 1897
Birthplace: Warsaw, Poland
Death: July 26, 1974, Warsaw, Poland
Born: June 16, 1978
Barcelona, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain
Born: April 23, 1892
Birthplace: Berlin, Germany
Death: April 6, 1983, Berlin, Germany
Born: January 6, 1983
Magdalena "Magda" Gross
Born: January 18, 1891
Birthplace: Warsaw, Poland
Death: June 17, 1948, Warsaw, Poland
Born: March 22, 1981
Birthplace: Warsaw, Poland
Born: March 31, 1978
Ceské Budejovice, Czechoslovakia
Death: November 1941, Warsaw Ghetto, Poland
Prior to and during WWII, Antonina's husband Jan was the director and organizer of the Warsaw Zoo, one of the largest zoos in Europe at the time. He was a zoologist and zootechnician by trade, in addition to being a scientist and an author of books about biology and animal psychology. During the occupation of Poland he also held the title of superintendent of the city's public parks from 1939-1945. His job with the parks gave him the opportunity to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to inspect the flora there, while at the same time connecting with prewar Jewish friends and colleagues to help them escape.
The Zookeeper's Wife true story reveals that Antonina Zabinski was a teacher and respected author who published children's books about animals. She also had an affinity for the piano and painting. She assisted with the day-to-day operations at the zoo, including caring for the animals. During the occupation, she and their young son Ryszard fed and cared for the fleeing Jews who they had given shelter to at the zoo. Author Diane Ackerman drew in part from Antonina's diary for her book on which the movie is based.
Author Diane Ackerman based her book largely on Antonina Zabinski's diary (memoir), which Ackerman discovered during her initial research. Antonina's memoir was published in 1968 under the title Ludzie i zwierzęta (People and Animals). Diane Ackerman's Zookeeper's Wife book is filled with quotes from Atonina's diary and loose notes, in addition to quotes from the interviews and postwar testimony of others. There is currently no English language version of Antonina's diary, but Ackerman's book includes plenty.
Yes. In researching The Zookeeper's Wife true story, we learned that the Nazis' September 1939 invasion of Poland and bombing of Warsaw left much of the zoo destroyed. In her book, Diane Ackerman describes the damage to the zoo in grave detail, stating, "The sky broke open and whistling fire hurtled down, cages exploded, moats rained upward, iron bars squealed. . . . Wounded zebras ran, ribboned with blood, terrified howler monkeys and orangutans dashed caterwauling into the trees and bushes, snakes slithered loose, and crocodiles pushed onto their toes and trotted at speed." She goes on to describe the shocking sight of two giraffes laying dead on the ground with their legs twisted, and the sound of birds and monkeys screeching in a chorus of madness. Surviving animals fled from burning cages and some were burned to death. One reason that the zoo was targeted was due to a Polish anti-aircraft battery being located nearby.
Yes. The real Lutz Heck was the renowned director of the Berlin Zoo and a prewar colleague of Jan Zabinski. Supported by leading Nazi member Hermann Göring, Heck set out to eliminate animals the Nazis deemed racially degenerate, much like the Nazis' plan for humans. His ultimate goal was to use selective breeding to resurrect extinct purebred animals. Through this "breeding back," Heck created breeds of horse and cattle, which were later termed "Heck horse" and "Heck cattle." Though Heck believed these horse and cattle were nearly identical in phenotype to certain extinct species, today they are not seen as a successful resurrection. -WashingtonPost.com
Yes. According to Diane Ackerman's book, Lutz Heck first promised the Zabinskis he would protect what little remained of the Warsaw Zoo. However, in a moment of drunken revelry on New Year's Eve, he and his SS buddies murdered some of the animals for sport. In fathoming how Heck, a zookeeper himself, could kill these animals, it is believed that he did so in order to impress and win favor with the higher ranking Nazis. In her diary, Antonina commented, "How many humans will die like this in the coming months?" Other animals, including one of the Warsaw Zoo's main attractions, Tuzinka the elephant, were taken to German zoos, with the best and rarest animals taken for breeding purposes, including for Heck's plan to "resurrect" extinct purebred species. -WashingtonPost.com
They managed to help approximately 300 men, women and children, both partisans and Jews. Most were seeking refuge as they attempted to flee Nazi-occupied Warsaw and the German-Soviet occupation of Poland. Like in The Zookeeper's Wife movie, Jan personally smuggled some of them out of the Warsaw Ghetto himself and over to the Aryan side. He would provide them with papers, find accommodations for them, and if necessary, hide them on the grounds of the zoo or in his own personal villa with his family. To smuggle them into the zoo, he would hide them in barrels and cover them in garbage intended for the pigs.
His wife Antonina would help to protect them. In one instance, she attempted to dye a family's hair blond in order to hide their black hair that could reveal they were Jewish. However, their hair turned out brassy red, which led the family, the Kenigsweins, to be given the code name "Squirrels." -JTA.com
Yes. Antonina used musical code to communicate with her Jewish guests. She played "Go, Go to Crete!" to indicate that danger was close and to remain quiet, and another tune to let them know that the danger was gone. -JTA.org
Yes. The real Zookeeper's Wife, Antonina Zabinski, wrote about this moment in her diary. A German soldier barked an order at a 15-year-old assistant at the zoo and disappeared with him behind the house. A shot was heard and the soldier re-emerged and yelled at Antonina's son Ryszard, "You're next!" As he took Ryszard behind the house, Antonina began to tremble with fear. Another shot rang out and the soldier returned with the two boys and a dead chicken. "We played a nice trick on you," the soldier said laughing.
They sheltered escaping Jews and partisans for roughly three years, offering help to approximately 300 people. They saved them from starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto and eventual deportation to Nazi death camps.
Yes. In August and September 1944, Jan Zabinski fought alongside fellow members of the Polish underground as part of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) in the Warsaw Polish Uprising. During its suppression, Zabinski was captured and taken to Germany as a prisoner. His wife Antonina and son Ryszard (whose name means lynx in Polish) continued the efforts to give shelter to and care for the hidden Jews. Like in The Zookeeper's Wife movie, Jan survived the Nazi prison camp and eventually reunited with his family. In 1968, the state of Israel honored both Antonina and Jan as "Righteous Amongst the Nations." -TheBlaze.com
Jan was a natural risk-taker who was raised around Jews and knew many. He was courageous and able to keep his cool. Regarding his motives, he wrote, "I do not belong to any party, and no party program was my guide during the occupation... My deeds were and are a consequence of a certain psychological composition, a result of a progressive-humanistic upbringing, which I received at home as well as in Kreczmar High School. Many times I wished to analyze the causes for dislike for Jews and I could not find any, besides artificially formed ones." -YadVashem.org
His wife Antonina, portrayed by Jessica Chastain in the movie, was very much the opposite. She was high strung and often fearful, in part because her parents had been killed by the Bolsheviks and she knew the realities of political violence all too well. In The Zookeeper's Wife book, author Diane Ackerman reasons that Antonina's love for animals and her ability to see all life as precious led to her wanting to do whatever she could to help save lives. Despite her fears, she could not turn her back on suffering. This is emphasized later when she recalled the evening when the Kenigswein family showed up at the zoo looking for help. "I looked at them with despair; their appearance and the way they spoke left no illusions. … I felt an overwhelming sense of shame for my own helplessness and fear." -Polscy Sprawiedliwi
Learn more about The Zookeeper's Wife true story by watching the documentaries below. The videos are filled with footage and images chronicling the German invasion of Poland, the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, the role the Warsaw Zoo played, and the ghetto uprising.