The Warsaw Zoological Garden, more commonly referred to as the Warsaw Zoo, first opened its doors in 1928. Situated on ninety-nine acres in Warsaw, Poland, the zoo is located on Ratuszowa Street and is an accredited member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria as well as the World Association of Zoos. While the zoo is an expected attraction in Warsaw today, it has a unique and poignant history that few outside of Poland may know.
With its four thousand animals representing roughly five hundred species, the Warsaw Zoo is a major city attraction which is visited by about 600,000 people each year. Its shark aquarium is popular with zoo visitors as well as its Elephant exhibit and Hippopotamus House. Although its gorillas, chimps, and reef sharks signify a thriving zoo, the Warsaw Zoo was not always thus; its history is a compelling story of life and death amidst war and destruction.
While the zoo opened as a public attraction during the twentieth century, its roots as a menagerie of animals date to the seventeenth century when King Jan Sobieski collected a variety of animals. Collecting animals in private zoos was not altogether uncommon for wealthy aristocrats throughout history. Warsaw’s Zoo began as a Zoological Garden in 1926 when M. Pagowski upgraded his small zoo and gained a director from the Kiev Zoological Garden—Wenanty Burdzinski. Burdzinski died, however, in 1928, the same year the zoo opened, and its reigns were handed over to Jan Zabinski who was appointed to direct the young zoo.
Zabinski worked to transform the fledgling zoo into an important Warsaw attraction. He created new exhibits and brought many new animals into the zoo’s confines. He created both monkey and elephant houses as well as a seal pond and giraffe enclosure. Along with his wife and young son he lived in a villa on the zoo’s grounds. His work for the zoo lasted until 1939 when Warsaw was first bombed and later invaded by Nazi forces. The zoo suffered tremendously during the war years and many animals were killed or confiscated.
While utterly lamentable, the zoo’s sad story is not unique among wartime cities with zoos. However, the Warsaw Zoo has a unique story coinciding with its wartime suffering. Zabinski, a prominent citizen and friend of many Jewish residents, participated in the Polish underground resistance movement and helped to hide many escaped Jews who were destined for the work and death camps of the Nazis. He often obtained passes to the Jewish Ghetto under various guises in order to smuggle out Jewish friends and strangers. The zoo provided temporary and long-term shelter for upwards of three hundred escapees—many of whom actually had to bunk or hide in former animal cages and habitats. Cages which once housed lions acted as shelters for those on the run from Gestapo agents.
The zoo was nearly destroyed like the rest of Warsaw during WWII, but Zabinski resumed his role as its director until 1951 working to rebuild and recreate his beloved zoo along with the help of his wife Antonina Zabinski (who helped nurse the animals) and a dedicated staff. Today the zoo’s aquarium is the largest in Poland. The zoo also contains famed sculptures designed by the Jewish sculptor Magdalena Gross who hid in the Zabinski’s villa for a period during the occupation.
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