Documentary spotlights heroism, ingenuity of zookeepers who saved Jews during WWII

by Jerry Circelli

North Texas Catholic

6/20/2021

The movie poster for “Of Animals and Men.” (Courtesy of Fathom Events)The movie poster for “Of Animals and Men.” (Courtesy of Fathom Events)

The movie poster for “Of Animals and Men.” (Courtesy of Fathom Events)

Editor's Note: "Of Animals and Men" is showing in several North Texas area theaters on June 22.

Documentaries over the past several decades have shown us vividly just how cruel some people can be to their fellow human beings, especially during times of war and the reign of evil dictators.

In these films, especially those dealing with Nazi Germany and the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, viewers cannot help but come away informed, but depressed.

A new Polish documentary, “Of Animals and Men,” deals with such times but puts the spotlight on a brave and morally responsible family who found creative ways to hide and sustain Jewish people during the German occupation of Poland throughout World War II.

The film introduces us to Jan and Antonina Zabinski, along with their children, a few years before the start of the war. The family literally lives among the animals they love at the Warsaw Zoo in Poland, with their villa located in the center of the zoo itself. The zoo is home to giraffes, polar bears, elephants, zebras, foxes, seals, antelope and many other species.

People and animals live in harmony until the world turns upside down for them in September 1939, when German artillery shells rocked Warsaw and German troops overtook the city.

The zoo itself took direct hits, with buildings blown up, many animals killed and others wounded by shrapnel. The Nazis shipped many of the surviving animals to zoos in Germany, and in some cases, actually hunted them on the zoo grounds for sport.

The zoo underwent several iterations under German control, at one point becoming a pig farm, and later agricultural cropland.

This is where “Of Animals and Men” shines and brings us face-to-face with the heroic actions of Zabinski family, who risk their own lives to provide safe harbor for 300 people, mostly Jews, in the war-torn zoo. Some people are harbored in the basement of the family villa, while others are cleverly hidden in vacant zoo cages.

“Of Animals and Men” is a memorable documentary that provides insight and the true story behind the 2017 motion picture, “The Zookeepers Wife,” now available through online screening services and on DVD.

“Of Animals and Men” creator and director, Lukasz Czajka, weaves archival footage with recent interviews of people whose lives or those of their parents were saved by the zookeepers. The result is a story, told in a much different way from other documentaries, about the trials and tribulations of war. “Of Animals and Men” is an eyewitness account of the moral strength, bravery, and ingenuity of the Zabinskis by the people who owe their lives to the family.

An interview provided by the film’s producers provides insight into the director’s motivation to make the documentary a reality.

“The story of the Zabinski family, their wartime actions, their villa in the Warsaw Zoo, and the people they saved is very important to me,” Czajka said. “I’ve had this story on my mind for a few years, since the moment I heard it.”

“Why is the story so important to me? Firstly, their decency. The Zabinski family’s humane attitude is reflected in Jan’s reply to the question why he saved the Jews: ‘Every decent Pole had to rebel against the Nazis’ brutal treatment of the Jews.’ Such decency in the German-occupied Poland was punishable by the death of the helper and their family.”

The director said he was also intrigued with the Zabinski family’s love for all life, including animals. When the zoo was hit by artillery shells and animals killed, the director explained, the zookeepers found a way for fox cubs to be raised by a cat. They also found unrelated nursing mothers for other species.

“This coexistence of humans and animals at war created an unusual, surreal atmosphere, which is also the reason why I am so personally attached to this story,” the director said.

“The Zabinski villa was known as the villa ‘under the crazy star,’ because it was almost always full of rescuers during the war,” Czajka said. “Antonina, despite hiding Jews, ran an open house, so most often someone visited the family, and it was often pretty noisy. When a stranger came home, she would sit at the piano and play the aria ‘Ride to Crete’ from the operetta ‘Beautiful Helena,’ so the hiders could hear it and stay quiet. According to several sources, all the Jews who found rescue in the villa, survived the war.

“These are the main reasons why I decided to make this film,”  the director said.

The Warsaw Zoo was eventually rebuilt by the people of the city. Now known as the Warsaw Zoological Garden, it is home to 12,000 animals representing 500 species. The zoo is visited by 1 million people per year and is among the busiest in Europe.

While millions of people enjoy the animals and the grounds they occupy annually, many more are learning a valuable lesson about faith, courage, grace, and compassion of the zookeepers who kept watch over precious life here during World War II. Lessons learned, thanks now in large part to “Of Animals and Men” documentary, “The Zookeepers Wife” motion picture,  and “The Zookeepers Wife” book by Diane Ackerman.

“Of Animals and Men,” will be shown in movie theaters across the United States only on June 22.

To find a local theater, purchase tickets and to view a movie trailer, visit: Of Animals and Men.com.

Documentaries over the past several decades have shown us vividly just how cruel some people can be to their fellow human beings, especially during times of war and the reign of evil dictators.

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