Fine Art Spotlight: Magdalena Gross & Warsaw Zoo Sculpture
Magdalena Gross (1891-1948)
If you’ve ever watched “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (2017) the Czech-British-American war drama film directed by Niki Caro, chances are, you may know who this article is about already. Magdalena Gross (1891-1948), referred to Magda Gross in the movie, was a sculptor from Poland that at one point, hid in the Warsaw Zoo (Jan and Antonia Zabinski) to stay safe from Nazis during WWII. The artist in crisis used animals in the zoo as her models, receiving a gold medal at the International Art Exhibition in Paris in 1937 for her Bison and Gadfly. Magdalena hosted her first solo exhibition in 1926 prior to going into hiding at the zoo.
At that point in her life, she considered herself finished with creating sculpture. The Żabińskis hid Magdalena in their villa, giving her the code name of “the Starling”. Whenever an unknown guest arrived, the Starling would flee upstairs and hide from danger in the attic, the bathroom or sometimes in the back of a built-in wardrobe. In her memoirs, Antonina emphasized Magdalena’s strength of character and calmness, which she did not lose despite her predicament. “She would whistle, as starlings do, at her plight,” Antonina wrote. Magdalena also went by the name of Gościmska. But as a well-known artist, she ran the risk of being recognized and denounced to the Germans, so the Żabiński family agreed to help her. She stayed with the Żabińskis until some of their workers had found out that she was being hidden at the zoo.
With the help of Janina Bucholtz-Bukolska from Żegota, Magdalena moved to Saska Kępa to live with the Rendzner family at 31 Zakopiańska Street. Magdalena was given her own room in the attic, and would stay hidden during the day. There were many times she almost got caught, and after the war, she returned to Warsaw with her husband. However, the trauma of the war had taken its toll on Magdalena, who got progressively frailer, eventually dying aged 57, in 1948. Efrat Dor played Magda Gross, in the feature film, Zookeeper's Wife (2017) and was mentioned in the book by Diane Ackerman 10 years prior when it was released in 2007. Before this time, the story of the Warsaw Zoo as a refuge to the Jewish people and those who faced danger with the Nazis invasion, was not well known. Magdalena Gross's Sculptures have circled the auction world, becoming a priceless treasure to own.