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The Holocaust, a zoo, and a lesson in human ecology

Of Animals and Men is simple in its cinematic approach, but is often incredibly effective in telling the unique and charming story of zookeepers Jan and Antonia Zabinski.

A still from "Of Animals and Men". (Image: Netflix)

MPAA Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
USCCB Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 reels

There are many stories of heroic virtue that have come from the Holocaust but few as unique and charming as that of zookeepers Jan and Antonia Zabinski. Their story has been told many times, most recently in The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017) but never from their own experiences. Of Animals and Men puts a real witness to the story, especially from their daughter Teresa, who was in elementary school at the time and just passed away this February. It a potent reminder that even the most ordinary people can perform acts of great bravery.

Jan Zabinski was a Polish biologist with a dream: to put a world class zoo in the heart of his beloved Poland. In the 1928, that vision became reality with the establishment of the Warsaw Zoological Garden. For Jan, being the zoo’s director was not just a career but an integral part of his vocation. His wife and two children (Therese and Ryszard) lived in a large house in the center of the complex. Baby tigers, lions, possums, and other animals that needed extra care would live and even sleep in the house.

Jan became known internationally and would often attend meetings with other directors in London, Paris, Rome, or New York. This idyllic time ended in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. In the bombing of Warsaw, large sections of the architecture were destroyed and, worst still, many of the animals were killed. Those that survived were carted off to the Berlin Zoo, leaving the campus eerily empty.

Initially, Jan’s main concern was keeping the zoo, and his family, from falling into ruin. He started raising pigs in enclosures originally meant for chimpanzees or eagles. He developed a friendship with Dr. Lutz Heck, Hitler’s chief zoologist, who was obsessed with recreating the ancient aurochs of Europe’s past through selective breeding. He also cultivated a relationship with Szymon Tenenbaum, an entomologist living in the ghetto.

Through these contacts, he was able to move freely between the Aryan and Jewish sections of the city and began to smuggle people into the zoo. Jewish refugees would live quietly amongst the pigs and pheasants for days or even months before obtaining fake visas to escape the county. By the war’s end, Jan and Ana had secretly assisted over 200 people. In 1965, he was declared a “Righteous among the Nations” and planted a tree in Yad Vashem.

With the advent of smartphones in 2007, even the most mundane and trivial moments of one’s life can be preserved for eternity. In the 1930s, home movies were essential non-existent. Yet a zoo director is not only a scientist but an entertainer, and Jan would sometimes focus his 8mm camera on his family. This results in some truly remarkable footage. How many people in their eighties have home movies of their toddler years? And how many of those show an otter and a two-year-old sleeping in a crib together?

It easy to image people such as Oscar Schindler and Corrie ten Boom as otherworldly figures whose courage is unattainable for the masses. Yet these images show a family with all the joys and sorrows of our own. They also visualize the horror of that time, including Nazi officers going for a leisurely stroll of the grounds and a mutilated elephant carcass, dead from an arial bomb. The narration over these films is mostly done by Teresa but also Jewish children, now in their twilight years, saved by Jan. The narrative rarely strays from this format, which can seem unsophisticated in comparison to most recent documentaries, but the brutal reality of the images and memories is incredibly effective.

Throughout Of Animals and Men, I was constantly reminded of Laudato Si, which, in my modest opinion, is the best thing Pope Francis has yet written. In this encyclical, the Holy Father speaks of the need for a “human ecology,” which positions care of creation as important due to its affect on human needs. Conservation and environmentalism, properly understood, are not against man but for him. Without a theology degree, the Zabinskis understood this in a profound way. Jan envisioned his zoo as spiritual education not just a Saturday distraction.

Yet when the needs of his fellows were apparent, he set aside his aspirations to help them. There’s something beautiful about how these enclosures, meant to serve the needs of lions ended up preserving the survival of men.

After the war, Jan was able to rebuild the zoo but retired early in 1953 after growing frustrated with the Communist authorities. The Warsaw Zoological Garden is still open to this day. And, even greater, the descendants of the Jews he helped number in the thousands. If the lion can lie down with the lamb, then certainly the man can as well.

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About Nick Olszyk 194 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

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