Jews in hiding at the Warsaw ZOO

img1 History of the ZOO


The want

In 1871, a private collector planned to organize an animal exhibition at the corner of Hoża and Krucza Streets. He wanted to present the residents of Warsaw with a couple of monkeys, wolves, roes, parrots and other species from his collection. He was not granted permission to charge a fee at the entrance, but his application resulted in a special commission being set up. The commission consisted of zoologists and townhall officials. Together, they decided that the city of Warsaw – for both didactic and scientific reasons – needs a zoological garden.

The Zoological Garden in Warsaw, visitors are feeding the elephant named Kasia, 1930. PHOTO: National Digital Archive.

The location

The first zoological garden was located on Bagatela Street. The present-day premises of the ZOO were chosen in 1912. The meadows on the right bank of the Vistula River, at the time referred to as Alexandrian Park, were expansive and wild.

The arrival of a giraffe to the Warsaw ZOO. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

The title

When Jan Żabiński took up his post in 1929, an international team of experts deemed the Warsaw based initiative worthy of the name Zoological Garden. Only those institutions which possessed suitable units to keep and breed animals and were managed by people with adequate qualifications could be granted such a name.

European Zoological Gardens’ Managers Convention in Munich. Jan Żabiński is standing in the back row on the left, 1931. PHOTO: National Digital Archive.

The successes

The Zoological Garden on the right bank of the Vistula River was developing dynamically under Jan Żabiński’s management. Subsequent breeding successes attracted not only residents of Warsaw, but also excursions from all over Poland to visit the beautifully groomed park. In 1937 Tuzinka was born, the 12th elephant in the world to be born in captivity.

Elephants in the outdoor enclosure at the Warsaw ZOO. The elephant Kasia and baby elephant Tuzinka, 1937. PHOTO: National Digital Archive.

The culture

Director Żabiński and his wife Antonina were very keen on art and artists, therefore they made sure that the ZOO became a space which welcomed art. They held regular concerts in the park and invited artists who made good use of park alleys. The Żabińskis’ villa, located on the ZOO premises, was built according to the most recent architectural trends, in the modernist style. It was soon dubbed the house “under a wacky star”, due to the level of engagement and activities of its owners.

The painter K. Lasocki painting lions at the Warsaw ZOO, 1937. PHOTO: National Digital Archive.

The war

The outbreak of the Second World War forced Jan Żabiński to make a number of dramatic decisions. Due to the risk of being set free by the bombings to roam the streets and pose threat to local population, the predators were shot dead by the ZOO employees. Other animals were slaughtered in order to provide food for residents of Warsaw and the army during the siege. The animals who remained alive were taken away by the Germans. Tuzinka the elephant was transferred to the ZOO in Königsberg. A number of animals were shot by German officers during an impromptu hunt they organized at the ZOO. “There was this gloomy, dead calm everywhere, and I kept telling myself that it is not the dream of death and extinction, but merely ‘winter sleep’”, wrote Antonina Żabińska.

Shelter for elephants. The elephants pavilion at the Warsaw ZOO was constructed thanks to financial help of the Friends Society of the Warsaw Zoological Garden. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

The occupation

The Żabińskis continued to reside in the run-down villa. Despite the fact that German army warehouses were located nearby, Jan Żabiński engaged in activities which allowed him to reach his conspiratorial goals. He started breeding pigs, which made it possible for him to deliver meat to the ghetto. The Żabińskis’ house became a shelter for many Jews; its owners never turned down requests for help. In the subsequent years of the occupation a bulk of the garden was divided into allotments for local residents. Silver foxes were bred in the ZOO up until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising.

A child’s drawing, the ZOO in 1940. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

The aftermath of the war

The Warsaw ZOO reopened already in 1946, amongst the sea of rubble which blanketed the city. The premises required thorough refurbishment and tidying up. Antonina Żabińska used to declare in her memoirs: “It was agreed at the meeting of the Educational Board and the Teachers’ Union that older students of the gymnasiums and high schools from the Praga district would devote their share of work towards reconstruction of Warsaw to the Zoological Garden”. Shortage of tools and lack of financial means balanced the enthusiasm of the engaged parties.

Feeding hippopotamus at the Warsaw ZOO, 1950. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

img3 The Żabiński family


The beginning

Did Jan Żabiński and Antonina Erdman share the passion for natural sciences? Perhaps they did. They met in the 1920s at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences. Jan was a researcher at the Department of Zoology and Animal Physiology, Antonina was an archivist. They were both social activists engaged in various initiatives, both convinced that was the only right thing to do.

Antonina and Jan Żabinski. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

The passion

Jan Żabiński inherited the love for animals from his mother. “She was passionate about keeping animals at home, even the tiniest ones. […] She began with fish and would come back from each outing with frogs or newts.”

Antonina Żabińska and Helena Żabińska, Jan’s mother. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

The engineer, the physiologist, the artist

Jan Żabiński planned to study zoology in Belgium. The First World War, however, put a halt to his plans. He completed industrial-agricultural courses and was granted titles of agronomy engineer and doctor of physiology. He was an art lover and spent several years studying painting and drawing at the School of Fine Arts. “I followed my interests while choosing the subject of studies, but only after I had become a director of the newly established Zoological Garden in Warsaw did I finally feel at the right place”, he recalled years later.

Jan Żabiński. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

The loss

Antonina Żabińska spent the first years of her life in Russia where her father, Antoni, worked as a railway engineer. She lost both parents in 1917, at the age of 9; being members of the intelligentsia, they were murdered by the revolutionaries. Antonina fled to Tashkient together with her aunt, who took the girl under her care. She studied piano at the music conservatory. At the age of 15 Antonina returned to Warsaw where she took up studying languages as well as drawing and painting. She worked as a tutor, commenced studies in archival science and got a job at the Warsaw School of Life Sciences.

Antonina Żabińska. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

The Animal House

Jan Żabiński was appointed Director of the Zoological Garden in 1929. He was passionate about developing the newly founded institution and Antonina became his closest associate. Their villa became a home for injured animals who used to recover there, under loving care of the Żabińskis. Various species resided at the villa: lynxes, cockatoos, a hamster, an arctic hare, a piglet, a badger, a muskrat and many more. “It is not enough to research animals at a safe distance – you need to live with them to truly understand their habits and psychology”, as Director of the ZOO used to say.

Teresa Żabińska, daughter of Jan and Antonina, with her badger. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

The mission

Social activists and natural world lovers announced results of their research on the radio, in the press and via books. Already in 1926, the first year of the radio, Jan Żabiński was delivering talks on zoological tidbits. Antonina described her pets’ adventures in several books. The Żabińskis were very active within the International Association of Zoological Gardens’ Managers. The Warsaw ZOO planned to host the annual convention of the Association members in the autumn of 1939.

Jan Żabiński. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

The occupation

When the war broke out, the Żabińskis got involved in conspiratorial activities. Ryś, their few years old son, was helping too. They provided shelter to people as well as weapons and ammunition in empty cages and pavilions. Many Jews found shelter at the ZOO. Jan, the Home Army lieutenant, supported the family with tutorials he delivered at underground courses. He fought in the Warsaw Uprising and was taken to a prison camp in Germany.

The aviary at the Warsaw ZOO. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

The ghetto

The Żabińskis made contact with the ghetto thanks to Jan’s collaboration with the Horticultural Department at the Town Council. “Jan […] was granted permit to enter the ghetto on the pretext that there was ‘greenery’ there as well”, recalled Antonina after the war. “In fact there was hardly any greenery in the ghetto! So Jan had no ‘green’ business to attend there; instead, he used the permit to visit people who needed some uplifting, for whom he used to smuggle food or messages”. Jan provided false documents to those in need, he also arranged hideouts. He managed to take a number of people to the “Aryan” side.

The Warsaw ghetto gate, Żelazna Street. PHOTO: Jewish Historical Institute.

The tenants

The Żabińskis were approached by Jews looking for a hideout after they had left the ghetto or those who had to flee their shelters on the “Aryan” side. The ZOO Director and his wife were affiliated with Żegota. Amongst the people who found shelter at the Warsaw Zoological Garden were: Magdalena Gross, Maurycy Paweł Fraenkel, Rachel Auerbach, Regina and Samuel Kenigswein, Eugenia Sylkes, Marceli Lewi-Łebkowski with family, Marysia Aszer, Joanna Kramsztyk, Eleonora Tenenbaum, the Kellers with child, Irena Mayzel, Lewy the Solicitor, Kinszerbaum and Dr Anzelm.

Joanna Kramsztyk, photo from the time of German occupation. PHOTO: POLIN Museum.

Go, go to Crete!

Alerted to the approaching danger, secret tenants of the villa “under a wacky star” used to hide in the attic, the bathroom, the built-in wardrobe or else they used to leave the villa through the tunnel leading from the basement to the garden. Danger was announced by the previously selected melody, performed by Antonina on her grand piano or sung – a piece from Offenbach’s La belle Hélène operetta entitled “Go, go to Crete!”.

The living room at the Żabińskis’ villa, 2015. PHOTO: POLIN Museum, Karolina Dzięciołowska.

Yad Vashem

Antonina and Jan Żabiński were honoured with the Rigtheous Among the Nations title by the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel on 7 October 1965. The ceremony of planting a tree on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerualem took place on 30 October 1968. “I am a Pole and a democrat”, wrote Jan Żabiński in his report to the Jewish Historical Institute. “My deeds were and still are the effect of a certain frame of mind acquired during my progressive-humanistic upbringing and education at the Kreczmar’s Gymnasium. I tried to analyze the roots of hostility towards Jews many times, and yet I have not found any, aside from those factitiously conceived”.

A plaque in the memory of Antonina and Jan Żabiński placed next to an olive tree on the Har ha-Zikaron (Mount of Remembrance) in Jerusalem. PHOTO: POLIN Museum, Klara Jackl.

img4 Magdalena Gross


The animalier

Magdalena Gross grew up amongst the Warsaw intelligentsia. She used to make clay statues already while at school. On the initiative of the sculptor Henryk Kuna she began studying sculpture. In 1913, at the age of 22, she exhibited three pieces at the Salon in Zachęta. Initially, Magdalena mainly produced sculptures of human figures. She hosted the first exhibition of her works in 1926. Several years later she went through a creative crisis and thought she was “finished, artistically”. The artist’s visit to the Warsaw ZOO put an end to the crisis. Fascinated with the animal world, Magdalena Gross began sculpting animals and that is how she became most famous – as an animalier.

Magdalena Gross next to a bird sculpture. Photograph taken at the artist’s exhibition at the Institute of Art Propaganda in Warsaw, 1933. PHOTO: National Digital Archive.

At the ZOO

Jan Żabiński was impressed by devotion with which Magdalena Gross was working on the sculpture of a bird. It was 1930; Director of the ZOO introduced himself and encouraged the artist to visit the garden regularly and think of it as her outdoor studio. Magdalena happily accepted the invitation, and soon made friends with the Żabińskis. She produced over a dozen animal sculptures before 1939; each sculpture took a long time to complete, each anatomical detail was consulted with Jan Żabiński.

Magdalena Gross’ sculpture at the Żabińskis’ villa. PHOTO: POLIN Museum, Klara Jackl.

The war

Magdalena Gross did not move to the ghetto, established in 1940 in Warsaw. She adopted the name Gościmska and operated “out in the open”. As an artist, however, she could have been recognized. Fearing denunciation, she asked the Żabiński family for help. The Żabińskis hid Magdalena in their villa. They called her “the Starling”. When a guest arrived, the Starling fled upstairs; in case of danger – she hid in the attic, the bathroom or the built-in wardrobe. In her memoirs, Antonina emphasized Magdalena’s strength of character and placidity, which she did not lose despite her predicament. “She would whistle, as starlings do, at her plight”, Antonina wrote.

Magdalena Gross. PHOTO: Family Archive of Magdalena Czerwosz.

At the Żabińskis

“She became an integral part of our family. She lived our life, shared our hardships, worries and dangers”, recalls Ms Żabińska. The artist took active part in the everyday hustle at the villa; her strong sculptor’s hands proved very useful indeed. One day, when Ms Żabińska started baking bread, Magdalena  immediately took to kneading the dough. “This is unheard of! Such an artist, handling pots and pans?”, asked Antonina. “It is only temporary. Who would have thought that such a petite person will not manage? Really? Eh! Sculptors are very sturdy.”

The Llama, sculpted by Magdalena Gross, PHOTO: M. Wallis, „Magdalena Gross”, Warszawa 1957

The Hamster

In 1943 Maurycy Fraenkel (Paweł Zieliński), a lawyer and friend of Magdalena, turned to the Żabińskis for help. So far he had been residing in the ghetto, where he had suffered nervous breakdown and attempted to commit suicide. He was recovering at the Żabińskis’ villa, reading books. He used to sleep on a mattress in a “hamster’s nook”, a spot which belonged also to one of the family pets, a hamster. Maurycy became such good friends with the hamster, that the family used to call the pair “the hamsters”.

Visiting card of Paweł Zieliński (Maurycy Fraenkel). PHOTO: Family archive of Magdalena Czerwosz.

“It’s so hot!”

The information on Magdalena Gross’ hideout somehow reached the ZOO employees. The Żabińskis organized a new, safe shelter for her. Owing to help of Janina Bucholtz-Bukolska from Żegota Magdalena moved to Saska Kępa, to the family Rendzner’s house at 31 Zakopiańska Street. She was given her own room in the attic, isolated from the main part of the house, but located in such a place that one could hear all the voices and noises from downstairs. In the event of unexpected guests, one of the Rendzners used to say out loud: “It’s so hot!”, and thus Magdalena knew she was not to move from the attic. She used to come downstairs in the evenings; she also used to come out to the terrace. She spent a year and a half at the Rendzners.

Zofia Rendzner-Czerwosz, a friend of Magdalena Gross. PHOTO: Family archive of Magdalena Czerwosz.

The stage

One day the Germans turned up unannounced at the house in Saska Kępa. They searched for male inhabitants; all men from the area were to be deported, most likely to forced labour. When they entered, Janina Rendzner instantly arranged the following scene: Magdalena was standing in the middle of the living room, wearing an apron and finishing a sculpture – which had been finished already – of which Janina Rendzner was a model. The Germans became very interested in the sculpting process and asked various detailed questions. When they left, Magdalena and Janina looked at each other and they “felt faint” – they both sat down at the same moment.

Portrait of Janina Rendzner, sculpture by Magdalena Gross. PHOTO: Family archive of Magdalena Czerwosz.

Working at the puppet theatre

Magdalena married Maurycy Fraenkel during the war. After the Warsaw Uprising they moved to Lublin. There, she was invited by her artist friends from the “Palette” café to collaborate - she was to sculpt puppet heads for the puppet theatre. Magdalena Gross and her husband returned to Warsaw a year later. Magdalena, who was in frail health since the war, died in 1948. She was only 57.

Exhibition of Magdalena Gross’ sculptures at the Institute of Art Propaganda in Warsaw, 1933. PHOTO: National Digital Archive.

img2 The Kenigswein family


Fruit delivery

Before the war, Soból delivered apples, cherries, tomatoes and cucumbers to the ZOO. He had his stall on Ząbkowska Street. He walked around with pockets full of goodies for children and animals. “He always brought traditional matzo for the holiday of Passover. And when his daughter Regina was marrying Kenigswein, a carpenter and boxer [member of the Maccabi and Stern sport clubs], he invited us to the wedding party”, noted Antonina Żabińska. His brother lived in New York. Soból himself declared: “ I do not want to leave Poland! Poland is like a mother to me. I was born here, and here I shall die”.

Fruit and vegetable stalls at the Kercelego Square (Kercelak) in Warsaw, 1927. PHOTO: National Digital Archive.

The occupation

During the occupation the Żabińskis kept in touch with the Soból family. Son of the Sobóls, an outpost labourer, used to leave the ghetto for work. He worked on 11 Listopada Street, from where he used to sneak out to the ZOO to get potatoes, vegetables and other produce. Antonina intervened with his superior when it turned out he was to be transferred to a different labour group which operated within the ghetto walls. Regina Kenigswein and her husband Samuel were active during pre-uprising action and during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. She cooked for the insurgents, he built bunkers and shelters. Regina’s parents and brothers perished, the Kenigsweins managed to reach the “Aryan” side.

Grzybowska Street, Jews on a trailer on their way to forced labour, 1941. PHOTO: Jewish Historical Institute.

To the ZOO

In the autumn of 1943, when the Kenigsweins ran out of money to pay for the hideout, the landlady got rid of her awkward tenants: pregnant Regina, her husband and two children. The third, youngest child, was in hiding with the nuns at the Father Boduen Children’s Home. Now they had nowhere to go. Antonina  Żabińska recalls the evening when they turned up after the curfew at the villa: “I looked at them with despair; their appearance and the way they spoke left no illusions. […] I felt an overwhelming sense of shame for my own helplessness and fear”.

Antonina Żabińska. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

At home with danger

“The Director and his wife arrived, a bottle of vodka in hand, and welcomed us warmly in the basement”, as Regina described the Żabińskis after the war. “They offered us warm soup, and then we drank one shot each”. The family spent the first few nights in the corridor next to the old lion’s house, then they moved to the villa’s basement. During daytime, Samuel used to sneak to the aviary, where he sat until the evening, wrapped in fur coat and locked from the outside. Regina and the children climbed upstairs. “The children were at home with danger and well-acquainted with conspiracy. […] They could stay quiet for hours, walk soundlessly, lie still.”

Regina and Samuel Kenigswein. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

The squirrels

In mid-December the Kenigswein family were getting ready for a change of shelter. “A friendly hairdresser provided me with perhydrol and instruction how to dye hair. I locked myself with the whole family in the bathroom, little Rysio outside on the watch” recalls Antonina Żabińska. The family was dubbed “the squirrels”, as the Director’s wife succeeded in dying their hair fiery red. The Kenigsweins went to the new shelter with new haircuts. They did survive the war. Alas, Samuel Kenigswein died of heart disease in 1946. Regina and the children settled in Israel. She used to say of Jan Żabiński: “This is not a man, […] this was God himself who came to me to help me”.

The Kenigswein family, postwar photo. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.

img5 Szymon Tenenbaum


The entomology freak

Szymon Tenenbaum, entomologist, researcher studying insects, graduated from the Jagiellonian University and exercised his academic passion through numerous travels. His collection of beetles, butterflies and other insects was expanding with each visit to the Balearic Islands, Brasil, Mexico, Palestine, but also the outskirts of Warsaw, the Białowieża Forest, Podole or Pieniny mountains, where he used to spend summers with his wife Eleonora and daughter Irena. He published his work, he was a teacher and subsequently head of the Jewish Humanistic Gymnasium of the Laor Male Society in Warsaw. He maintained professional relation with Jan Żabiński, Director of the Warsaw ZOO.

„Entomological zeal drove me all the way here, and I am very happy about it, cause the island is a pure delight. I went to Salinas today […], interesting history, the salty water is brimming with coleopterans”, wrote Szymon Tenenbaum in 1913 from Ibiza to his friend, Janusz Domaniewski. Postal card. PHOTO: Museum and Institute of Zoology.

In the ghetto

Szymon Tenenbaum and his family were forced by German decrees to move to Orla Street within the boundaries of the Warsaw ghetto. Szymon did not take his insect collection with him, trusting the Żabińskis with nearly 300 glass boxes. “He was fanatical about entomology; extremely intelligent, with charming personality. Faced with the altered reality, however, he behaved like a helpless child”, recalls Antonina Żabińska. “His handsome wife was a dentist, their daughter was a student”. In the ghetto, Tenenbaum provided private tuition and continued to collect insects. Eleonora treated rare patients, amongst them Ziegler, head of the Jewish Arbeitsamt and amateur entomologist.

Szymon Tenenbaum with his daughter Irena in the Warsaw ghetto. PHOTO: Museum and Institute of Zoology.

The collection

In the summer of 1941 Ziegler turned up unannounced at the Żabińskis’ villa.  “What a merry household!” – Offenbach’s piece being played on the grand piano alerted those in hiding to the impending danger. “I have authorization from Dr Tenenbaum to examine the insect collection”. Striving to decipher their guest’s intentions, the Żabińskis explained that the collection required suitable storage conditions. Ziegler admired the insects; upon his departure, he delivered Tenenbaum’s request to see Jan Żabiński in the ghetto. Jan confirmed that he possessed the permit to enter the ghetto and joined Ziegler on his way home. They passed the Arbeitsamt gate together; the German, clearly under Mr Żabiński’s charm, instructed the guard: “This man can enter whenever he should wish to see me”.

One of boxes from Szymon Tenenbaum’s collection, kept at the ZOO. PHOTO: Museum and Institute of Zoology.

Between the ghetto and the shelter

Even though Szymon Tenenbaum’s friends on the “Aryan” side made every effort to help him get out, he himself was afraid to leave the ghetto. From time to time Ziegler, who visited the ZOO regularly to admire the insects, took Tenenbaum with him so that he could look after the collection. The scholar collected new specimens in the greenery surrounding the villa. During one of the visits, Ziegler brought Żarka, dachshund belonging to the Tenenbaums, saying that “poor doggie” would be better off at the villa. Żarka fled through a crack in the door and ran to Chmielna Street, the prewar home of her owners. She was found, but the only person she was to meet again was Eleonora. Szymon Tenenbaum passed away in the ghetto in November 1941.

Szymon Tenenbaum in Krościenko. PHOTO: Museum and Institute of Zoology.

A way out of the ghetto

“Jan and I were deeply concerned with the fate of the orphaned women – Tenenbaum’s wife and daughter. […] How could we help them?” wrote Antonina Żabińska. Irena fled to Krakow, but was arrested by the Gestapo at a hotel. Jan Żabiński led Eleonora out of the ghetto following “directions” of the Arbeitsamt manager. “As soon as we passed the damned gate, I saw two German policemen standing in front of it. I froze”, Eleonora reported later. “I wanted to whisper to the doctor: ‘Let’s run!’ […] But, ironically, just then […] he bent over to pick up […] a cigarette butt. Then he calmly took my hand and we started walking, slowly, towards Wolska Street”. Eleonora Tenenbaum spent several weeks at the Żabińskis; she later moved to a safer place. In 1946 she launched a fruitless search for her daughter.

A notice of the Tenenbaums' missing daughter. PHOTO: Museum and Institute of Zoology.

The legacy

3 weeks prior to the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising the insect collection was transferred to Wilcza Street. Hidden on the premises of the Zoological Museum, the collection survived and remained part of Szymon Tenenbaum’s repertory, in accordance with his wish. “I am so happy that the collection was not lost! Each day I witnessed his Sisyphean labour, I helped him count his wee coleopterans. I refused to believe that all that was wasted”, Eleonora wrote in 1945. The Museum and Institute of Zoology at the Polish Academy of Science is currently conducting research on Szymon Tenenbaum’s legacy – his collection, notes and correspondence are being analyzed and digitized.

Polish Zoological Society Convention, Krakow 1946. PHOTO: Museum and Institute of Zoology.

img6 Rachela Auerbach


From a village to the big city lights

The village of Łanowce, Borszczów county, mail delivery to Jeziorany near Czortkow – this is how people addressed their correspondence to Rachel Auerbach’s family. Rachel came from a poor peasant family from Eastern Małopolska. She visited her home for the last time in 1933. Having obtained her academic education in Lwów, Rachel Auerbach was gradually building a career amongst the literary milieu of prewar Poland. She was a writer, journalist and literary critic writing in both Polish and Yiddish.

Jan Kazimierz University in Lviv, the interwar period. PHOTO: National Digital Archive.

The ghetto

The war transformed Rachel Auerbach, a high-spirited activist of the Jewish cultural scene, into Rachel Auerbach, a  chronicler of the Holocaust. From October 1939, she ran a soup kitchen at 40 Leszno Street in Warsaw, following Emanuel Ringelblum’s instruction. Pots and pans, plates, cutlery as well as food produce were recovered from the rubble, anti-tank ditches and barricades. First clients of the soup kitchen were men of letters with their families. Rachel Auerbach kept a diary. A draft to the soup kitchen’s monograph belongs to the first part of the famed Ringelblum Archive, in which creation and hiding Auerbach actively participated.

Leszno Street, the White Friars Church and Convent in the background. On the left, tenement buildings nos. 44, 42, 40 (address of the soup kitchen run by Rachel Auerbach), 38, 36 and 34/32; the year 1941. PHOTO: Jewish Historical Institute, photo by Willi Georg

Janina Bucholtz-Bukolska

Janina Bucholtz-Bukolska ran a translators’ office at 11 Miodowa Street. In reality, the premises belonging to Bucholtz-Bukolska, an active collaborator of Żegota, constituted one of the busiest spots providing Jews with false documents and money. “Everything she touched seemed to be blessed”, wrote Rachel Auerbach, quoting Janina Bucholtz-Bukolska herself: “I have good luck… I am a fairy…”, she used to say, smiling proudly, always smiling, knocking on wood to fend off bad luck. She hid texts by authors collaborating with Ringelblum in an old sofa. She was their first reader, too.

Emanuel Ringelblum. PHOTO: Jewish Historical Institute.

On the “Aryan” side

Rachel Auerbach left the ghetto in the spring of 1943. Her newly acquired name was Aniela Dobrucka. She was engaged in conspiratorial activities and collaborated with Żegota as well as the Jewish National Committee.   She wrote her poem “Yizkor”, dedicated to the murdered Jewish youth, outside the ghetto walls. “She is a tad stubborn, but so very talented!”, recalls Basia Temkin-Berman in her commentary to one of Auerbach’s texts written for the Jewish National Committee. She used to sell stockings, amongst other things, to provide for a group of people in hiding who remained under her care.

Rachela Auerbach, 1945. PHOTO: Jewish Historical Institute.

The Żabiński family

In the summer of 1943 Rachel turned up at the ZOO, sent by Janina Bucholtz-Bukolska, a friend of the Żabinskis. She had a “good appearance”. Antonina recalls: “She was dark-haired and handsome, with big bluish-green eyes which glanced softly, cheerfully, I would even say mischievously; at other times affectionately and lovingly”. She used to come with a basket full of homemade rolls and buns. Sometimes she stayed overnight, sometimes she sat and talked with us in the sunlit garden, sometimes she popped in as a liaison.

The Żabinski family villa today. PHOTO: Warsaw Zoological Garden.


One day Rachel Auerbach turned up at the ZOO with mute Gienia. According to the documents, she was Estonian. In fact she was a Jewess who could barely speak Polish. During daytime, when it was impossible to stay in the hideout, she pretended to be a dressmaker. When Antonina got pregnant, she sewed diapers and layette for the baby. Rachel Auerbach and Gienia Sylkes stopped coming to the ZOO a few weeks before the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising; it became too dangerous to move around freely in the city.

Secret passage leading from the basement of the Żabinskis’ villa to the garden, used by people in hiding in case of danger. PHOTO: POLIN Museum, Klara Jackl

To bear witness

Rachel Auerbach believed that bearing witness was the only possible reason for her survival. “The memory of those who perished is alive in me. […] Had I perished, they would have perished once again, with me.” Rachel cooperated with the Central Jewish Historical Commission; she participated in the crime scene investigation at the former death camp site in Treblinka, which resulted in the most moving reportage. She indicated the exact spots in the sea of rubble where to look for the subsequent parts of the ghetto archive. “One of the 10 metal boxes recovered from the rubble in 1946 was filled entirely with materials which I myself had collected”. In 1950 Rachel Auerbach emigrated via London to Israel, where she took a post at Yad Vashem.
Autorką przekładu użytych w wystawie cytatów z Racheli Auerbach jest Karolina Szymaniak.

Recovering the first part of the Ringelblum Archive. Rachela Auerbach and Hersz Wasser. Warsaw, 1946. PHOTO: Jewish Historical Institute.

i Info

Jews in hiding at the Warsaw ZOO

Refuge, haven, ark – that is how those who had survived the Second World War owing to the Żabiński family’s help referred to the Warsaw ZOO.
We would like to present the virtual exhibition depicting selected stories of Jews rescued in this unique place.

The Exhibition is realized as part of the “Polish Righteous – Recalling Forgotten History” project.

Author: Karolina Dzięciołowska

Coordinator: Klara Jackl, “Polish Righteous – Recalling Forgotten History”

Scientific consultation: Dr. Jolanta Żyndul

English translation: Zofia Sochańska

Realized by: Artkolektyw –

Virtual exhibition awarded an Honourable Mention at the Sybilla Museum Event of the Year 2015.

We extend our thanks to the management of the Warsaw Zoological Garden and the Museum and Institute of Zoology at the Polish Academy of Science
for providing access to photographs as well as incisive comments.

The villa of the Żabiński family in the Warsaw ZOO is accessible to visitors. Reservations:

Supported from the Norway and EEA Grants by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.,