During the late 1930s, Antonina and Jan Źabiński, along with their young son Ryś, were leading an idyllic life as caretakers of a small zoo, set in a parklike setting on the bank of the Vistula River in the Old Town of Warsaw, Poland. Antonina had a special gift for dealing with animals in need, and their villa, on the zoo grounds, was full of animals that need a bit of extra help, including Ryś’ pet badger, and was fondly known as “The House Under a Crazy Star”. But once the Germans invade Poland, not only did they have animals running in and out, but also a revolving series of Guests. There had been a series of tunnels between the Villa and the zoo buildings, but soon there were more. The zoo was located quite close to the Warsaw Ghetto, and Jan quickly became a leader of the Polish Underground.
Besides their activities supporting the Resistance, there was the dilemma of the animals. Early on, some were sent to other zoos, and some were released to manage as best they could on their own. With Jan gone a good deal of the time, Antonina struggles to care for the remaining animals, along with their Guests. To justify their staying in Warsaw to the Germans, they became involved in a series of somewhat dubious schemes, such as raising animals for the fur trade (very popular with the German occupiers) and an attempt to bring back some of the animals, by “back-breeding”, that used to roam these forests during the Ice Age, such as forest tarpins (wild horses) and aurochsen (prehistoric bison). All this to establish a prime hunting preserve for German aristocrats – pure blood animals to kill!
All in all, a fascinating bit of history.