The director of Warsaw zoo and his wife always carried cyanide during World War 2. Danger was everpresent but they were ready to take their secret to the grave.
The couple hid nearly 300 Jews and resistance fighters on zoo grounds during most of the war, under the noses of the German Nazis occupying Poland.
It sounds like a Hollywood movie, and now it is. But The Zookeeper’s Wife, which opens in Polish cinemas this week before rolling out internationally, is based on actual events.
Inside the zookeeper’s villa, whose windowless cellar had a secret tunnel leading to the garden, Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina gave refuge to the mostly Jews smuggled out of the city’s ghetto.
“I remember squatting under this concrete shelf in the basement and keeping my hand over my sister’s mouth to muffle her cries because she was constantly crying, day and night,” said Moshe Tirosh, aged five at the time. “When someone slammed the door upstairs, fear would pass through me, lest they find us,” the 80-year-old said.
The retired businessman and grandfather-of-seven, who has lived in Israel since 1957, still cannot believe what he lived through.
“I saw children’s dead bodies on the street. Terrible things . . . I remember wondering why everyone wants to kill us. I couldn’t understand it,” he said.
All but two of the zoo’s hidden guests survived the war and Nazi troops stationed on the bombed-out zoo grounds never unearthed the subterfuge.
“My parents figured that it’s always darkest under a lamppost,” the zoo couple’s daughter Teresa Zabinska said, citing a Polish saying, according to which it is best to hide in plain sight.
“My father knew that it wouldn’t occur to the Germans that so many people could be hiding in a place like this with open windows and no curtains,” the 73-year-old said.
Most hid in empty animal enclosures or the villa’s basement. Others were able to stay with the family upstairs by taking on fake identities as Antonina’s tailor or their son Ryszard’s tutor.
Between 1940 and 1944, nearly 300 people found refuge, some for just a few hours or days, but others remained months or even years.
“Around 30 people would stay here at once,” said Olga Zbonikowska, 38, who works for the Panda Foundation that takes care of the villa now.
Whenever a Nazi soldier got too close for comfort, Antonina would warn everyone by playing an operetta on the piano.
Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance centre recognised the Zabinskis as Righteous Among the Nations, a title bestowed upon non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust.