Anna Żabińska


ryszard zabinskiDr Jan Zabinski was a zoologist, organizer and director of the Warsaw Zoo for many years, participant of the Polish – Bolshevik war, AK underground soldier, participant of the Warsaw Uprising, educator, writer of many popular science books and conductor of radio chats – between others – from the series :”Dr. Zabinski with microphone”, engaged in a program of saving and return of the bison to the nature, editor of the Pedigree Books of the Bison.

Jan Żabiński was born on April 8, 1897 in a wealthy Warsaw family. His father was a notary and his mother came from a family of landowners. After high school graduation he planned to study zoology in Belgium, but the break of WWI stopped him in Warsaw. He chose Industrial and Agricultural Courses. After that he decided to enter Warsaw University. His dream studies direction was, of course, zoology. He also became part of the Philosophy Department. He achieved a diploma in agronomy and zoology.

He made a doctorate in the second specialization – zoology, and after the war achieved a PHD. Initially he worked as an assistant, then as a lecturer at the department of General Zoology and Animal Physiology at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW). He also taught in Warsaw gymnasiums, and after the war – in State Owned Higher Education School. During WWII he lectured in biology and parasitology at the Department of Pharmacy and Dentistry of the secret Warsaw University.

Since childhood he liked and knew how to draw well, therefore he entered the School of Fine Arts, as he thought that the skill of drawing will be very useful for the work of a naturalist. Jan studied therefore the drawing techniques, and studying in the School of Fine Arts gave him something much more important. He met there outstanding artists, headed by Henryk Stażewski, with whom he was later in very close relationships through the end of his life.

In 1951 he was forced to resign his post of the Warsaw Zoo director.

After the resignation he worked as a scientist and a media worker, mainly in the Polish Radio. He gave some 1500 talks (since year 1926). He published more than 60 books of popular science. The most well known were: “Fight for the Bison”, Agreement with Animals”, “World of Animals” and the six-volume series “About the Life of Animals”.

He died on July 26, 1974 in Warsaw. He was buried on the Powazki Cemetery.


Antonina was a writer who debuted in 1934 with a short story “Diary of the Giraffe” published in the magazine “My Journal”. She was an author of cute stories about animals, like: “Jolly and Company”, “Female Lynxes”, “Badger”, and after the WWII – memories from those cruel times “Of Animal and Men”, or stories about life in the middle of a zoological garden “Our Home in the Zoo”.

Antonina was born July 17, 1908 in Petersburg, and died on March 19, 1971 in Warsaw. She was buried on the Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw. Her childhood was tragic. She became an orphan in an early age, as her mother Maria died of tuberculosis, and her father Antoni Erdman, who was a rail engineer in the Vladycaucasus Train Company, was shot by the bolsheviks. Her mother’s sister Jadwiga Biedunkiewicz raised the young Antonina.

In 1923, as a result of an agreement between Poland and Russia the possibility of repatriation arose, and Antonina decided to come to Poland. She studied languages and drawing, and finished also archives courses.

In late 1920s years she started to work as an assistant secretary at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW) and met there the lecturing zoologist Jan Żabinski. In 1931 she became his wife.


In 1929 Jan Zabinski won the competition for the post of the Warsaw Zoo director. Within a few years under his management the Warsaw Zoo became one of the most modern zoological gardens in Europe. Already in 1935 the foreign experts described the Warsaw Zoo as being at the highest worldwide level and meeting the very high worldwide standards of animal breeding. Under his management the Warsaw Zoo succeeded to breed lycaons and Przewalski horses. The crowning of Zabinski’s efforts was the birth of the elephant in 1937. Even today such an event would be recognized as a worldwide success. The female elephant Tuzinka (a name underlying the fact that it was only the 12th elephant born in captivity) until today is the only elephant born in Polish zoological gardens.

In Zabinskis’ home located at on the Zoo grounds animals wronged by fate were tended to and healing. Between the housed animals you could find female lynxes, cacadu, polar rabbit, a swine, musk rat, and a badger. As Jan used to say “ it is not enough to check the animals from afar – you have to live with them in order to know their habits and psychology”. Antonina supported Jan in caring for the animals and he used to say about her that “she has an inborn gift of keen and precise observations of the animals and that in an extraordinary way (especially as a non-zoologist) she is very capable in drawing the right conclusions from her observations. It seems sometimes that she is gifted with a sixth sense.”

The great development of the zoo was drastically cut by the WWII.


During the German occupation Antonina and Jan while risking their own life and the life of their young son Rys (Ryszard – born in 1932) were helping their close and not so close non-Aryan friends. They were hiding them in their own home, in the empty animal cages and in pavilions. They also were hiding weapons and ammunition. In the Zoo hideouts many times found shelter underground fighters performing sabotage of occupying forces installations who were under threat to be arrested.
The Zabinski Villa was one of the many transfer points for the ghetto fugitives. The Jewish guests were staying there mostly for a few days, and after that were moved to other hideouts which were more fitting for a longer stay.

It is extraordinary that all the people who were hiding in the Zabinski home and were lucky enough to live until the end of the war. They were: the sculptor Magdalena Gross, Leonia Tennenbaum, advocate Marceli-Lewi Lebkowski with daughters, advocate Maurycy Frenkel, Wanda Englert, Mrs. Weiss, Mrs. Poznanska, the Keller family, Jolanta Kramsztyk, Marysia Aszer, Rachela Auerbach, Genia Silkes, four members of Koenigswein family. Only two persons who were in the Zabinski home died: Rosa Amsel (Dr. Hirszfeld’s assistant) and her mother. After leaving the Villa they lived in a guesthouse at the Widok street, from which they were taken and murdered by the Gestapo.

An important element of the security system created by the Zabinskis was an alarm, which Antonina played on the grand piano when the Germans showed up in the vicinity or other guests who were not in the know. The alarm signal was the aria “Go, go to Crete” from Jacques Offenbach’s “Beautiful Helen” operetta. When that piece was played by Antonina the secret Villa tenants were hiding at the attic, in the bathroom, in the wall wardrobe or were going out through the tunnel leading from the basement to the garden.

Thanks to that the “Villa under crazy star”, as Zabinskis home was called by it’s secret inhabitants, was a secure asylum for the Jews and the conspirators until the break of the Warsaw Uprising.

The break of the Warsaw Uprising and the invasion of the Soviets into Praga forced Antonina Zabinska and her children: Rys and Teresa born in 1944, to leave the zoo and to evacuate themselves from Warsaw. At that time Jan, under the pseudonym “Franciszek” fought in the Warsaw Uprising. On August 9th, 1944 he was fatally wounded. After the surrender of the capital he was taken hostage. He returned to Poland at the end of 1945 and started to rebuild the devastated zoological garden. The Zoo was opened again in 1948.

In 1951 Jan Zabinski was forced to resign his post of the Warsaw Zoological Gardens.

Antonina’s book “Of Animals and Men” published in 1968 inspired the American writer Diane Ackerman to write the book about Antonina “The Zookeper’s Wife” (in Polish “Azyl”). Based on this book the film “The Zookeeper’s Wife” was shot and screened in 1917. Also a moving documentary directed by Lukasz Czajka “Of Animals and Men” dedicated to Antonina, Jan, Rys and the people and animals who were treated by them was created. Another documentary directed by Gary Lester “Safe Heaven: The Warsaw Zoo” in which performed Rys – Ryszard Zabinski and Moshe Tirosh (Kenigswein) who was hiding during the war in the Zabinski Villa.