Antonina Maria Żabińska

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Antonina Maria Żabińska (Erdman)

Birthplace: Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation
Death: March 19, 1971 (67)
Warszawa, Warszawa, Mazowieckie, Poland
Place of Burial: Warszawa, Warszawa, Mazowieckie, Poland
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Antoni Edmund Erdman and Maria Erdman
Wife of Jan Franciszek Dionizy Żabiński
Mother of Private and Teresa Irena Zawadzki

Occupation: pisarka
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Antonina Maria Żabińska

By Aviva Lori

Tags: Nazis, Warsaw Zoo

WARSAW - Kasia the elephant was killed by a shell. Her daughter, Tuzinka, was orphaned, but remained alive and well. Some of the monkeys and antelopes were killed by rifle fire; the others scattered across the city. The chimpanzee and the exotic birds disappeared. One giraffe was shot to death. The seals escaped, though it is not clear to where. Camels, llamas and deer wandered along the banks of the Vistula River. The silver foxes and the badgers were not found. Carcasses of donkeys and ponies lay along the road. The stench was intolerable.

Antonia Zabinska saw it all on September 15, 1939, two weeks after Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Arriving at the entrance to the Warsaw Zoo, she managed to persuade the sentry guarding the entrance to let her in. Long afterward she remembered vividly that terrible day on which she found her kingdom in ruins.

Jan Zabinski, her husband, was the director of the Warsaw Zoo, which covered some 75 acres in the Praga district, on the right bank of the Vistula River. He and his wife lived in a commodious villa on the zoo grounds. Between 1940 and 1944, they sheltered - in both their home and in animal cages - about 300 Jews and Polish underground fighters. It was the good fortune of the "guests," as they were referred to, that the lions and bears and other beasts of prey were no longer in their cages. The only creatures left were lynxes, small birds, pheasants, peacocks, a few monkeys and some foxes - animals that were not overly perturbed by the proximity of human beings.


The Zabinskis executed their private rescue project like a well-planned military operation, under the noses of the Germans, who stationed an army unit in the zoo. "We arrived there at the end of 1942, after we were smuggled out of the ghetto and managed to hide," relates Moshe Tirosh (Miecio Kenigswein), who now lives in Carmiel, and was five at the time. "My sister and I lived in the basement of the villa, where the offices were located, and Mother and Father hid in the cages of the pheasants and the monkeys. The Zabinskis' son, Ryszard, brought us food. He competed with his mother over who would bring us more food."

Ryszard Zabinski still lives in Warsaw. His home is a modest fifth-floor apartment in a building with no elevator, which is part of a group of stylized buildings with charming inner courtyards that survived the war. "It's good for the heart," Zabinski, a pensioner of 76, says about climbing the stairs, in a phone conversation. He remembers the Kenigswein family well. "We called them squirrels," he laughs. "My mother didn't want them to stand out, so she decided to bleach their hair blond. She shut the whole family in the bathroom and poured bleach on their heads, but their hair came out completely red, and I said to Mother: 'Oh, they look like squirrels,' and that became our code word: 'Take food to the squirrels,' 'We have to move the squirrels.'" Tirosh, though, says that credit for the nickname belongs to him. "I remember that I was the one who came up with the nickname, after I saw what we looked like."

The "squirrels" were not alone. Everyone who was sheltered in the villa received the name of an animal and was thus addressed by the others. Zabinska hid between seven and 12 people at a time in her home in addition to those in the cages. In the center of the living room was a grand piano on which the "fox man" (Witold Wroblewski) played every evening. And when Zabinska herself played "Go, go, go to Crete," from Offenbach's opera "The Beautiful Helena" - that was a signal for the illegal guests to slip away quickly to their hiding places and maintain total silence.

Jan Zabinski was born in Warsaw in 1897 to an affluent family. His father was a notary public and his mother came from a family of landowners. Totally by chance, the Zabinskis lived in a poor Jewish section of Warsaw. In the school Jan attended, one of the first secular gymnasia in Warsaw, 80 percent of the students were Jews. "Father treated the Jews as equals," says his daughter, Teresa Zawadzki, who was born in 1944 and lives in Denmark. The friendly relations between Zabinski and the Jews were strengthened during his military service in World War I, when he was a university student (he had a Ph.D. in philosophy), and afterward at Warsaw's College of Agriculture, where he specialized in zoology and was a lecturer. It was also there that he met his wife, Antonina Erdman.

She was born in St. Petersburg to a Polish family. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Antonina was still a little girl, and she was raised by her aunt. Her father was a railway engineer in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and when she was about 14 she joined him there. He had married a Russian woman in the meantime, but they were both murdered on the street by a gang of revolutionaries. Good people took Antonina in and brought her to Warsaw at the end of the 1920s. At first she taught music and then worked as a secretary in the College of Agriculture. There she met Zabinski, a popular teacher, newly widowed and the director of the zoo. They were married within a year (Zabinski had a son from a previous marriage, who died at 15 from cancer). In 1931, Antonina Zabinska entered her private paradise, which she refers to - in "People and Animals," her book of memoirs, published in 1968 (in Polish) - as "my green kingdom."

The zoo housed some 1,500 animals. The director was proudest of the extremely rare wild Polish Przewalski horses, of which there were only about 100 in the world. In 1932, a lynx ("rys" in Polish) was born in the zoo, and the Zabinskis decided to give that name to their son.

"Mother was always surrounded by animals and loved them very much," Zawadzki recalls. "When she was pregnant she treated a pair of lynxes, and when my brother was born it was clear that this was what she would name him."

In addition to his academic education, Jan Zabinski attended the Academy of Fine Arts, painted, played the piano and wrote many books. "He was a person of very broad horizons, a Renaissance man," his son says. Antonina was also a writer, publishing children's books about animals.

'Ghost kingdom'

Antonina Zabinska's green kingdom was devastated by the Germans, and in its place came a new "ghost kingdom." Regina Kenigswein (Moshe Tirosh's mother) called her hiding place "Noah's ark."

Jan Zabinski was called up for reserve duty in the Polish army when the war erupted. Because of his age, 42, and the general chaos that prevailed in the battered army, he was discharged within a few days and returned to his home in the zoo. Antonina treated the wounded animals and her husband joined the Polish underground fighters (the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army), which took its orders from the government-in-exile in London.

The zoo was a paradise for underground activity, an ideal place to hide weapons. Zabinski devoted thought and effort to ensuring that he retained control over the large area, whose obscure corners were familiar only to him and his wife. At one point, Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo and a former friend of the Zabinskis, paid a visit to the occupied city. He carried an order to transfer all the living animals to Germany. "My friends, please think of your animals as a loan, and immediately after the war I'll return them to you," he told Antonina, assuring her they would get excellent treatment. She didn't believe a word, but was in no position to bargain.

Jan Zabinski, who wanted to stay in control of the vacated zoo grounds, persuaded Heck to use the site as a pig-breeding farm for sustaining the troops of the Third Reich stationed in Warsaw. According to testimony Zabinski gave after the war in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, he envisaged the possibility of smuggling food to his friends in the ghetto.

A few days later, the Germans brought trucks to the zoo and loaded the surviving animals. The elephant, Tuzinka, was taken to the zoo in Konigsberg, the camels and llamas to Hannover, the hippopotamuses to Nuremberg, the rare horses to Munich, and the buffalos, zebras and lynxes to Berlin. Heck supervised the work personally. He also brought with him a few drunken friends, and they all went on a hunting expedition in the zoo. They shot most of the remaining animals in cold blood, all the while joking raucously. In her book, Zabinska describes the bloodcurdling scene: "It was a bright, beautiful winter day, and Ryszo [nickname for her son] wanted to go out to play, but I made him stay in. I sat in his room and read him 'Robinson Crusoe.' 'Mother, look what a lovely day it is,' he said. 'Why won't you let me go out?' Then the shots were heard. 'Mother, Mother, what does it mean? Who is shooting?' I stared at the open book, unable to utter a word. At that time I did not yet know how many people were in for a similar fate."

Along with his underground activity, his daughter notes, Jan Zabinski taught in the "flying university" - part of a network of secret institutions of learning that constantly shifted their venue. "The whole idea was to lead as normal a life as possible," she explains.

The pig farm in the zoo began to operate in March 1940; the animals were fed with leftovers from restaurants and hospitals, and from garbage Zabinski collected in the ghetto. He could enter the ghetto on the basis of a permit he received from the municipal authorities because of his new task: general supervisor of the public parks in Warsaw. Even though the ghetto had nothing for Zabinski to "supervise," he was able to move about there freely. This marked the onset of the large-scale smuggling ring in which he played a key role.

In the summer of 1940, Zabinski got a phone call from a member of the underground. He was to expect Jewish "guests," who needed shelter for a transition period, until they could regain their strength and move to another refuge after being provided with false papers. That was the beginning: The Zabinskis' home gradually filled up with more "guests," both Jewish and non-Jewish, who were on the run.

Jews of German origin with Aryan features were housed in the villa and presented to the housekeeper - whose sympathy for Jews was dubious - as distant relatives. Jews with dark hair and eyes were moved to the basement or into cages. Antonina created an illusion of constant gaiety. Large numbers of people came and went, and guests were invited deliberately for meals and musical evenings. She believed that only openly, amid a general hubbub, would it be possible to shelter those in need.

One of Jan Zabinski's friends from school was Dr. Szymon Tenenbaum, a well-known entomologist and the headmaster of a Jewish gymnasium (high school), who had a collection of thousands of rare insects. Before he and his wife and daughter were forced into the ghetto, he entrusted the collection to Zabinski, who kept it in one of the villa's rooms.

"One day in the summer of 1941," Zabinski writes in her book, "a limousine pulled up in front of the house and a German civilian got out." She went to the living room and started to play the agreed passage from "The Beautiful Helena" while the housekeeper opened the door for the German. He entered, looked around in amazement and said, "How cheerful it is here." He introduced himself as Ziegler, the official in charge of work arrangements in the ghetto, and added that he was fond of insects. "Tenenbaum sent me," he said. "He asked me to have a look at his collection, which you have here." Jan Zabinski showed Ziegler the collection. The German, moved to tears, said, "Tenenbaum would like you to visit him."

Zabinski took advantage of the moment and suggested to Ziegler that they proceed immediately to the ghetto to see Tenenbaum. Many lives would be saved as a result of that trip. The entrance to Ziegler's office was through the gate of a building that abutted the ghetto and had a Polish guard. As Zabinski entered, he chatted loudly in order to impress the guard with his closeness to Ziegler. The next day he returned and called to the guard from a distance to open the gate. He entered, wandered about a little, and left by the same route. The result was that he gained regular access to the ghetto. More important, this was also a way to bring Jews out. In each case, the Polish guard received a modest sum of money as a token of appreciation and to keep him from getting suspicious.

Then, one day, the moment of truth arrived. To test the guard's reaction, Zabinski had left the ghetto in the company of a well-dressed individual with proper papers. The guard hardly batted an eyelash. Zabinski was certain that this was the way to get Jews out of the ghetto. However, on the fourth or fifth occasion, the guard wanted to know the identity of the other person. Zabinski pretended to be angry, but to no avail. The guard was adamant. Zabinski took out a false certificate of the national parks authority, which bore the name of the man accompanying him, and the embarrassed guard opened the gate.

Rescue acts

One of his better-known acts of rescue involved Tenenbaum's wife, Lonia, a dentist, who remained alone after her husband died at the end of 1941. Zabinski entered the usual way, but when he returned, now with Lonia, the Polish guard's wife was at the gate and did not want to let them out. Zabinski tried to explain calmly that he entered and left the ghetto every day, that he came to see Ziegler, that the woman's husband knew him. Nothing helped. Finally he raised his voice, Antonina relates in her book, and shouted, "Do you want me to go upstairs and have Ziegler take the trouble to come down? That could cost you dearly." At this the old woman opened the gate, though still reluctantly. But that was not the end of the story. Standing across the road were two German policemen. Lonia froze and wanted to run, but Zabinski grabbed her, bent down nonchalantly, picked up a cigarette butt, intertwined his arm in hers, and very slowly started to walk in the opposite direction.

Getting people out of the ghetto required great resourcefulness, Zawadzki says. "Years later, Lonia told me that she had almost died of fear when Father, right in front of the German soldier, stopped deliberately and lit a cigarette. You have to be a great psychologist in order to understand the psychology of the enemy. After all, they could not imagine that someone who was in flight would do something like that."

Why did Zabinski rescue Jews? According to his daughter, "It was obvious that he would help. He had friends and acquaintances among the Polish intelligentsia, among them many Jews, and it started from that. He told me that there was never any question of whether to help. It was simply a matter of basic decency. One must be decent. He always said that."

In the summer of 1942, the Catholic writer Zofia Kossak-Szczucka established Zegota, a group of Poles who operated within the framework of the underground Home Army, with the declared aim of helping and rescuing Jews. According to Holocaust researchers, Zegota rescued about 28,000 Jews in Warsaw alone (though Prof. Yisrael Gutman, in his book on the Jews of Warsaw, says the number was fewer than 20,000). Members of Zegota knew Zabinski, some of them from before the war, and they were aware of his underground activity in the zoo. They referred fugitive Jews to him and gave him money for their upkeep.

One such activist was Prof. Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who was honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial institution in Jerusalem, as Righteous Among the Nations and twice served as Poland's foreign minister: "I was in the same class as Zabinski's son, the one who died of cancer. I remember we went a lot to the zoo, which was a big attraction for us, and so we got to know his father and his [Jan's] wife, Antonina. After my friend died, we were less in contact. I knew nothing about Zabinski's activity during the war. There was compartmentalization in all the underground organizations. Anything and anyone we did not have to know, we did not know. People did not reveal what everyone did, because it was better not to know. I learned only afterward what Zabinski did. A very close friend of mine, the journalist and writer Rachel Auerbach, told me about it at length when I visited Israel in the 1960s. She was the liaison between the Jewish National Committee and Zegota."

In the winter of 1942-1943, the following people were given shelter in the villa and on the zoo grounds: Irena Mayzel, the Kramsztyk family, Ludvig Hirszfeld, Dr. Roza Anzelowna, the Lemi-Lebkowski family, Mrs. Poznanska, Lonia Tenenbaum, Mrs. Weiss, the Kellers, the writer and translator Marysia Aszer, the journalist Rachel Auerbach, the Kenigsweins, the sculptor Magdalena Gross, Maurycy Fraenkel, Irena Sendler, Eugienia Sylkes, Dr. Anzelm, Dr. Kinszerbaum and others.

That winter, the Germans decided to forgo the pork project at the zoo in favor of a fox farm. The pelts, they reckoned, would warm the German troops on the eastern front, and what was left over could be sold in aid of the war effort. Jan Zabinski was absolutely delighted. He was allowed to remain in the villa. Witold Wroblewski, a Pole, was appointed head of the new project and nicknamed "the fox man." At first he lived in a hut next to the foxes, until one evening he came to the villa, smelled the fresh bread, and told Antonina that he was staying over. She cleared out the old office for him and "the fox man" became a permanent tenant of the villa. The Zabinskis were suspicious of him at first, but it soon became apparent that he supported their cause.

One evening in December 1942, a knock was heard on the door of the home. Ryszard ran to open it. Standing there was Regina Kenigswein with her two children, a 5-year-old (Miecio) and a 3-year-old. Kenigswein was the daughter of a wealthy man named Sobol, who supplied the fruit for the zoo animals before the war. Zabinska relates in her book that when she saw them standing there, tears welled up in her eyes and she ushered them in immediately. Early in the morning, before the arrival of the housekeeper, a secret place for them to sleep had to be arranged. In the first days they slept in the lions' den and then they were moved to the basement of the villa, where they stayed for two months. In the meantime, Zabinski brought Samuel Kenigswein, Regina's husband, out of the ghetto. He was given a warm sheepskin coat and a pair of boots, and he slept in a small wooden booth in the pheasants' cage.

Samuel Kenigswein was a boxer who had represented Poland in international competitions. In the Warsaw Ghetto he was active building bunkers and obtaining food and arms for the uprising. "Before the start of the uprising," his son, Moshe Tirosh, relates, "Father told Mordecai Anielewicz [commander of the Jewish Combat Organization in the ghetto revolt] that he could not stay because he had to save his children and his wife. At first we found shelter on the Aryan side, in return for a great deal of money that Father paid. We lived in their kitchen, and when someone approached we hid in a niche in the wall. We stood there for hours, pressed up against one another ...

"My father came up with the idea [of going] to the zoo, to Jan Zabinski, and asking him to shelter us. Zabinski agreed. They were very nice to us, but they had an anti-Semitic housekeeper. Antonina thought that if she bleached our hair blond we would be able to stay, but it came out red and we had to leave." The Kenigsweins survived the war and had two more children afterward. Samuel Kenigswein died in 1948; his family immigrated to Israel in 1957 and settled in Acre.

'A nice trick'

At the beginning of August 1944, the Polish Home Army launched a revolt in Warsaw, inflicting heavy losses on the Germans during 63 days of fighting. The Germans searched high and low for members of the underground. One day a German patrol entered the zoo. The soldiers ordered everyone outside and made them stand with their hands up. Ryszard Zabinski remembers his mother raising one hand while holding his baby sister, Teresa, in the other.

"They looked for the rebels there," he remembers. "There were shots in the shrubbery. Our villa always raised suspicions - it stood isolated in a huge park. Mother ran a farm with chickens and rabbits. I remember a soldier from the patrol, who must have wanted chicken soup, telling me to go into the bushes and grab a chicken. I went behind the house and tried to catch one, but I couldn't. He followed me to see what I was doing, and when he saw that I wasn't able to catch the chicken he took out a pistol and shot it."

Antonina Zabinska gives a completely different account in her book. One of the Germans, she relates, seized the young assistant of "the fox man," a boy of 15, and barked an order at him to go behind the house. A short while later a shot was heard. Zabinska remembers the shock that gripped them all. A few minutes later, the German screamed at Ryszard, "You're next," and took him behind the building. Again a shot rang out. Zabinska recalls the blood draining from her face and her legs beginning to tremble. A minute or two later, the German appeared holding a dead chicken by the legs. It left a trail of blood on the path. The two children straggled along behind him. The Germans burst out laughing and said, "We played a nice trick on you."

Ryszard describes how as a boy, he was constantly being told to keep things secret or simply to be quiet. "It was explained to us that we were not allowed to talk to anyone or tell what was going on at our place. But when I look back on it now, it wasn't so terrible. I was completely aware of what was going on and about the fears and dangers - but life was actually interesting."

Did the fact that he was Jan Zabinski's son help him after the war? "It was one big headache," he says, explaining that people always expected more of him: "In school they were always telling me, 'How do you, Zabinski's son, dare to behave like that?'" His sister, though, recalls the family connection as being a great honor: "In the 1950s that name always meant something to people. Everyone knew who he was."

Jan Zabinski was wounded in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. A bullet entered his neck, slashed through vital organs and exited from the other side. Everyone was sure he would die, but he recovered and was taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, from where he returned in October 1945. Toward the end of the war the zoo was shut down and Antonina Zabinska and her two children, along with "the fox man" and the foxes themselves were sent to Germany. On the way, she managed to escape with the children and reached a village, where they remained until the end of the war. Her money ran out quickly, and the Jewish National Committee, which somehow heard about her situation, sent Rachel Auerbach to help her.

After the war the Zabinskis decided to reestablish the zoo. They renovated the grounds and the villa and collected new animals. The official reopening took place in 1949. Zabinski was reappointed director. However, in 1951 he resigned. "His self-respect did not allow him to continue," his daughter explains. "All kinds of party officials wanted him to hire their cronies, and he could not accept that. He remained supervisor of the public parks for another two years, and we stayed in the villa until 1953. After that we left the zoo for good."

Jan Zabinski worked in education, wrote more than 50 books, and had a popular radio program about animals. On October 7, 1965, in a modest ceremony at Yad Vashem, he and his wife were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. They received a certificate and a gilded medal from the State of Israel. A tree was planted in their name on the grounds of the memorial institution to signify their rescue operation in the Holocaust. Jan Zabinski actually attended the ceremony, having been invited by those he rescued, who settled in Israel after the war. In interviews he gave to the Israeli press at the time, he explained: "It was not an act of heroism, just a simple human obligation." Antonina died in 1971, and Jan, three years later.W

About Antonina Maria Żabińska (Polski)

Antonina Maria Żabińska, z d. Erdman (1908-1971) – polska pisarka, przez męża Jana Żabińskiego związana z Ogrodem Zoologicznym w Warszawie. W 1965 roku otrzymała wraz z nim tytuł Sprawiedliwej wśród Narodów Świata. Wikipedia PL

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Antonina Maria Żabińska's Timeline

July 18, 1903
Saint Petersburg, Russian Federation
March 19, 1971
Age 67
Warszawa, Warszawa, Mazowieckie, Poland
Age 67
Cmentarz Powązkowski, Warszawa, Warszawa, Mazowieckie, Poland