Hollywood has a prolific history of spicing up every story they use as the basis for a film script. The Zookeeper’s Wife is hardly an exception, so if you are dying to know which parts of this extraordinary drama are real, Culture.pl has done the fact-checking for you!
SPOILER ALERT! This article contains a lot of information that will spoil the movie for you. You probably don’t want to continue before seeing it (unless you know the story anyway).
If you want to know the whole story, listen to our podcast from Stories From The Eastern West by clicking the player below:
For our fact check, we went for the best possible sources: the diary of its main character – Antonina Żabińska (published as a novel after World War II, entitled People and Animals) and we went to the actual villa where it all happened, which still stands in the Warsaw Zoo today, and talked to people from the Panda Foundation, the keepers of the Żabiński family story. Here is what we learned:
1. Getting Jews out of the Warsaw Ghetto in a truck under leftover food
Nothing like this ever took place and not only would that be absolutely impossible but also drastically conflicts with how the Żabiński family operated. They were extremely cautious and unbelievably disciplined, and everything they did was always perfectly planned. Such a simple trick would never work as the ghetto was heavily guarded and the guards did much more than look casually under the blankets. Moreover, the Żabińskis did not work alone; they cooperated closely with the Jewish Combat Organisation and the Polish Underground State and its military units. We’ll come back later to how Jews were really led out of the ghetto.
2. ‘The Bad Guy’, a.k.a. Lutz Heck
Every Hollywood story needs a villain, and a conflict between ‘the bad guy’ and ‘the good guy’. Lutz Heck, who happens to be the former in The Zookeeper’s Wife, was however a much more ambiguous person. He was a high-ranking Nazi officer, and like many Nazis, was crazy about the idea of purity of the breed. Personally, he was obsessed with the idea of recreating (through genetic experiments) extinct species of ancient European cattle and horses (the tarpan). He was ready to do whatever it took to make his dream a reality, so the war gave him the opportunity to rob Eastern European zoos of every the specimen he needed, and he helped himself.
On the other hand, he was a friend of the Żabiński family from the times before World War II and indeed they had some hopes of using this relationship as a possible lifesaver for the dying zoo. However, it did not work exactly as they had planned. Heck decided to take the species he wanted to the zoos in Berlin and Munich ‘for safekeeping,’ so they would be spared the horrors of war. Unfortunately, he later decided that the other animals should be wiped out. He even went as far as organising a hunting party in the zoo. On New Year’s Eve, a group of Nazi officers showed up at the zoo and gunned down a vast number of the animals which were left there.
Because the zoo was soon turned into a pig farm and later also into a complex of allotments, Heck was no longer in charge of it and he seems to have disappeared from the Żabińskis’ lives quite early on. He didn’t go after their Jewish guests, he didn’t even stay in Warsaw for very long (or until the Warsaw Uprising, as the movie suggests). Although the story of a German Nazi officer taking Ryś into the backyard and pretending to shoot him is true, it was not Heck who put on that cruel performance.
3. The ‘romance’ between Lutz Heck and Antonina
Completely untrue. The only sentence that could suggest any affection between the two can be found in Antonina’s diary, where she wrote that Lutz Heck was always exceptionally kind to her, which according to her intuition might have meant that he admired her more than the other women in the zoological society. The rest is pure fiction. She never tried using it as leverage in the Żabińskis’ psychological game with the Nazis.
4. Ziegler – how the Jews were really saved
This part of the story remains a mystery. We simply don’t know if, and to what extent, Ziegler was involved in the plot. The movie presents him as a jovial, friendly person, but in fact he was in charge of the Arbeitsamt, a cruel institution which was responsible for sending hundreds if not thousands of people to death (you can watch the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List to get a better sense of that part of the story), therefore it is not very likely that he would be interested in cooperating with the Żabińskis in the way the film suggests. Even Antonina admitted that the role of Ziegler remained a mystery to her.
The real-life part of this story is that because Ziegler was an amateur entomologist, absolutely mesmerised by Szymon Tenebaum’s collection, he equipped Jan Żabiński with the document that allowed him to pass freely in and out of the ghetto. Jan simply told him that he had to see Tenenbaum often to ask him how to preserve the collection properly. Most probably, Jan was then able to impose his will on the ghetto guards and pretend to be close friends with Ziegler, who they were very afraid of. Each escape from the ghetto was very dangerous and based only on an extremely risky psychological game played by Jan and the gatekeepers. Most terrifyingly, the moments when they were so close to getting caught, such as the one with the Jewish lawyer being almost stopped, are 100% true. That scene was precisely recreated from a passage in Antonina’s memoires.
5. Urszula – the red-haired girl saved from the ghetto
We found no trace of Urszula, the girl who is portrayed as one of the first Jewish ‘guests’ of the Żabińskis’ villa, therefore she must be a purely fictional character. However, the family kept no record of the people they saved (for obvious reasons), so we know only a few names from the list of around 300 survivors. There certainly could have been a girl in the same situation, however, this particular character doesn’t seem to be based on any actual person.
6. Janusz Korczak
On the contrary to Urszula, Janusz Korczak was, of course, a real person, and a Polish-Jewish hero. He really did run an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto and devoted his life to saving Jewish children. He was offered ways out of the ghetto numerous times, yet wanted to stay with his orphans until the end – which for all of them meant a gas chamber at the Nazi extermination camp in Treblinka.
Although he doesn’t seem to have been a friend of Jan Żabiński’s (most likely they never met) introducing him into the story seems to be a fantastic idea – people should know of him, as his acts of bravery and devotion were truly exceptional.
7. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
The film does not bring up the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which took place in the wake of the liquidation of the ghetto in 1943. It was a heroic and, at the same time, desperate attempt to fight the Nazis. The uprising lasted almost a month and took an appalling death toll of around 13,000 Jews. The ‘snowing’ ashes of the ghetto are a thing often depicted in novels and memoires of the war survivors who were in Warsaw during the uprising.
8. Hair dye
The story of dyeing hair is partially true. Germans strongly believed there was such a thing as a ‘Jewish appearance’ or a ‘Jewish physiognomy’ and dark or red hair was something they thought was a part of it. This is why Antonina attempted to dye the Koeninsgwein family’s hair a fair blonde. The experiment, however, failed miserably, as their hair turned light red, and looked so unnatural that they would surely draw even more attention to themselves. She was terrified of the outcome and it slowed down the process of moving them to a safer place, so she never tried it again.
9. The dramatic climax during the evacuation of the guests
What Hollywood cinema thrives on are scenes like the one when Antonina sprints through the city to reach the villa before a motorised Nazi unit, just to let the Jewish guests out of the zoo and save their lives right under the Nazis’ noses. As you can imagine, no such thing happened. The Jews were moved elsewhere long before the Warsaw Uprising started (August 1944) because Jan was deeply involved in the uprising and knew months before that the villa would no longer be a safe place.
10. Star of David paintings on the walls
Probably the most absurd scene in the movie… Those who managed to escape from the ghetto were fully aware that in order to survive they had to be ‘invisible,’ inaudible, almost ‘ethereal.’ They would never leave even the slightest trace of their presence and even small children were taught how to stay perfectly silent and how to evacuate through the tunnel in no time, leaving no trace of their existence.
In fact, the Żabiński family kept no record of who stayed at the villa and they even limited informing one another about their secrets. The less they knew, the bigger their chance of surviving interrogation.
The amount of fiction in the movie is quite surprising considering the real story is already so extraordinary and… well, so Hollywood. Reading Diane Ackerman’s book The Zookeeper’s Wife or Antonina Żabińska’s People and Animals is the best way to get to know the real story and is definitely worth it. We guarantee that the real story is even more incredible and thrilling than its Hollywood version.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 30 March 2017