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Rome Reports

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The Polish Catholic zookeepers who risked everything to save Jews during WWII

During World War II, in Nazi-occupied Poland, Jewish families were being rounded up and deported to extermination camps. Risking their own lives, Jan and Antonia Żabiński rescued nearly 300 Jews by hiding them among the animals in their zoo in Warsaw.  

“Of Animals and Men” is the title of a new documentary that tells the story of the Żabiński's resoursefulness and courage.

Our house was always a refuge for the weak, for those in need. The person responsible for helping and saving them was mainly my mom.

Dominik Zawadzki is the Żabiński's grandson. He says it was his grandparents' Catholic faith that motivated them, allowing them to recognize their common humanity with the people they saved. 

“My grandfather was interviewed after the World War and there was this question: Why did you do it? And he plainly answered: Because this was the right thing to do. It didn't matter if they were Jews, it didn't matter if they were Catholics.”

The story of the Żabiński family inspired another film called “The Zookeeper's Wife”, and an international best-selling book. But, according to Zawadski, this documentary shows “the real thing”. 

“When we saw “The Zookeeper's Wife”, it was the real story, but it wasn't the real thing. This shows the real thing. It shows the real people, you can hear the real people, you can see the animals, real animals.”

The documentary includes both archival footage of the Warsaw Zoo and original voice recordings of the Żabiński family. By the time Zawadzki was born, his grandparents had already passed away. So it was on the big screen that he heard their voices for the first time. 

“I was really, really happy to have heard their voices because I knew so much about them, but I never really heard their voices.

I'm extremely happy to have seen all the things they have found, and extremely touched by it, and I really hope that audiences will be as well.”

“Of Animals and Men” is a testament to how ordinary people can do extraordinary things – under even more extraordinary circumstances.