When the Nazis bombed Warsaw on Sept. 1, 1939, no living creature was safe. In Jan and Antonina Zabinski’s zoo, monkeys shrieked, parrot feathers caught fire, and bloodied zebras fled broken cages and ran for the woods.
But after the smoke cleared — and the Germans stole all the surviving animals they wanted — that hellish place became a sanctuary. Hidden in its underground cages and dens and in the basement and cupboards of the zookeepers’ adjoining villa were Polish Jews, sometimes 50 at a time.
When aiding a Jew in Poland was punishable by death, the Zabinskis saved 300 of them. Their story, recounted in Diane Ackerman’s haunting 2007 book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” is the basis for the film of the same name: Out Friday, it stars Jessica Chastain as Antonina, a woman of compassion so fierce you wonder why she isn’t better known.
“The reason is, it’s a female story,” says director Niki Caro. “So many Holocaust movies are from the male perspective. War happened to women and children and animals, also.”
Ackerman, the granddaughter of Polish Jews, stumbled upon Antonina’s diary in 2003. Drawing from that, as well as letters, memoirs, family photos and postwar interviews, the writer told The Post, she discovered a “complicated” woman.
Orphaned at 9, Antonina learned early on how to read people. She painted, spoke several languages and was passionate about polka dots — and animals. After marrying Jan in 1931, she reared orphaned lynx and lion cubs alongside their son, Rys, at their zoo-side home. Later, as Antonina helped Jan smuggle Jews out of the ghetto, she adopted them, too. She even managed to feed them, though the zoo’s cook wondered why a family of three always seemed ravenous,…