Jan Zabinski was the director of the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s and 1940s. During the Nazi invasion of Poland, he and his wife, Antonina, sheltered 300 Jews - as well as members of the Polish resistance - in their villa and in animal cages. (With a handful of exceptions, every one survived the war.) Their heroic - and heretofore not well-known - story is told by Diane Ackerman in The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story.
At a time where sheltering a Jew would mean a certain death sentence for one's entire family, the Zabinskis showed extraordinary courage for the risks they took on a daily basis. One is amazed at the cleverness (and chutzpah!) of Jan in the ways in which he was able to smuggle food into the Warsaw Ghetto and Jews out of the Ghetto. And it wasn't enough that they fed and sheltered their "guests" and assisted them in escaping Poland. The Zabinskis also felt that it was important that those that they sheltered have as much a sense of normalcy as was possible during the horrors of the Nazi era. To that end, they would hold an occasional piano concert, or would encourage socializing after dinner.
“I had a moral indebtedness to the Jews”, Jan once told a reporter. “My father was a staunch atheist, and because of that, in 1905, he enrolled me in the Kretshmort School, which at that time was the only school in Warsaw where the study of Christian religion wasn't required, even though my mother was very opposed to it because she was a devout Catholic. Eighty percent of the students were Jews, and there I developed friendships with people who went on to distinguish themselves in science and art. . . . After graduating high school, I began teaching in the Roziker School”, also predominantly Jewish. As a result, he made intimate friendships among the Jewish intelligentsia, and many school chums lived behind Ghetto walls. Although Jan didn't say much publicly about his father, he told a journalist that he'd chosen zoology “to spite my father, who didn't like or appreciate animals, and didn't allow them in the house other than moths and flies, who entered without his permission!”
They had more in common when it came to the loyalty shown Jewish friends:
“My father and I both grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. He was a lawyer, and even though he married into a very wealthy family - the daughter of a landowner - he rose to bourgeois status on his own. It was just by chance that we happened to grow up in this poor Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw. From childhood my father used to play with Jewish children in the streets, treating Jews as equals. And I was influenced by him.”
I found this statement one of the most powerful of the entire book: “Jan discovered that being an atheist didn't shield him from a robust sense of fate and his own personal destiny." (p 114).
(Note that not only was Zabinski an atheist, but he had a mesorah (tradition) of atheism from his father!)
Occasionally the claim is made that atheists cannot operate from a fundamentally moral orientation. One Jewish blogger in particular claims that atheists are “irrational, selfish and self-indulgent” and that they are usually “moral degenerates”. Jan Zabinski gives lie to such moronic drivel. He was motivated neither by fear of punishment in the next world nor by hope for any reward. In his words, “We did it because it was the right thing to do”. If there is an ultimate cheshbon (accounting), he will certainly be judged as one of the truly righteous of the world.