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‘Of Animals and Men’: The true story of a righteous refuge
In 2017, a portion of the story of Jan and Antonina Żabiński was told to the world when novelist Diane Ackerman’s bestselling novel “The Zookeeper’s Wife” was adapted for the big screen by director Niki Caro. As is often the case with Hollywood, screenwriter Angela Workman’s script took liberties with Ackerman’s original source material. The film spun a compelling tale based around real events, but it included a sensationalized intimate relationship that was perhaps conveyed to encourage ticket sales.
Thankfully, the new documentary “Of Animals and Men” by Polish director Łukasz Czajka offers viewers interested in the history of World War II and its unsung heroes a more balanced and historically accurate look at the Żabiński family and their quest to help preserve the lives of hundreds of Jewish refugees in war-torn Warsaw.
Czajka draws extensively from Antonina’s own words in her 1968 book “People and Animals,” placing her as the narrator of a story that begins with a pre-war look at the couple’s idyllic existence living at the zookeeper’s villa on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo. As Antonina, voiced by Maria Pakulnis, takes us inside the villa, we learn about the Żabiński family, including their young son, Ryszard. Named for Antonina’s beloved lynxes, who like many other animals at the zoo lived alongside the family, the boy adjusted from a life surrounded by wildlife to playing an active role in his parents’ humanitarian mission.
As a means of most creatively telling an accurate story while also transporting viewers to a true sense of the period, Czajka employs not only archival footage from a variety of sources but also dramatic recreations filmed with 8-mm cameras. Interspersed throughout are interviews with Teresa Żabińska, Jan and Antonina’s daughter who was born in 1944, 12 years after her brother, Ryszard. Along with Teresa’s recollections and visit to the modern-day Warsaw Zoo, firsthand accounts are offered by Moshe Tirosh, a Jew whose family survived after being sheltered in the zoo, and Krzysztof Prochaska, a man whose mother also found shelter there.
Although unnamed in the credits, the animals of the Warsaw Zoo were very much a part of the Żabiński family and lend both character and nuance to the film. Jan and Antonina opened the villa to a variety of furry and feathered friends. In the early moments of the documentary, we’re treated to footage of critters wandering in and around the home and the zoo. So it’s shocking when we see these same magnificent creatures mangled viciously as war breaks out in Warsaw. Although most of this footage is recreated and no animals were harmed in the filming of the documentary, the juxtaposition of human and animal carnage is intense and disturbing.
Such insights are important for a film that is meant to remind us in stark fashion of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. Through their courageous and innovative actions, Jan and Antonina saved hundreds of men, women and children from being sent from the Warsaw ghetto to near certain genocide. With their beloved zoo bereft of animals that had all been plundered by the Nazis, the Żabiński family set up a pig farm as a guise to both keep the zoo and to smuggle as many Jews as possible out of the ghetto and into safety. Hidden in unseen corners of the villa and throughout the unused animal habitats at the zoo, the Jewish families were fed, protected and even warned by Antonina’s piano playing when the Nazis were nearby and when they had left the area.
To provide context, the hundreds of people saved through the valor of the Żabiński family lived to tell stories of the millions who were viciously exterminated during the war. Approximately 6 million Polish citizens perished during World War II, including 3 million Jews. Films like “Of Animals and Men” are critical in that they remind us of the past so that we can avoid such horrors in the future. While their Catholic faith is not discussed in the film, Antonina, Ryszard and Teresa were all baptized Catholics. Jan, an atheist raised by a Catholic mother, was clearly led by his moral convictions to participate in the resistance movement that eventually led to his own internment in a prison camp.
While faith is not overtly a part of this film, one fleeting image reminds us how their faith bolstered many of the Polish citizens who survived the ravages of war. As Antonina’s voice describes the withdrawal of the German troops from Poland and her venture back into the war-torn Wola district, archival footage shows survivors pecking their way through massive piles of debris in an attempt to salvage some semblance of a life. “Many people had told me about the current state of Warsaw,” says Antonina as our screens fill with shaky images of rubble and devastation. “Still, I was genuinely shocked. It’s simply impossible to describe the war landscape.” For just a moment, we watch as a grieving mother turns and lifts aloft a treasure: an image of Our Lady of Czestochowa that has somehow survived the wreckage of a Nazi bombing.
In theaters for one day only on June 22 as a Fathom event, “Of Animals and Men” shares the heroism of the Zabinski family — caretakers whose humanity extended beyond their animal charges to provide shelter for scores of families. May our consideration of their story and courage inspire us to summon our own in a time when care for one another and our common creation is still so greatly needed in today’s world.
For ticket information, visit https://www.fathomevents.com/events/Of-Animals-And-Men.
Lisa Hendey writes from California.