I learned about the story of the the Żabińsky family through the public relations of the US film "The zookeeper's wife". The reviews of the film were not good. It was suggested that the original diary of Antonina Żabińska is much more moving. Hence, when I noticed the Hebrew translation of that diary in our public borrowing library, I took it home with me. Among other things, it was an opportunity for me to visit my beloved Warsaw again without checking through Ben Gurion airport.
The book can be roughly divided to three sections. The first one describes the era from the time when the zoo was founded in 1931 until the German invasion in 1939. The second one describes the war era, and the third one describes the rebuilding of the the zoo and the rebuilding of Warsaw after the war. The first part and the third part contain a lot of anecdotes about animals and caring for them, which did not interest me very much. Such anecdotes were present in the middle part as well, but that part also included the story about how the Żabińskis hid Jews in the premises of the zoo during the war, and that interested me very much. I have never thought of myself as capable of such heroism, and thus, I am fascinated with the stories of those who were. According to Wikipedia, 300 people were saved with the help of the Żabińskis. They were honoured as Righteous Amongst the Nations by Israel in 1965.
As with other Righteous Amongst the Nations whose stories I have read, the Żabińskis have not decided one day to do something heroic, nor did they have a sense of commitment to the Jewish people. They have had friends who were in trouble, and they decided to help them. Some of those friends were Jews. And then came the friends of the friends, and theŻabińskis helped them as well. They helped Catholics too. That also came at a cost, although not as horrible cost as was for helping Jews. The Żabińskis were connected with the Home Army, the nationalist Polish underground, which was instrumental in transfering the survivors to a relatively safer places and in providing essential inteligence. When Warsaw's uprising had started in August 1944, Jan Żabiński joined the fighters, and his wife remained to run the life saving operation.
Antonina Żabiński was apparently blessed with mental abilities that enabled her to deal with the Germans (and then with the Soviet soldiers too: she stopped some of them from raping women who lived in her house). She also had the looks that the Germans favored: she was blond and thin. That explains how she was able to do all that she did. It does not explain how come she was not frozen with fear the whole time, as I suspect I would be. The diary has provided me with a possible answer. During the German occupation, life were not safe for the Poles. Even if you were a Catholic, arbitrary brutal death could come at every moment, just because some German soldier did not like your face. That was even more so when the Soviets got near. Here is what I learned: If your life and the life of your dear ones are at skate the whole time, and there is so little you could do to gurrentee safety, you might have as well done what you believed was the right thing to do.