Toronto woman one of few survivors hidden by zookeeper’s wife

Toronto woman one of few survivors hidden by zookeeper’s wife

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Stefania Sitbon was hidden in a home on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo as a child

Stefania Sitbon hasn’t seen the The Zookeeper’s Wife, the current movie about a Polish couple who hid Jews in the  Warsaw Zoo during World War II.

Sitbon, who lives in Toronto, lived it.

The acclaimed feature film tells the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, the Polish couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo and used their home, and even animal cages, to temporarily shelter 300 Jews from the Nazis.

Sitbon, (nee Kenigswein), along with her mother, Regina, and brother, Moishe, were hidden by the Zabinskis at their home, which was situated on the zoo’s grounds. Now 78, Sitbon was only four years old when the family spent two-and-a-half months in the zoo beginning around Passover 1943, and is one of the few survivors alive today to have done so.

Although only a child at the time, Sitbon has vivid memories of the time, bolstered no doubt by postwar family discussions.

The family lived a fairly prosperous life in Warsaw at the start of the war. Her father, Shmuel, was in the carpentry and furniture business and did quite well. Regina, was a homemaker.

Sitbon was born only months before Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. About a year after its Polish conquest, Germany decreed that all Warsaw’s Jews had to live within the confines of the ghetto.

READ: JESSICA CHASTAIN PLAYS WOMAN WHO HID JEWS IN WARSAW ZOO

In April 1943, with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising’s last act of defiance looming, and knowing the outcome for the Jews was grim at best, Shmuel looked to get his family out of the ghetto. Relying on a contact in the Polish underground, he found a temporary refuge for them on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo. Exiting through large underground water tunnels, the family made its way to the home of the Zabinskis.

There was already a family connection to the Zabinskis. Sitbon’s maternal grandfather had a small business selling fruits and vegetables, with the Warsaw Zoo among his clients.

“My mother used to go with him. He spoke Yiddish and my mother spoke Polish and translated,” Sitbon said.

Over time, a friendship between the families developed.

“My father had connections in the underground Polish army and they knew that the zoo was safe for a few hours until the underground could find a place for people,” Sitbon said.

They spent much of the next two-and -a-half months living in the building’s basement, in a hidden room.

With staff milling about upstairs, the family had to keep silent or be exposed.

Her brother, Moishe, sometimes held his hand over her mouth to prevent her from making noise, telling her he did it to save their mother from being killed, Sitbon said in a 2014 March of the Living Canada documentary called Hiding Like Animals.

The Germans, who had killed many animals and sent some of the more exotic ones to the zoo in Berlin, used the unoccupied cages as an armoury and were regularly on the zoo premises, Sitbon said. A signal was worked out with the Zabinskis to warn them of the Germans’ return: Antonina would play a piece by Offenbach “and my brother and I ran to the room when we heard the music,” Sitbon said.

“They taught us, when she plays, you have to run,” she added.

There were times when the Zabinkis feared the Germans would search their home, so the Kenigsweins were sent into hiding in vacated animal cages, she recalled.

The zoo was always meant as a temporary way station en route to a more permanent place of safety, so in the summer of 1943, Moishe was sent to live in a convent, while Regina and Stefania went out of the city to live with a Polish family. A second, younger brother, Stanislaw, was already under the care of nuns.

Incredibly, the family, including her dad, survived the war. In November 1945, a sister, Rachel, was born. Later,  a fifth child joined the family.

Unfortunately, her father, who went back into business after the war, died of a heart attack at age 40, leaving her mother to care for five young children.

In 1957, Regina took the family to Israel though she kept in contact with the Zabinskis.

In 1988, Sitbon moved to Toronto, where her son Shmuel resides, and in 2014, she returned to Warsaw as part of March of the Living Canada.

Sitbon also visited the Zabinskis’ home, accompanied by her daughters, Orit and Sarit. There they met Teresa, the Zabinskis’ daughter. The house is now a museum and in the basement, where the Kenigsweins hid, you can still find a  vintage photo of Shmuel and Regina on the wall, Sitbon said.

In 1965, Yad Vashem honored the Zabinskis as Righteous Among the Nations. In 1968, Antonina wrote a book about her experiences. The Polish language version translates roughly as People and Animals, Sitbon said.

In 2007, the story was told by author Diane Ackerman in The Zookeeper’s Wife, which formed the basis of the film, which is now in theatres.

In 2014, March of the Living Canada made the video Hiding Like Animals a part of its digital archives project, ensuring that Sitbon’s and the Zabinskis’ story remains alive for generations to come.

Another video shows Sitbon locating the grave of her father Szmul Kenigswein.

  • TerrorIsEvil

    There is an ugly and dangerous side to viewing the Holocaust
    through the lens of the “righteous” and, unfortunately, the stories of many great people who
    saved Jews in Poland are being used today to re-victimize those who perished (6,700
    were righteous and they saved many but almost 3 million were slaughtered with only a
    very small percentage whom survived).

    The righteous are being used by propagandists who want to minimize,
    trivialize and make the Holocaust something not about Jews but about everyone
    else instead.

    The propagandists say how dare Jews complain about the
    Holocaust when so many others died in WWII and also in other “Holocausts.” They
    say this and then to demonize some more, they falsely add that Jews do not care
    about other genocides such as the Armenian genocide; only about themselves.

    Nothing could be further from the truth but that does not
    stop haters from using the Holocaust to rub dirt into the faces of the dead and
    living alike. It does not stop them from using the Holocaust for their hateful
    politics against Israel or to divert our eyes from real discrimination and antisemitism
    and anti-Christian killing sprees happening today in Islamic countries.

    In Hamilton there is an ongoing attempt to unseat a Jewish
    woman on Police Services Board who simply said that Jews were killed in Poland.
    It seems as if the Islamists have aligned with some Polish people who took
    exception to the truth in that statement. The Islamists want to create a larger
    problem out of this and to transform it into Holocaust revisionism in order to
    replace a Jew with at least one or two Muslims in the name of inclusion and diversity!

    It seems that Poland, a land where Jews were mistreated
    before, during and after the war, are all being characterized as ALL entirely
    righteous. It takes a lot of people to look the other way and many
    willingly collaborated with the Nazis to kill 3 million Jewish people despite
    the great, courageous and valiant efforts of the righteous to hide them.

    If this stands, then Islamists will be deciding who gets into
    Boards and who does not, who gets work and who does not… and they will have
    free rein to set quotas. This is what took place in fascist Europe and afterwards we said “Never
    Again.” What are we saying today? See this horrendous article:

    http://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/7233656-hamilton-police-services-board-needs-diversity/

    • Jeff

      wow, you really are a miserable soul, unable to find joy in anything…for your information the Righteous are often honoured in Israel….remember those people took their lives in their hands to help Jews and if they were caught were killed themselves. Wonder what you would have done? Probably hide in the closet or under the bed.

      • TerrorIsEvil

        Did you read my post? Do you want Islamists re-victimizing Jews today, deciding who gets on boards and who does not – making alliances with Christian antisemites – making sure that Jews today are replaced with Islamists – preventing you and your children from getting work?

        Read the link I have provided!!! There were great people who helped Jews in Poland and other countries – I SAID SO AND PRAISED THEM ABOVE. They saved 16k out of 3 million Jews.

        What I am talking about is that 3 million died, Jeff, at the hands of Poles who must have looked the other way or collaborated because 3 million do not get slaughtered in a country without cooperation from general public – it is impossible.

        • Jeff

          but you are a one trick pony, one who seems to have a hatred of those who worship differently than you

          • TerrorIsEvil

            What are you referring to? I am against people who want us dead. And you?

          • Jeff

            of course not….the story here is about how some people reached out and helped Jews

    • George Jorge Soltysik

      Direct quote from TerrorIsEvil’s lengthy and revisionist story: “What I am talking about is that 3 million died, Jeff, at the hands of Poles who must have looked the other way or collaborated because 3 million do not get slaughtered in a country without cooperation from general public – it is impossible.”

      So sad to see such hatred directed at Poles and Poland, a land which accepted and welcomed Jews to live and prosper and freely practice their religion centuries prior and safely away from their persecutions and inquisitions and forced conversions. The business of comparing atrocities by numbers and blaming entire nations is a deadly game. Pointless for me here to offer any corrective history lessons, but I do recommend that it is far healthier to live in the present and to love all humans.

      • TerrorIsEvil

        Just read this:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Jewish_violence_in_Poland,_1944%E2%80%9346

        Before, during and after the war there was violence and killing of Jews for being Jews in Poland. My own family escaped the worst of it in the 1900’s (from Poland, what’s now Latvia, Russia and Austria) to escape the pogroms and discrimination. Yes, Poland for many Jews was home but it was never welcoming, never a good time for Jews and there was a lot of co-operation between the Germans and Poles with respect to rounding up Jews…and, yes, there were also many fine Polish citizens who hid and saved Jewish people. Why, it must be asked, was it necessary to save Jews if it was indeed “a land which accepted and welcomed Jews to live and prosper and freely practice their religion”?

        Today there is a concerted effort by Poland and other European countries to whitewash the Holocaust, make it more about everyone else and to erase the horror it meant to the Jewish people. there are even officials in Poland who extend this campaign into other parts of the world to make sure the truth is disguised, hidden or silenced.