What Shocked Jessica Chastain Most When She Visited Auschwitz

The 'Zero Dark Thirty' star's research for her role in Holocaust drama ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ included touring the Nazi death camp. What happened next made her even more determined to make the movie, based on the true story of Antonina Zabinska.

Jessica Chastain, right, posing with Teresa Zabinska, the daughter of Antonina Zabinska, at a gala screening of "The Zookeeper's Wife" in Warsaw, Poland, March 7, 2017.
Jessica Chastain, right, posing with Teresa Zabinska, the daughter of Antonina Zabinska, at a gala screening of "The Zookeeper's Wife" in Warsaw, Poland, March 7, 2017. Alik Keplicz/AP

After making her mark playing toughened avengers – a Mossad agent hunting a fictionalized Dr. Mengele in “The Debt” (2010) and a CIA operative taking down Osama bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) – Jessica Chastain needed a change. The sole goal of her character in “Zero Dark Thirty” was murder and revenge, she tells Haaretz, looking anything but a bloodthirsty menace in a flared, black dress. “So I called my agent and asked, ‘Maybe something with animals?’”

That whimsical request led to “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” the first Hollywood movie to use elephants, bunnies, an eagle and bison as ciphers to telegraph both the brutality of the Nazis and the humanity of rescuers like Antonina Zabinska, a soft-spoken, well-heeled Polish woman. While the animal construct seems novel, if not sacrilegious, it’s not that far-fetched. After all, Holocaust literature is rife with menagerie metaphors – from Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” to Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird.” But “The Zookeeper’s Wife” flips the Nazis-as-beasts trope on its head.

“Animals, ironically, open us up to our humanity,” says the film’s director, Niki Caro.

In “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” the protagonist doesn’t aspire to challenge gender stereotypes. She’s content playing den mother in her own Garden of Eden, cradling lion cubs who share a bed with her son, even saving the life of a baby elephant as others gawk and gasp. The scene is a metaphor for what’s to come, foreshadowing an epic fall from grace and Antonina’s role in redeeming both man and animal – not through brute force, but by being soft and compassionate.

To get into character, Chastain spent time with Antonina’s daughter, Teresa, who was born in the family villa at Warsaw Zoo during World War II.

“I asked her if her mother were an animal what would she be?” says Chastain. “She told me a cat, because she was very feline and her father had nicknamed her “puna,” or little puma. She said she never saw her mother in pants, only in dresses. In this time of darkness and war and ugliness, Antonina always presented herself as delicate and feminine. So I used all that. I even pitched my voice up,” adds Chastain.

“Antonina saw the good in people, even when no one else did,” notes Chastain. “And that inspired people to rise to their highest potential.”

Stefania Sitbon was 4 when her mother took her and her brother through tunnels from the Warsaw Ghetto to the zoo, begging for shelter. Her mother had gotten to know Antonina through the years because she accompanied her father when he dropped off day-old produce from his wholesale business for the animals.

After the war broke out, Antonina never forgot their kindness and repaid the favor, sheltering the three of them and Stefania’s father, who escaped to the zoo after fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt. It was Antonina’s husband who figured out a way to smuggle Jews out of the ghetto into the zoo, where they hid in temporary cages while the couple sorted out falsified papers for them.

“She was the kindest person,” recalls Sitbon, who was too young to remember particulars but considered Antonina family. She recently revisited the villa where she sought shelter during World War II, and was moved to tears to discover that one of the cages bore her parents’ photo. “My mother invited Antonina to Israel and she came every few years. That’s how I learned about my past, because my mother never could talk about it,” says Sitbon.

“I love music and animals because of her,” adds Sitbon, referring to Antonina, who, together with husband Jan, went on to save 300 Jewish lives from sure death in the Warsaw Ghetto. “My parents lost their entire, large families, but thanks to them my mother had two more children, and between all five of us we have 32 grandkids,” says Sitbon.

Antonina’s name is also permanently etched at Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations.

“She transformed a zoo into a refuge for humanity,” says animal lover and vegan Chastain, who really did snuggle with skunks and monkeys in the film. “I have a pet, but he’s a family member,” she adds. “My dog Chaplin, a rescue, has more freedom in my house than my boyfriend.”

Missing the point

Chastain visited Auschwitz to prepare for the role and recalls how especially devastated she was by the display of children’s shoes. “I was with friends and we were all emotional,” she recalls. “I was wiping my eyes and a gentleman came over to talk to me. And I thought, Well, OK, maybe he’s alone and just needs someone to talk to. And then he asked me for a picture. It just seemed so wrong – completely devaluing what was lost there. It made me so sad that people can be at a place like that and miss the point.”

Jessica Chastain as Antonina Zabinska in "The Zookeeper's Wife."
Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features

She didn’t pose for a photo, and the experience made her all the more determined to bring Zabinska’s message of humanity to the big screen, not only signing on as the star but also as a producer.

The studios wanted a male director, which seemed antithetical to the movie, which is a women-centric story whose power lies in its high-octane emotions. “To be feminine and strong isn’t usually the case in Hollywood films,” says Caro. “Femininity is often equated with weakness or evil, like in a typical seductress. Here was an opportunity to contribute to the Holocaust genre in a way that felt comfortable and natural, in a setting that was exotic and domestic – that most women can relate to – and through a character motivated by good old-fashioned decency, which is a quality we don’t really talk about anymore.”

When she began work on the film some seven years ago, the world was a different place, says Caro. Since last November, though, there’s been a sense of urgency for the film to be released. “When we first began production, we thought we were making a historical drama,” says Chastain. “But it’s become contemporary in feel.”

Chastain hopes “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” whose story revolves around an ordinary woman who opened her door to strangers, will inspire others to take action when their government fails them. “We need our leaders to be guided by compassion,” she says. “I’m hopeful that people are waking up and realizing they were taking our freedoms for granted, and that protecting our democracy takes work and courage.”

To Chastain, it’s no coincidence that “the greatest march in the history of our country” was a women’s march. “I was there with my mom, sisters, girlfriends, partner/boyfriend, dad and brother,” she says. “What was beautiful about that was that it was intersectional – when one group is being discriminated against, all groups are being discriminated against. There’s no difference between us, no matter our gender or where we come from, or what we look like on the outside.”

That’s a message her character Antonina took to heart.“She saw no difference between animals or humans,” says Chastain. “To be a hero doesn’t mean you have to have a gun and shoot people. You can use love as your weapon against hate.” And cute lion cubs and bunnies don’t hurt, either.