comScore Meet Antonina Żabińska, A WWII Hero and a Zookeeper's Wife | The Mary Sue
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Meet Antonina Żabińska, The WWII Hero Who Was More Than Just a Zookeeper’s Wife

When the WWII drama The Zookeeper’s Wife makes its way to theaters on March 31, you’ll be introduced to an incredible woman named Antonina Żabińska who, along with her husband, saved more than 300 Jews in Poland at the height of Hitler’s reign.

The story centers on Antonina and Jan, whose zoo is bombed and then turned into a an encampment for Nazi soldiers. Under the guise of raising pigs, they smuggled people out of the Warsaw ghetto and hid them in their home (up to 12 at a time) until they could find a safer place. They did so at the risk of being caught and subsequently executed by the Nazis who were right in front of them. The film, directed by Niki Caro, features a script from  Angela Workman, is based on the book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, and stars Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh and Daniel Brühl.

The best thing about this is that not only is the story is based on real people, but they and most of the Jews they rescued made it through the whole ordeal alive. Moshe Tirosh, a retired career officer in the Israel Defense Forces, was one of them. “I was only 3 1/2 years old, but I was already a suspicious war child out of the ghetto trained in keeping quiet for hours,” he recalled. “But when I saw Antonina, I told my mother, ‘I think we’ll be alright here.'”

Antonina would play a tune on the piano to indicate danger, meaning they’d have to hide and keep quiet. When it was safe to come out, she’d play a different tune. She also dyed their hair a different color to disguise their heritage, an act that helped save their lives when they would leave the zoo. Antonina died in 1971, and her husband soon followed in 1974.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem honored the couple as Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. Today, the Warsaw Zoo is thriving.

(image via screencap)

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