A VILLA OF LIFE
On a basement wall there are written surnames like inscriptions in a prison cell: generations of Polish Jews – Aszer, Gross, Hirszfeld, Keingswein, Kramsztyk, Tenebaum….Saved by the married couple Antonina and Jan Żabińscy during the Second World War from German felons who respected animals from the zoo more than people
The Warsaw zoo was opened on the left side of Praga in 1928. Indeed from the XVI century the capital city could boast about its zoos, but not earlier than in the third decade of XX century did it gain a classical zoo. The manager became its creator, a biologist Wenanty Burdziński. After his unexpected death, the management of this place was taken over by a young graduate of the Main School of Agriculture in Warsaw and Warsaw University Jan Żabiński. Interests and knowledge as well as a dozen years of everyday work caused that the Warsaw zoo had become popular and respected before the war all over Europe. The zoo, in acknowledgment for great achievements of its director, was granted the role of a host of the International Associations of Zoos in the year 1940.
Double life of the zoo
The outbreak of the war destroyed the young zoo. Some animals were killed during bombarding. Others ran away into the city centre and had to be killed. Some of them were taken for cooking. Rare species were transported away by German occupants under the leadership of Hitler’s friend, a director of the Berlin zoo prof. Lutz Heck. The manager of the zoo Jan Żabiński resigned from his duty in the villa in the zoo, in order to fight on the frontier. However, when the Żabińscy couple with their ten-year-old son moved the house again, to fulfill their duty, the villa and its surroundings started ‘living a double life’.
The zoo quickly became a popular place among German walkers. In 1940 the breeding of pigs began, and for the workers of the zoo greengrocers were built. It was known to public. Whereas, in the villa of Antonina and Jan Żabiński started hiding the Jews. Vegetables were grown mainly for them and the constant hustling work around the villa was to protect them. The Żabińscy couple were hiding not only the Jews but also the National Army soldiers sought after by Gestapo. As one person from people hidden there said – the villa became Noah’s ark for nearly 300 people. For some of them it was a phase in further journey, for others – a time of living there for a few years. People hiding there were nearly everywhere – not only in the undergrounds of the villa, but also in rooms on the ground and the first floor, from where it was easy to ‘disappear’ in a situation of a danger. It was possible to get to deserted animals cages or caves through the underground tunnel. Thanks to the cooperation of the manager Żabiński ( a lieutenant of the National Army and an officer of Kedyw) with ‘Żegota’ and arranging a job of the green conservator in ghetto, he had an excellent possibility of contacting with the Jews. Under the allegation of providing the pig farm with wastes, he could also arrange food for a few dozen hiding Jews, without raising any suspicion. Thousands of people were engaged in this or a different kind of help. However, the main burden of duties connected with everyday functioning of the hidden people – cooking for them, doing the washing, and sometimes providing them with food – belonged to the wife of the manager Antonina, and also to his sister Hanna Petrynowska who was a doctor of ‘a medical centre and hospital’ for asylum seekers. The events in the villa ‘Under a crazy star’, as it was called so then, were described in the memories of Regina Kenigswein, hiding there with her husband and child, as well as Diane Ackerman in her book ‘Asylum. A story about Jews hidden in the Warsaw zoo’.
A warning aria
In the villa there were many hidden people known to the Żabinscy family before the war, as well as protégés by ‘Żegota’. Among them lawyers, sportsmen and a prominent sculptor Magdalena Gross-Zielińska who had even a small workshop in the basement of the building for a few months.
Thanks to priests’ help, the hidden people had false birth certificates made. Also cells of the National Army provided asylum seekers with false documents. They often went to villages with them or to other cities of occupied Poland at that time. Every day the Żabińscy couple and they guests were , however, exposed to danger of de-conspiracy, especially that in basements babies lived with their parents and their cry was easy to hear. And German lovers of zoo liked, often unexpectedly, visit the Żabińscy couple to talk about animals with them – either at a fireplace, in searching for the home atmosphere – or sometimes to listen to a concert of Mrs. Antonina. They were willing to walk around the villa. In such situations, a signalizing function was done by a fragment of the aria from ‘Beautiful Helen’ by a prominent Jewish composer Jakub Offenbach. For people hidden in rooms of the villa, it meant a necessity to go down to the basement. The fragment of the aria ‘Go to Crete’ alarmed about the highest degree of a danger. Another signal was a musical work of Chopin meaning that the danger had gone.
Memory about the place and people
After the war, despite his merits for hidden Jews, communists dismissed Jan Żabiński from his post of the manager in 1951. But those who were hiding there during the war, did not forget about heroism of Antonina and Jan Żabińscy. In 1965 the married couple received the medal ‘A just person among the nations of the world’ from Jews. President Lech Kaczyński rewarded them with Commanders’ Crosses of Poland Rebirth Order after their death. Whereas, a few years ago, from the initiative of the managers of the Warsaw zoo, the Panda foundation and the Association Warsaw Monopoly, as well as foundation ‘From the Depths’ it was decided to give back historical character to the villa of the Żabińscy couple and made it available for visitors. So, basements from the war time were made accessible, as well as rooms on the ground floor where both hosts and hiding people had lived. In the reconstruction children of the Żabińscy couple helped. Today, although in the villa there are very few original equipments from the war time, some efforts were made to reconstruct the atmosphere of the last epoch. A production designer Izabela Chełkowska took care of it. – There are still some books of the manager who spoke a few languages fluently – says Olga Zbonikowska from the Panda foundation. – A desk standing in the first room was the one at which Jan Żabiński had used to work. We also managed to reconstruct his favourite study-room. There is also a collection of insect of Mr. Żabiński’s friend, Szymon Tenenbaum, a prominent Polish entomologist of the Jewish nationality, who died in the Warsaw ghetto. His wife and a daughter survived, being hidden in the villa. Before he was arrested in the ghetto, Tenebaum had brought 800 showcases to the villa – a valuable collection of half a million of specimens of invertebrates. After the war, these collections, according to the husband’s wish, were given by Eleonora Tenebaum-Krajewska to the Zoology Museum of the National Science Academy in Warsaw. We also managed to collect self-portraits of the manager Żabiński. For, he was a talented cartoonist. There are even self-portraits made in the camp in which he was after the Warsaw Uprising. Among various souvenirs we also have a few original documents, a business card of the manager, postcards, letters to the family from Germany….However, first of all, reconstructing the villa ‘Under the Crazy Star’, we wanted to help people realize the enormity of the work of mercifulness which had been done by Antonina and Jan Żabińscy, facing the German cruelties.