I have strived to create an authentic account of life in Warsaw at the time. Most of the events in the book actually happened: the bombardment of Warsaw that ignited World War II, the creation of the Jewish Ghetto, the rescue operation at the zoo, the establishment of a pig farm and even the 1939 football match between Poland and Hungary. Most of the characters are real, including: Jan and Antonina Zabinski, Simon and Lonia Tenenbaum, Lutz Heck, Janusz Korczak and Ziegler, the German soldier. I have tried to depict them as accurately as possible, but inevitably they do and say some things in this book that they didn’t in real life.

It is estimated that the Zabinskis sheltered about 300 Jews in the basement of their villa and the empty cages of their zoo. The operation was code-named “The House under a Crazy Star”– which was the inspiration for the idea of inventing the Star of David on the outside wall of the villa (the image of a battered bullet-peppered metal star reflecting the sunlight ever stronger has been with me from the moment I first read that phrase).
Although the characters of Marcus and Stefan are also my own creation, they symbolise the many real examples of friendship that spanned the Jewish and non-Jewish communities of Warsaw.

It is true that at the time, the vast majority of people didn’t endanger themselves like the Zabinskis by acting to save Jewish lives, but it has always been the case that dictators can only succeed when the silent majority are too afraid to protest. Before we pass judgement on those that looked the other way we need to consider what we would have done in such circumstances. I have asked myself this question may times and I honestly doubt that I would have had Jan and Antonina’s courage. They, alongside over 6000 other fellow Poles, have been honoured by Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem) as “Righteous Among the Nations” – and it is certain that many more anonymous heroes performed deeds that history has never recorded. This book has been written in their honour as well.
Before World War II Warsaw was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Its rich history was reflected in the variety of architectural styles of the buildings that lined its wide sweeping boulevards. In 1939 Jews made up 30% of its 1.3 million population. By the end of the war the city had lost almost a million of its inhabitants.
The Ghetto
Warsaw’s was the largest of the many Jewish Ghettos that the Nazis established across Europe. It was completed and sealed off from the rest of the city in November 1940. Almost half a million Jews were forced to live in its 3.5 square miles, leading to inevitable suffering that resulted in many deaths through starvation and disease. In 1942 the Germans started the transportations that would see practically all of the ghetto’s residents perish in the death camp at Treblinka.
After defeat in World War One the German economy collapsed, making most people in the country poor. Hitler and his Nazi party exploited the overwhelming sense of injustice felt in the country and concentrated their anger on the search for a scapegoat.

By the time he became chancellor in 1933 the “enemies of the state” had been clearly identified – communists, socialists, liberals and ‘big business’. But, so their argument went, behind all those groups, manipulating things for their own gain, were the Jews.
Hitler started to imprison all
political opponents in “concentration camps” in 1933.
This picture was taken in Dachau, one of the earliest camps, which was to become a model for the camps that were built in the years to come.

Jewish literature was designated as “un-German” and numerous book-burning ceremonies took place – Hitler was sending the message that the country had to cleanse itself of all Jewish influence.
He wanted the country to
aspire to the “Aryan” ideal.
Racial purity was at the heart of
his dream of a greater Germany and a variety of scientific methods were devised to measure whether or not you belonged.

Although Jews were the main target for this policy of state sponsored racial discrimination, they were by no means the only group who were considered unworthy to be part of the pure Aryan “master race” that Hitler dreamt of. Thousands of gypsies were imprisoned and killed, along with homosexuals and the mentally ill.
Such brutality fostered a deep
sense of fear in German
society. Opposing what was
going on was a risky, potentially suicidal thing to do. It was far easier to turn a blind eye to these atrocities than to speak out about them.

The Nazis introduced a series of laws that gradually restricted the roles that Jews could play in German society. Ritual public humiliation of Jews became a common sight, making it easier to see Jews as inferior and subhuman. Anti-Semitism became official state policy – according to Hitler the only way to be a loyal, patriotic German was to hate Jews.
Things came to a head
in November 1938. On what
has become known as
“Kristallnacht” waves of organised mobs destroyed 7,500 Jewish shops, burnt half of the country’s synagogues, killed 91 Jews and injured countless others. 20,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps and, afterwards, the Jewish community was fined for the damage.

Throughout the 1930s Hitler invested huge amounts of money into equipping his army. His aim was to create a German-dominated Europe that would be a one party state of which he would be the leader. To achieve that he began invading neighbouring countries.
Austria and Czechoslovakia fell without the need to open fire
but it was the invasion of Poland
that ignited the continent. In September 1939, not heeding Britain’s warning that invading Poland would result in them declaring war, Hitler unleashed the devastating fire power he had built up during the previous years.

The more countries Hitler invaded, the larger the number of Jews there was “to deal” with. This diagram shows the Jewish population in each occupied territory.
Most historians don’t think that
the total annihilation of
Europe’s Jews was Hitler’s
intention when he first came to power. But it’s clear now that as the policies that resulted in what we now call The Holocaust developed over the next few years, there was only one logical conclusion. The Nazis needed to find a “final solution” to the “Jewish Problem”.

Wherever Jews lived under Nazi rule they were made to wear yellow stars. These were designed to humiliate the wearers, but as time moved on they were used as a marker to make deportation even easier. Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were made to wear a blue star.
Across Europe Jews were
herded together into Ghettos,
of which Warsaw’s was the
largest. These were unbearably over crowded places where deprivation, disease, starvation and cold blooded brutality caused unimaginable suffering.

To the Nazis these “sub-human” Jews were becoming a nuisance. They were a time wasting, expensive burden that needed to be dealt with. Eventually the Ghettos just became holding pens from which the deportations would take place.
Hitler, along with the other
leaders of the Nazi party,
decided to expand the existing network of concentration camps. Many thousands of Jews had already lost their lives, but the rate of murder was about to accelerate hugely and ever more “efficient” methods of killing Jews were devised.

The most notorious of these camps was Auschwitz. It is estimated that out of the six million Jews that died in the Holocaust, over a million of them died in this dreadful place. When inmates arrived at the camp they were greeted by a sign that said “work sets you free” .
On arrival a “selection” was
made that divided people up
into those who were to die immediately and those that would be allowed to live a little longer.

Those who were chosen to die were taken to special “delousing” showers and gassed with the fumes of poisonous crystals in containers such like this one.
After the war as many of the perpetrators of these crimes as possible were tried, convicted
and punished for what they did.
Click the characters above!
Warsaw Zoo
Warsaw Zoo first opened in 1928 and sits on the east bank of the Vistula River. It quickly became one the most popular visitor attractions in the city but was severely damaged during the war. It was rebuilt and is now more popular than ever.
Jan Zabinski became the director in 1929 and along with his wife Antonina he expanded the zoo’s range of animals until it was one of the largest in Europe.
In April 1937 Kasia, one of the zoo’s African elephants, gave birth to Tuzinka – still the only elephant to be born in Poland. Mother and calf quickly became the zoo’s main attraction.
At the outbreak of war an anti-aircraft position was set up in the grounds of the zoo, making it a prime target for the Luftwaffe. Many animals died as a result of the bombardment and quite a few escaped and wandered the city streets. Some of the most dangerous creatures were shot to protect the public.
During the German occupation the Zabinskis did what they could to help their Jewish friends. Even when the ghetto was established Jan found ways of entering and eventually decided to smuggle out Jews, sheltering them in the basement of his villa and in the abandoned cages around the zoo.
To avoid discovery, some of these escapees would enter the villa through a drain cover. It can still be seen in the zoo today.
This is one of the basement rooms of the villa where some of the escapees hid. During the course of the war the Zabinskis helped about 300 Jews to survive, despite the German decree that any Pole found to be assisting Jews would be killed.
To ensure the survival of the zoo, the Zabinskis bred pigs that were sold to the occupying Germans. Frequently Nazi soldiers would be sitting in this room haggling over the price of pigs, while Jewish families hid in the basement below.
To warn hiding Jews that a Nazi was in the building a special alarm system was devised, whereby an agreed tune would be played on the piano.
After the war Yad Vashem (the World Centre for Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem) presented the Zabinskis with the award of “Righteous Among the Nations” – a medal that is given to non-Jews who put their own lives in jeopardy to save Jews. A tree of remembrance was planted in their name.
In recent years the villa has been restored as a lasting memorial to the Zabinskis’ courage. Here is Antony talking with the zoo’s Deputy Director Ewa Zbonikowska.
After the war Jan Zabinski refused to accept that he did anything exceptional. “I do not belong to any party, and no party program was my guide during the occupation” he said “I am a Pole - a democrat. Many times I tried to analyse the causes for dislike of Jews and I could not find any, besides artificially formed ones.”
Antony Lishak is an author of over 30 children’s books and is widely known for leading inspirational writing workshops in schools across the UK and Europe. After sixteen years as a teacher he left to concentrate on empowering children to see themselves as authors and has since worked in over 2000 schools.

STARS is different from anything else he has written. It is the first book that draws directly from his Jewish heritage and is inspired by an act of selfless generosity by his grandfather that sadly only came to light after his death.

STARS is a work of historical fiction; Antony sees himself more as a story teller than a historian. A considerable amount of research has gone into the creation of this book as it was absolutely crucial that the major events were reflected as accurately as possible and that the characters (both real and invented) behaved authentically.

Here are some suggestions for those who wish to find out more about the characters and events in the book.
Safe Haven
A short factual film about war time Warsaw and the events at the zoo that featuring Ryszard Zabinski, Jan and Antonina’s son.
The Zoo Keeper’s Wife
A book by Diane Ackerman that uses Antonina Zabinski’s diaries to tell a comprehensive account of the events at the zoo.
Janusz Korczak
There are many books by and about Janusz Korczak. These are just a few. There is also a film based upon his life.
Wladyslaw Szpilman
Wladyslaw Szpilman’s book “The Pianist” talks about his ghetto experiences. A film of the book has been made as well (it carries a 15 certificate).
Irena Sendler
Although Irena Sendler does not feature in STARS her amazing story sits perfectly beside it. She was a Polish health worker in the ghetto with many friends in the Jewish community who arranged for about 2500 children and babies to be smuggled out to safety. For one night hers and the Zabinski’s stories merge as she was given shelter in the zoo when hiding from the Gestapo.
A Film Unfinished
A remarkable film that uses long lost archive footage of ghetto life that was actually taken by a Nazi Propaganda film unit. THERE ARE SOME DISTURBING SCENES IN THIS FILM.
The Ringleblum Archive
The Ringleblum Archive is the major source of information for anyone who wants to learn about the Warsaw Ghetto. “Notes From The Ghetto” is a selection of personal testimonies from ghetto residents and “Who Will Write Our History?” is a scholarly account of Emmanuel Ringleblum’s life and work.