Movies

Zooming in on a couple's heroism

The Zookeeper's Wife is the real-life story of how a Polish pair hid Jews and resistance fighters from the Nazis during World War II

The director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife always carried cyanide with them during World War II.

Danger was ever-present, 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 stars Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain as Jan and Antonina Zabinska respectively and opens here tomorrow, is based on actual events.

Inside the zookeeper's villa, whose windowless cellar had a secret tunnel leading to the garden, the couple gave refuge to most of the Jews smuggled out of the city's ghetto.

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 couple's daughter, Teresa, 73, said, citing a Polish saying which suggests that 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."

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 for months or even years. Around 30 people would stay there at once.

Whenever a Nazi soldier got too close for comfort, Antonina would warn everyone by playing an operetta on the piano.

The hidden guests would escape through the tunnel or hide in a wardrobe upstairs that opened on both sides like a magician's trunk.

The couple also hid the Jews from their housekeeper out of fear she could give them away.

The hardest part was explaining the increase in daily meals to the housekeeper, Antonina wrote in her 1968 memoirs, saying the family fed the extra mouths by faking ravenous appetites.

"Theirs was a house where both animals and people always found help," said Ms Zabinska, who was born at the zoo.

Aptly, her mother's memoirs - to be republished this month - were entitled People And Animals.

They describe how Antonina pushed to raise funds to reopen the zoo after the war while Jan was in a Nazi German prisoner-of-war camp, having fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.

American author Diane Ackerman relied heavily on the memoirs when writing her own 2007 non-fiction book The Zookeeper's Wife, which inspired the movie.

The couple died in the early 1970s, and the villa is now a museum where visitors can make an appointment to see the life-saving secret tunnel and basement.

Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance centre later recognised them as Righteous Among The Nations, a title bestowed upon non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust.

"They believed it was the right thing to do," Ms Zabinska said of her parents' wartime actions.- AFP

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