The zoo as depicted in The Zookeeper’s Wife is Warsaw Zoo, which become one of Europe’s largest zoos. Its expanded area housed many animals. This prosperity was, however, short lived. When World War II broke out extensive parts of the zoo were destroyed in the bombings, many animals were killed, and others, including the zoo’s special attraction—the elephant Tuzinka – were taken to Germany.
Dr. Jan Zabinski was the director of the zoo. He was the author of many popular-knowledge books about biology and the psychology of animals, as well as the producer of a number of very popular radio-shows. Despite the enormous problems he faced as the director of a zoo during wartime, he was not blind to the suffering of the Jews. When the Warsaw ghetto was established Jan and his wife, Antonina, began helping their Jewish friends. As an employee of the Warsaw municipality he was allowed to enter the ghetto. Under the pretext of supervising the trees and small public garden within the ghetto area, he visited his Jewish acquaintances and helped them as best as he could. As the situation in the ghetto deteriorated, he offered them shelter.
An active member of the Polish underground Armia Krajowa (Home Army), Zabinski participated in the Polish uprising in Warsaw of August and September 1944. Upon its suppression, he was taken as a prisoner to Germany. His wife continued his work, looking after the needs of some of the Jews left behind in the ruins of the city. Jan wrote in his own testimony explaining his motives: “Polish ZooI do not belong to any party, and no party program was my guide during the occupation… I am a Pole – a democrat. My deeds were and are a consequence of a certain psychological composition, a result of progressive-humanistic upbringing, which I received at home as well as in Kreczmar High School. Many times I wished to analyze the causes for dislike for Jews and I could not find any, besides artificially formed ones.”