Mama’s breath hovers over me in the frosty air. “Get up, little Lynx.”
Light pushes through cracks in the boarded-up windows, reminding me how the buildings shook and the glass shattered during the Nazi air raid only days ago. I screamed like a baby when the fiery bolts pelted the zoo, exploding the animal cages. Just thinking about it makes my face hot. That’s the only time I was glad Papa was away, fighting on the front for the Resistance—he might have thought me a coward.
I breathe in the smell of burnt wood, straw, feathers and fur, and close my eyes, wishing I could go back to sleep. I wonder how long it will take before I don’t miss the morning racket of zoo animals waking—gibbons hooting, wolves howling, lions roaring, and peacocks screeching. Even the people of Warsaw have grown quiet—we’re all in shock.
I miss Tofi and Tufa, the lynxes we raised as kittens. A whistling shot of fire hit their cage and took them from us in one blinding shot. And poor Tuzinka, the baby elephant, whose mother was hit by a shell. Only a few of our animals escaped the blasts. Thinking about it makes me ache inside, under the ribs, like a hunger. I groan and roll onto my side.
“Hurry, Rys,” Mama says. “Get ready for school.”
“School?” I can’t believe she’s making me go. “I need to help the workers take care of the wounded animals.” My heart twists like a dishrag being wrung out. “And I have to find Borsunio.” I took care of our pet badger since it was a baby, feeding it a bottle and paddling with it in the Vistula River—I can’t go off to school and pretend nothing happened. Mama and I fled the villa at the bombing, and when we came back, Borsunio was gone. A Polish soldier whose troop sheltered in our house during the air raids told us, “Some badger banged and scratched on the villa door a long time, but finally disappeared through the bushes.”
When I imagine frightened little Borsunio begging to be let in, I can hardly swallow from the lump in my throat.
Mama squeezes my shoulder. “He’s a clever badger. If anyone can outsmart the Germans, Borsunio can.” She smiles. “But you shouldn’t miss more school.”
I know if I complain, she’ll say returning to school is the right thing to do and remind me how brave it was for members of the Resistance to enroll their children in secret schools when Hitler closed the Polish schools. At first it was exciting, but now I hate the idea of walking through the torn-up city.
“When you return, you’ll find a surprise. New animal guests arrive today.” Mama’s eyes look both happy and sad. She pours water into a bowl for me to wash up.
“Where do they come from?” My heart beats faster. “Where will they stay?” Maybe this day won’t be as bad as I thought.
Mama dips into the water and flings drops at my face. She laughs when I jump. “You’ll see, little Lynx.”
The large craters in the streets and the broken buildings make it look as if a giant monster has stomped through Warsaw. Papa faces the monster every day. My stomach churns. At least he’s doing something to help, something courageous. Even kids in the underground Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are doing bold, important things for their country. I hear stories whispered about teenagers working for the Resistance as couriers, firefighters, and saboteurs. But I’m stuck going to school and taking care of animals at home. I kick a broken piece of brick into the pile of debris that used to be Mrs. Caderska’s cozy little lampshade shop.
After school, I run home to see the new animals. I wander the zoo grounds looking for signs of the new arrivals Mama promised, but everything is quiet. The zoo’s a mess. Cage bars have melted into nightmare shapes that stick out from the rubble. I check every cage but can’t find any new animals. The ache under my ribs gets worse, like a torn piece of my heart’s being ripped away.
When I walk into the parlor, Mama’s whispering with a small, dark-haired woman—our old friend, Magdalena.
“Rys! You’ve grown!” she cries when she sees me.
“Starling!” I let her hug me. Mama always nicknames her favorite people after animals. We haven’t seen Starling in months—she used to visit our zoo to sketch the animals and sculpt them in clay.
“Where have you been?”
“Doing what starlings do—flying from nest to nest.”
Mama draws Magdalena close to her like someone might try to steal her away. “When Nazis ordered Jews to the Ghetto, our brave Starling refused to go. But her beautiful sculptures have made her too famous—if anyone recognizes her, she’ll be in great danger. I’ve invited her to live here as our secret guest until we can help her find a safe passage out of Warsaw.”
My heart beats faster than a cheetah. “How will we keep her a secret—what if someone sees her?”
Magdalena wears a fearless expression, but the color drains from her face.
“We should have a signal.” The idea comes to me so quickly, I want to jump up and down like a chimpanzee. “A secret warning when there’s danger, so she can hide.”
“Yes.” Mama nods. “But what would be a good signal that won’t alert anyone else?”
“I know!” I run to the piano. “Whenever she hears me play this song, Starling can fly to the rafters!” I pound out the loud, galloping chords of my favorite piece, Go, Go, Go to Crete!
Mama and Magdalena clap their hands and cheer. “That’s perfect, Rys!” The bubbling song is from La Belle Helene, an opera about Helen and Paris, who wanted to escape the Trojan War to find a better world.
Just as I finish, the doorbell rings.
Mama draws in her breath. We all turn quiet.
The animal delivery!
“Rys, go slowly to the door to answer it,” Mama whispers, “Slowly! And I’ll hide Starling, just in case.”
As Mama hurries Magdalena from the room, I move like a sloth toward the door, inch by inch, and turn the knob. But instead of lion or hippo, I open the door to an elderly man with a suitcase. A kitten pokes its head from his pocket and meows.
The man clears his throat. “I’m the fox man.”
He’s delivering a fox? Mama comes back into the room and smiles. The tight lines on her forehead disappear. “This is Mr.Wroblewski. The Germans are turning our zoo into a fox farm, Rys. Mr. Wroblewski will be the director and live here. I do like the name Fox Man, don’t you?”
The man laughs. “Indeed.” He tips his hat as Mama closes the door. “Fox Man at your service.” When he bows, a furry head pokes out of his other pocket. I can’t help laughing at the beady-eyed hamster.
Starling peeks her head out from behind the corner, smiling. “Fox Man is in the Resistance, Rys.”
Mr. Wroblewski nods. “I know your father.”
Pride flows through me and puffs up my chest like a parrot’s feathers when I see the admiration in Fox Man’s eyes.
Mama takes his suitcase. “Fox Man is going to help people in danger like Starling come to the villa as secret guests.
“Yes, and I’ll need someone to help me work out some signals and plan my strategies. Someone clever, someone brave. Your father tells me you are such a person.” Fox Man squints at me, sizing me up.
I stand up straighter and take Fox Man’s hand, shaking it firmly. “I’m your man.” The wings of my heart beat against its cage. This is how I’ll work for the Resistance—helping people escape the war to find a better world, just like Helen and Paris longed to do.
As Mama shows Mr. Wroblewski and Magdalena their rooms, I gaze out the window and think about our guests. Starling, Fox Man, Kitten, Hamster, and more to come. These are the new zoo arrivals Mama promised. She’ll need lots of new nicknames!
My body stiffens as I glimpse movement outside the window. A man in a soldier’s uniform is walking up the front steps to our villa. My heart thumps so hard, it feels like a kangaroo inside my chest. I spring to the piano and bang out the chords to Go, Go, Go to Crete!
Scuffling sounds come from the other room as Starling and Fox Man hurry to hide. By the time the doorbell rings, they’re safely upstairs and Mama walks into the room, her hands shaking. “We’re not expecting anyone else!” she whispers. “I hope no one has seen; I hope no one knows—”
I squeeze Mama’s arm, hoping to pump some of the courage I’ve found into her trembling body. “I’ll answer it.” I swallow my fear and open the door.
A Polish soldier stands on the doorstep holding a large pickle barrel. A gun is slung over his shoulder. What could he want with us?
“I have something that belongs to you.” The man lowers the barrel and opens the lid.
I hold my breath.
Out of the barrel climbs Borsunio!
The soldier laughs. “He must have swum across the Vistula during the bombardment. What a brave creature.”
I sweep Borsunio into my arms. My heart’s leaping like a gazelle. The clever little badger outsmarted the Nazis, just like a true member of the Resistance. And he did it just in time to join the new arrivals in our secret zoo.
“The Secret Zoo” is set in occupied Warsaw and is inspired by true events in young Rys Zabiniski’s life. Rys’ parents, Jan and Antonina, kept a popular zoo in the middle of Warsaw that was destroyed when the Nazis bombed the city. Disgusted with Nazi racism, the Żabińskis decided to turn their zoo into a sanctuary, hiding refugees in the empty animal houses. During their stay, guests were given animal code names while the Żabińskis’ real animals were given human names. In this way, Rys and his family managed to harbor over three hundred people in their zoo, which was given the code name, “The House Under a Crazy Star.” I first learned about Rys’ family and their extraordinary history when I read the best-selling non-fiction book for adults, The Zoo Keeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman.
Ackerman, Diane. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story. New York: W. W. Norton &
Company, 2007. The remarkable account of the Zabinski family’s efforts to shelter 300 Jews and Polish resisters in their villa and zoo grounds.
Fogelman, Eva. Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
Paulsson, Gunnar S. Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940-1945. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.