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Holocaust survivor recalls real-life story behind 'The Zookeeper's Wife'

Last Updated Apr 6, 2017 at 7:00 pm ADT

TORONTO – Holocaust survivor Stefania Sitbon was among 300 Jewish men, women and children who found safe haven during the Second World War in the unlikeliest of places: the Warsaw Zoo.

The extraordinary true story of a Polish couple whose zoo served as a refuge during the German occupation has been translated in the new film “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” starring Jessica Chastain, which is now in theatres. It’s based on the book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, which includes references to Sitbon’s family.

Sitbon, 78, relocated to Canada from Israel in 1989. She and her older brother, Moshe, are said to be the only known living survivors of the Warsaw Zoo rescue effort.

Sitbon was born in February 1939, seven months before the start of the war. Her father, Shmuel Kenigswain, was a Jewish freedom fighter who fought against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. Prior to taking part in the act of Jewish resistance, Shmuel urged his wife, Regina, to find refuge elsewhere.

“He said: ‘I know we will die. We all will die. What we have is some guns, some rifles, and they come with tanks and airplanes and they will destroy the ghetto…. But I want you and the kids to survive,'” Sitbon said in a phone interview from her Toronto home.

Sitbon’s grandfather used to bring fruits he couldn’t sell to the Warsaw Zoo, which is how her mother knew of the couple who oversaw the property: Jan and Antonina Zabinski.

Sitbon’s father had learned about the Zabinskis through the underground resistance movement and had heard that the couple could shelter his family until they could find safety elsewhere.

With many of the zoo’s animals killed in bombings, by soldiers, or transported to the Berlin Zoo, some of the pens and cages that typically housed them sat empty. They became life-saving shelters for hundreds of Jews seeking safety.

For 2 1/2 months, the zoo served as Sitbon’s home. During the day, those in hiding would stay tucked away to steer clear of the zoo’s other staffers and soldiers who patrolled the property.

“We could go out from the basement only after 5 p.m after the staff left because nobody knew that we were there,” she recalled.

Chastain, a two-time Oscar nominee, portrays Antonina Zabinski in “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” and several key elements depicted onscreen mirror Sitbon’s own recollections from her time at the zoo.

As showcased by Chastain in the film, Zabinski would play piano to either signal that it was safe for those in hiding to come out, or that there was potential danger lurking.

“When (Antonina) got a sign from the gate that the Germans came — because from time to time they’d come to check — she’d sit down by the piano and start to play. And we kids knew when we heard the playing we’d run like (mice) to hide…. Nobody said to us: ‘Go hide.’ But we knew already when she played, we had to hide.”

When the zoo’s kitchen staff became suspicious as to why so much excess food was being consumed, concerns surfaced that they may talk — and that the Germans would come.

Sitbon and her mother went to a nearby village while her brother was sent to a convent. The family was able to reunite after the war, including with her father, but it was short-lived. Sitbon’s father died in 1948.

She relocated to Israel from Poland in 1957 before coming to Canada a few decades later.

In 2014, Sitbon was joined by her daughters on an emotional pilgrimage back to Poland, which was documented in a film produced by The March of the Living Archive Project. While there, she met with the Zabinskis’ daughter, Teresa, and was able to see the same place that served as a sanctuary during the war.

The Zabinskis have been recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. The honour is bestowed upon non-Jewish people who risked their lives to help Jews during the war.

“They were very, very nice people,” Sitbon said of the couple.

“They hid 300 Jews during the war. Not only us — 300 Jews. Do you imagine what they did for us? Not many people did what they did.”

— Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.

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