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.
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.