Wednesday, July 26, 2017

DVD: The Zookeeper's Wife

The movie, The Zookeeper's Wife tells the remarkable story of the courageous actions of Dr. Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina who were the zookeepers at the Warsaw Zoo in Warsaw, Poland in the 1930's. For their actions in aiding the Jewish citizens of Warsaw during the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Zabinski's were honoured by Yad V'shem as Righteous Among Nations.

The movie opens in Warsaw, Poland, in the summer of 1939 with Antonina opening the zoo in the morning, welcoming people. On her bike, Antonina rides through the zoo greeting the different animals, giving viewers a quick tour of the zoo and the many animals; the elephants, zebras, monkeys, lions, cheetahs and giraffes. That night at a dinner party at the zoo, with many Germans in attendance people make fun of Antonina for her care of the animals. Dr. Lutz Heck, director of the Berlin Zoo is in attendance and while he ridicules Jan he seems more But their view of Antonina changes when Jerzyk, the zookeeper requests her help for Kasia, an elephant in distress. Antonina saves Kasia's baby. She is applauded for her successful efforts.

The next day the Zabinski's discuss leaving Warsaw after they see how the Jews in the city are being treated. Jan wants Antonina and their son Rys to go to Zaliesie, but Antonina refuses because she believes people should not simply run away from what they fear. On September 1, 1939, Warsaw along with the rest of Poland is bombed. Jan is in so Antonina grabs Rys and after quickly packing a suitcase they head for the train station. There they learn there are no trains running but meet up with Jan who takes the back to the zoo. Their beloved zoo has been bombed and many of the animals killed. Some of the animals were shot by the Polish soldiers, others including lions, tigers and camels run free. Many of the escaped animals are brought back to the zoo by the people of Warsaw.

The Germans arrive in Warsaw after Poland capitulates with Rommel warning the Polish to accept the Germans peacefully. Herr Heck arrives with the information that the zoo is to be liquidated for use as meat, firewood and soap. He makes Antonina an offer to take the prize animals to Germany and return them after the war. Antonina agrees but Jan who was not present at the time of the discussion is furious.

In October of 1940, the Germans begin rounding up the Jewish citizens of Warsaw and placed into an areas of the city called the Warsaw ghetto. There is little food and fuel for the coming winter. Several of their Jewish friends Szymon Tenebaum and Magda Gross meet with the Zabinskis. Magda tells them that Maurycy Fraenkel a gentle man has been incarcerated in the ghetto. Szymon knows there is nothing the Jews can do and so he requests that the Zabinski's keep his insect collection which represents his life's work. They agree to do this and place it in their basement. Later that night Antonina suggests that perhaps they can save one life and hide Magda in their home. Jan is initially against this because they know the penalty will be death. However, Antonina believes they must help. "So we just close our eyes and let her go? Our dearest friend in all the world."

Magda is taken in and Antonina and Jan tell her she must stay quiet until cook leaves for the day but that at night she can come out and walk around. They learn that the Jewish people are suffering terribly, that there is little food and no wood. Their friend Maurycy is practicing law from a storefront in the ghetto and that it is impossible to get into the ghetto without a pass. Jan informs Antonina that there are people who want to help by hiding Jews in the zoo until safe houses can be found for them. Now it is Antonina's turn to object but when Jan tells her the Jews are trapped and starving she says "A human zoo." The two come up with a plan.

The Zabinkis travel to Berlin and tell Herr Heck they want to save their zoo because they have spent many years building it. They suggest creating a pig farm to feed the German soldiers, feeding the pigs with garbage from the ghetto. Heck tells the Zabinkis that Hermann Goering has given him permission to attempt to breed aurochsen from bison. Jan is incredulous because aurochsen have been extinct for three hundred years. He agrees to the pig farm because unknown to the Zabinkis he can use the zoo to breed his aurochsen.

The pigs arrive and Jan goes to make his first pick-up of garbage from the Warsaw ghetto. On his first trip he witnesses a young girl being forced into an alleyway by two German soldiers to be raped. Jan manages to spirit her out of the ghetto along with several boys who hide under the garbage. Each trip to the ghetto brings more women and children to the basement of the Zabinski's home in the zoo, where they stay hidden during the day.

One night the Zabinski's receive an unexpected visit from Dr. Ziegler of the Ghetto Labor Bureau and a friend of Symon. He tells them that Symon has died and asks to see his insect collection.During his visit, Ziegler tells Jan he knows what they are doing and he informs Jan that the Bureau has two doors, one of which opens into the ghetto. He tells the Zabinskis they can use the Bureau to smuggle people out of the ghetto. In August of 1942 the Warsaw ghetto is cleared. Jan begs Dr. Korczak to escape but he tells him that this is a time for calmness and asks Jan to help the children climb into the train.

Gradually Urszula with the help of the animals and her ability to paint, begins to recover from the rape, coming out of her shell. Many of the children begin painting on the walls of their hiding place.  On April 19, 1943 the final extermination of the Warsaw ghetto is undertaken and the ghetto is burned to the ground. As the Nazis work to find every Jew in Warsaw, the stress begins to wear on Jan and Antonina's marriage. Herr Heck is infatuated with Antonina who must force herself to show interest in his attentions. Antonina and Jan have a second child, Teresa.

As Germany begins to lose the war, Jan and Antonina must persevere. Jan participates in the Polish Army uprising in 1944 but is captured and sent to a prison camp. Although the Polish army is defeated, the Russians advance into Poland and the Germans are forced to evacuate the city. Hoping to learn of Jan's whereabouts, Antonina visits Herr Heck. He attempts to rape her but stops when he realizes that she was only pretending to like him. He then draws the conclusion that Antonina has been faking other things as well - hiding Jews in the zoo. Antonina must try to save those in her care at the zoo.


Directed by Niki Caro, The Zookeeper's Wife is a moving portrayal of the plight of Jews in Warsaw and the heroic efforts of Jan and Antonina Zabinski to save as many Jews as possible from certain death. Antonina and Jan Zabinski, beautifully portrayed by Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh, managed to hide three hundred "guests" in the Warsaw zoo on the pretense of running a pig farm. With the exception of Rosa Anzelowna and her mother who had their hair dyed and moved to a boarding house in Warsaw, all those hidden survived the war. The Zabinskis and their family survived the war; Jan returned home from the prison camp. They rebuilt their zoo and the Warsaw Zoo is still open to this day.

The Zookeeper's Wife is based on the nonfiction book of the same title by Diane Ackerman. It is a dramatization of the events that happened and as such is not accurate. For example, it was much too difficult to simply drive a truck filled with food scraps out of the Warsaw ghetto as portrayed in the movie. The Nazis thoroughly searched every vehicle entering and leaving the ghetto. The character of Urszula is likely fictional as the Zabinski's never kept any sort of record of who passed through the zoo on their way to safety. They were cautious and everything was meticulously planned.

Although the movie is essentially about Jan and Antonina's work with the Resistance to save Jews from the Warsaw ghetto and ultimately death, there is a subplot that revolves around the (fictional) relationship between Antonina and Herr Lutz Heck, newly appointed director of the Berlin Zoo and the zookeeper's wife, Antonina. This relationship did not exist in real life. Heck was a friend of the Zabinski's before the invasion of Poland and he was always kind to Antonina, but once the zoo was turned into a farm, Herr Heck left for Berlin and therefore there never was any opportunity for the romance portrayed in the movie. However it is this relationship that adds considerable drama to the film.

Some might not care for movie's understated approach to portraying the brutality of the Holocaust. Much of the violence is implied and rarely shown; Urszula's rape is off screen as are the murders of several Jews, and even the burning of the ghetto, Caro relies on the images of burning buildings to convey the horror. The film misses portraying the Warsaw ghetto uprising of August 1944 which happened after the liquidation of the ghetto. Instead the threat of danger is more subtle, the cost of discovery means certain death not only for the Jews in hiding but also for Jan and Antonina. Knowing this and being very organized, the Zabinskis took great care. The Jews at the zoo were moved well before the Warsaw ghetto uprising because Jan was involved and this would have made the Zabinskis and the zoo suspect. In this regard, the climax of the film, where Herr Heck realizes that the Zabinskis have been hiding Jews in the zoo and sets out to search the grounds is completely fictional and serves as dramatic license.  

Chastain who was envisioned by director Niki Caro as the actress of choice to play Antonina gives a believable portrayal of this remarkably courageous woman. The Yad Vashem World Holocaust Memorial Center has a good section on Jan and Antonina Kabinski.

This short documentary, Hiding Like Animals tells the story of survivor Stefanie Sitbon whose parents were helped by the Zabinskis.

And finally the trailer for the Zookeeper's Wife. Although not an accurate account, the movie may encourage viewers to read the book about the Zabinskis and to dig a bit deeper into their remarkable story.

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