Friday, January 13, 2017

Analysis on Antonina Zabinski from THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE: Her Ability To Maintain The Identity of the Animals She Loved . . .

Christal Cooper

Analysis by Chris Rice Cooper:   “The Psychological Enigma of Antonina Zabinski” from Diane Ackerman’s  The Zookeeper’s Wife

      In 1939 in Poland Antonina Zabinski was a young 31-year-old woman who, along with her husband Jan, 42, ran the Warsaw Zoological Garden.   

The couple, along with their son Rhys, lived in a two story three-bedroom 1930s stucco and glass villa located in the middle of the Warsaw Zoological Garden.

       The Warsaw Zoological Garden was 75 acres of forests, ponds, buildings (the Pheasant House, the Lion’s House, the carpentry shop); storerooms, pantries, barns; pavilions; cages, and varying habitats for different animals.

       The War Zoological Garden housed a massive collection of animals, 1500 total:  antelopes, bee hives, badgers, bears, bison, cats, cheetah, the largest crocodile, cuckoos, donkeys, rarest eagle, elk, deer, elephants, flamingos, foxes, giraffes, hyenas, gibbons, horses, jaguars, lions, monkeys, ostriches, parrots, peacocks, pelicans, wild penguins, pigs, tree porcupines, rabbits, ravens, the heaviest rhino, seals, squirrels, black swans, oldest turtle, wolves, and zebras.

       In September of 1939 Germany invaded Poland and everything changed:  the Nazis took most of their animals away to place in Nazi-controlled zoos in Germany. 

The other animals were shot by employees for safety reasons, some slaughtered by gun-happy and hard-drinking Nazis for sport, and other animals were killed to feed hungry people. 

       As a result, Antonina and Jan had to resort to having their zoo become a pig farm and then a fur farm. 
       On October 12, 1940 the Nazis forced all the Jews from Poland to leave their homes, friends, belongings, and communities and herded them into a district on the north side of town, which came to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. 

Brick wall of the Warsaw Ghetto dividing the Iron Gate Square with a view of bombed out Lubomirski Palace (left) on the Aryan side of the city.  Attributed to Ludwig Knoblock.  Photograph taken on May 24, 1941.

In the fall of 1940 Antonina and Jan hosted their first of 300 guests at their zoo, now known as The House Under the Crazy Star, an underground for Jews, particularly those who were in the Warsaw Ghetto.   

To avoid discovery some of these escapees would enter the villa through a drain over that can still be seen in the zoo today.

       This blond, Catholic, devoted wife and mother, skilled pianist, hosted the small menagerie of animals and the 300 Jews without complaining, without being discovered by the Nazi regime, and only losing two Jews to Nazi violence.  

How did this young woman, from the ages of 32 to 36, fool a whole regime for a period of years on behalf of the animals she identified with and the people she loved and considered her equal?

       The answer can be found in Diane Ackerman’s bestseller The Zookeeper’s Wife based on the war story lives of Antonina, Jan, and the animals Antonina identified with.


Jan, a devout scientist, credited Antonina with the “metaphysical waves” of a nearly shamanistic empathy when it came to animals:  “She’s so sensitive, she’s almost able to read their minds, a way of observing and understanding animals that’s rare, a sixth sense –it’s been this way since she was little”

       Ackerman further describes how Antonina slips out of her self to align her own senses with the senses of the individual animal and having her attunement put the animals at ease.

       Her uncanny ability to calm unruly animals earned her the respect of both she the keepers and her husband, who though he believed science would explain it, found her gift nonetheless strange and mysterious. 

       And Antonina the strange mystic was able to form a peaceful resistance not by arming herself with guns and knifes, but maintaining the same identity as the animal and exhibiting the same behaviors as the animal. 

Mixed Media Art by Christal Rice Cooper             

One such occurrence happened in March of 1943 when a fire broke out in one of the zoo’s buildings now being used as a German storage area.  A German soldier on his bicycle approached her in anger about the fire.  Antonina responded to him with the friendliness of a mammal and the charm of the lynx she reared since birth. She convinced him the fire started by some German soldier and his girlfriend from a love fire they didn’t completely extinguish.  As a result, the soldier did not search the buildings that would have revealed the hidden Jews inside.  The German soldier and Antonina engaged in talk about animals as they headed to the villa.  Two more German police officers joined them and were entertained by Antonina’s explanation of why the fire started.  Minutes later Antonina received a phone call from the Gestapo, and she convinced them everything was taken care of. 

With the coast clear, the Guests came out of hiding and hugged her, praising her bravery.  In her diary, she noted that she “couldn’t wait to tell Jan.”

Later the evening, the guests were praising her bravery to her husband Jan, and he went on to explain that this was not Antonina’s bravery that saved them but her ability to exhbit the behaviors of the animals she cared for.
“It’s as if she’s porous.  She’s almost able to read their minds.  It’s a snap for her to find out what’s bothering her animal friends.  Maybe because she treats them like people.  But you’ve seen her.  At a moment’s notice, she can lose her Homo sapiens nature and transform herself into a panther, a badger, or muskrat!”

 In her own diary, Antonina confirms Jan’s psychological point of view of her.

“Jan was right, the German soldiers’ reaction to my telepathic waves was similar to the zoo animals.”

       Antonina’s special ability with these animals and her love of these animals would never take priority over the lives of humanity.  It is her compassion for these 300 Jews that astounds.

Far left, Antonina in her polk-a-dot dress; 
Top, cropped from mixed media art by Christal Rice Cooper
Bottom, Warsaw ghetto wall and footbridge over Chlordan Street
Far right, entrance to the Warsaw Zoological Garden.

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