Before World War Two, Warsaw had a population of over 350,000 Jews who constituted about a third of the city’s population. The community was the largest in Poland and Europe, and the second largest in the world, outdone only by New York City. But when Soviet troops liberated the city
in 1945, only about 11,500 Jews survived, almost all of them sheltered by Poles on the Aryan side of the city who risked their lives to follow the dictates of their conscience. Two such Poles were Dr. Jan Zabinski and his wife who hid Jews in cages and buildings of the Warsaw Zoo.
By the 1930s, the Warsaw Zoo was one of the biggest in Europe, although it didn’t stay that way much longer. With the Nazi invasion of Poland, extensive areas of the zoo were flattened by bombs and many animals perished and escaped. After the Germans occupied Warsaw and persecuted Jews, Zoo Director Dr. Jan Zabinski invested as much effort to saving Jews as to saving his zoo. At first, he entered the ghetto under the pretext of caring for trees and a small park in its precincts and helped Jewish acquaintances. After the situation in the ghetto worsened, he and his wife Antonina began hiding Jews on the zoo grounds until the Jews fled somewhere else. Few animals were left. After the German invasion, the distinguished biologist Professor Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo had arrived in Poland to send the most valuable survivors to German zoos, solemnly promising that they were only taken on loan.
As the Zabinski couple saved Jews, Heck busied himself looting Polish cattle and horses to try and recreate extinct ancestors of modern cattle and horses. His theory was that a species was not really extinct so long as all its genes survived in modern counterparts, and the results of his work are existing breeds of Heck cattle and Heck horses, which have a physical resemblance to the old species. Modern biologists say that it is all nonsense — the Heck animals may look somewhat like old breeds, but they are by no means their genetic equivalents.
Testimony to Compassion
Years later in 1962, war survivor Irena Meizel wrote a letter of their heroism to Yad Vashem, explaining why the couple deserved to be included among those the organization lists as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
In later years, Zabinski explained why he had no animosity to Jews and endangered his life to help them.
“I do not belong to any party, and no party program was my guide during the occupation… I am a Pole, a democrat,” he said. “My deeds were and are a consequence of a certain psychological composition, a result of 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.”
As a member of Poland’s clandestine Home Army, Zabinski took part in the Polish uprising of Warsaw that began on 1 August 1944 when the weak rebel forces relied on the Soviet military, standing at the city’s doorstep to move into Warsaw within a few days and finish the job. For one reason or another this never happened and the rebellion was violently suppressed. Some historians believe that the Red Army’s lack of support was a calculated decision by Stalin, for had the rebels triumphed, the Polish government in exile would have legitimacy to reinstate its own government rather than accept a Soviet regime. Zabinski was taken as a prisoner to Germany after the collapse of the uprising while his wife remained behind and continued helping the few Jews left in the city. Between the German invasion, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the Polish Uprising, 85 percent of Warsaw was razed by the war’s end.
“From the moment the uprising began in the Jewish quarter, Dr. Zabinski and his wife began to help a few of the besieged people,” she wrote. “When the situation ‘on the other side of the wall’ became more dangerous, Dr. Zabinski, with exceptional modesty and without any self-interest, occupied himself with the fates of his prewar Jewish suppliers of milk and vegetables, and whatever was necessary for the zoo. He occupied himself with the fates of different acquaintances as well as strangers who needed his help. He helped them go over to the Aryan side, provided them with indispensable personal documents, looked for accommodations, and when necessary hid them at his villa or on the zoo’s grounds. These people did not always have what was considered ‘the right looks,’ but this did not influence his decision to protect them. His home became a transit station for a whole procession of people — rich and beggars.”
By “right looks,” Irena meant that concealing people with obviously Jewish features was far more dangerous than helping those of Aryan appearance. Moshe Tirosh, another Jew the Zabinskis saved, recalled how they dyed his family’s hair squirrel red in an attempt to disguise their Jewish appearance. In consequence, after the family left the zoo after a couple of weeks, the Polish Underground nicknamed them the Wiewiorki (squirrels).
Meizel described some of the dangers the Zabinskis incurred by sheltering the city’s Jews.
Jewish Shareholders of the Berlin Zoo
In contrast to the Zabinski’s humane utilization of the Warsaw Zoo, Professor Lutz Heck’s Berlin Zoo willingly participated in Nazi persecution of German Jews. The story surfaced recently thanks to the efforts of Werner Cohn, a retired sociology professor from Brooklyn who spent years finding out what happened to the Jewish shareholdings in the zoo bought after the incorporation of the Berlin Zoo in 1845. In 2000, Cohn reported the results of his investigations in a letter titled, “A Report to Former Jewish Berliners with Claims against the Berlin Zoo.”
“You may wonder why I don’t say ‘former Jewish stockholder’ here,” he wrote. “Our Zoo stock was confiscated and transferred to new ‘Aryan’ owners in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. But this transfer was illegal and therefore invalid. So in fact we are still owners of this stock, not ‘former owners.’”
“I am now in touch with about twenty former Jewish Berliners, all of whom remember visiting the Berlin Zoo in their childhood as Aktionare, i.e. owners or children of owners of Berlin Zoo stock shares,” he continued. “On the books of the Zoo corporation, all of us appear to have been stripped of our property. Moreover, we twenty are obviously a very small portion of all those similarly affected.
“The most important dates for the confiscation of our Zoo property are the following: November 12, 1938, when Jews were barred by the government from entering public places like the Zoo, and December 1938, when Jews were no longer allowed to own stocks and bonds in Germany.”
Up to then, the only information Cohn had received from the zoo was that his father’s share became the property of a Mr. Ferdinand Kallmeyer on August 13, 1938. Another Jewess found that her family’s stock had been transferred to a Mr. Martin Plesse on April 5, 1940. A zoo appointed lawyer, Dr. Richard F. Lehmann, had insisted in a letter to Cohn that the sales of the shares were enacted “weder druck, noch zwang, noch notigung,” with “no pressure,
“When the uprising in the ghetto broke out, a whole family of a well-known Warsaw lawyer moved into the first floor of Dr. Zabinski’s villa,” she said. “One of the family’s daughters was mentally ill, and more than once did Dr. Zabinski have trouble with her. One Sunday morning, as I was visiting them, the girl had an attack, and while the person who took care of her wasn’t watching, jumped out of the window. It was a summer afternoon, and the zoo was filled with people. Needless to say what terrible consequences this could have had for the other three people who were hiding in the apartment, as well as the doctor’s family, had one of the visitors to the zoo noticed the bedlam.”
“All of Zabinski’s rescue efforts were implemented with extreme modesty and quiet, but the results were significant,” she concluded. “It has to be mentioned that Dr. Zabinski was earning money for the upkeep of his family (a wife who was far from being healthy and a young son) by giving clandestine private lessons.. ..He didn’t take a penny from those he took care of, and did not allow them to give him any gifts, such as meat, sugar or flour – most expensive items in those days.” compulsion, or duress” and that the zoo never discriminated against Jewish stockholders.
But Zoo Director Hans Fradrich admitted later that old records included 180 clearly Jewish names and that “a conspicuously large number of stock sales did indeed take place in 1939. This suggests forced sales.” Despite this, zoo CEO Hans-Peter Czualla was unrepentant at a meeting of the administration held in October 2000. He complained that billions had already been paid to the Jews, “and now, when even the forced laborers are paid for damages, this Mr. Cohn, who has nothing better to do in his retirement, feels called upon to chime in with demands.”
“I want to look ahead, not always backward,” he said. “Even for the crime of murder there is a statute of limitation.”
After all, he pointed out, the present day zoo was nothing to do with the one the Jews had financed. Everything was destroyed during the war: “The Zoo that you see today, no Jewish citizen has contributed anything to it. It was rebuilt by the new generation. I say this without pathos and without pride. It is simply a fact.” Some eleven years later in 2011, Cohn enjoyed a small moral victory when the zoo agreed to set up a plaque by the zoo’s old Antelope House commemorating the Jewish shareholders of the zoo expropriated during the Nazi era. But it refused to offer a penny of compensation.
Cohen wasn’t satisfied.
“The zoo now is willing to talk about its own Nazi period, but in the years from 1945 to 2002 — a 57-year span — it sought to cover up this history, repeatedly lying to inquiring former stockholders like myself,” he said. “It adds insult to injury at this stage. It took nine years to do this, but far worse, it took more than 50 years to realize there is even an issue. They behaved so badly.”
In contrast, based on the testimony of Jewish survivors, Zabinski and his wife were listed among Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations on September 21 1965.