Heroine who turned a zoo into a refuge from the Nazis

Hollywood star Jessica Chastain will play Antonina Zabinski in the  forthcoming film

Hollywood star Jessica Chastain will play Antonina Zabinski in the forthcoming film

The extraordinary story of a Holocaust heroine who saved Jews from the Nazis by hiding them in animal cages at Warsaw Zoo, has been published in Britain for the first time.

Diane Ackerman's bestselling book describes how Antonina Zabinski and her husband Jan - a keeper at the zoo - risked their lives to protect more than 300 people.

After Hitler's troops invaded Poland, Warsaw Zoo was bombed and most of the animals killed. The couple began sheltering Jews in their villa, in underground chambers, and even in the empty cages.

It was, in Antonina's words, a modern-day "Noah's Ark".

She was a wonderful role model for a different kind of heroism

Around 50 Jews at any one time were concealed at the zoo, as well as an assortment of surviving animals, including hyena pups, otters and lynxes. All but two of the Jews taken in by the couple survived, and a baby was born to one women while in hiding.

The Zabinskis were honoured by Yad Vashem, and after Antonina's death, Jan went to live with those he had helped in Israel.

But their story is not widely known.They remained obscure because, as Ms Ackerman explained: "In Poland, after the Germans, left the Russians came and it still was not popular to be a freedom fighter".

The writer herself only found out about the Zabinskis by accident, while researching her grandfather's childhood in Warsaw.

The Zookeeper's Wife draws on Antonina's diaries and letters. Hollywood actress Jessica Chastain has been cast in a big-screen adaptation, which is due to start filming next year.

"The more I learned about Antonia, the more I fell in love with her," said Ms Ackerman. "Somehow she had got lost between the seams of history, but she was a wonderful role model for a different kind of heroism. She performed radical acts of compassion. She didn't just want people to survive the war, she wanted them to survive with their humanity intact. She organised dinners so they could socialise, and put on piano concerts. That takes a special type of courage."

Ms Ackerman said she hoped the book's publication in the UK, and the forthcoming film, would put her story in the public eye.

"I'd never heard of them and I thought I'd heard everything about the Holocaust. This was such an extraordinary story, I just had to share it," she added.

'The Zookeeper's Wife', Headline Review, £7.99

Last updated: 8:45am, June 7 2013