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The Pianist

by Wladyslaw Szpilman
Copyright 1999

Summary Copyright 2008 by
Robert Wayne Atkins, P.E.
All Rights Reserved.
The following summary is for fair use and educational purposes only.

Wladyslaw Szpilman was born in 1911. He was 28 years old when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 at the beginning of World War II. He was a musician and a Jew and in the year 1939 he and his family (father, mother, brother, and two sisters) were all living together in a third-floor apartment flat in Warsaw, Poland. The following excerpts are taken directly from his book. Less than three-percent of his book appears below. If you find the following excerpts enlightening, then I highly recommend that you purchase and read the entire book.

The Pianist By 31 August 1939 everyone in Warsaw had been sure for some time that war with the Germans was inevitable. Only incorrigible optimists had still cherished the delusion that Poland's determined stance would deter Hitler at the last moment. (22)

I was living with my parents, my sisters and my brother in Sliska Street, working for Polish Radio as a pianist. I was late home that last day of August, and as I felt tired I went straight to bed. Our flat was on the third floor ... The noise of explosions woke me. It was light already. I looked at the time: six o'clock. (22-23)

There was no panic. The mood swung between curiosity - what would happen next? - and surprise: was this the way it all began? (24)

The streets looked almost normal. There was a great deal of traffic in the main thoroughfares of the city - trams, cars and pedestrians; the shops were open, and since the mayor had appealed to the population not to hoard food, assuring us that there was no need to do so, there were not even any queues outside them. (26-27)

The declaration of war by France and Great Britain became a reality on 3 September. (27)

The streets, so clean only yesterday, were now full of rubbish and dirt. (31)

This was the one point on which the heroic city mayor Starzynski had been wrong: he should not have advised the people against laying in stocks of food. The city now had to feed not only itself but all the soldiers trapped inside it. (36)

During this penultimate stage of the siege the population's hysterical fear of sabotage reached its height. Anyone could be accused of spying and shot at any moment, before they had time to explain himself. (37)

I played in front of the microphone for the last time on 23 September. I have no idea how I reached the broadcasting center that day. I ran from the entrance of one building to the entrance of another. ... On that final day at the radio station, I was giving a Chopin recital. It was the last live music broadcast from Warsaw. ... That same day, at three-fifteen in the afternoon, Warsaw Radio went off the air. (37-39)

Warsaw surrendered on Wednesday, 27 September. (40)

At this early stage anger with the government and the army command, both of which had fled, leaving the country to its fate, was in general stronger than hatred for the Germans. (44)

The first German decrees carrying the death penalty for failure to comply were posted up. The most important concerned trading in bread: anyone caught buying or selling bread at higher than pre-war prices would be shot. ... Soon decrees applying exclusively to Jews were being published. (44-45)

In the second half of November, without giving any reasons, the Germans began barricading the side streets north of Marszalkowska Street with barbed wire, and at the end of the month there was an announcement that no one could believe at first. Not in our most secret thoughts would we every have suspected that such a thing could happen: Jews had from the first to the fifth of December to provide themselves with white armbands on which a blue Star of David must be sewn. So we were to be publicly branded as outcasts. Several centuries of humanitarian progress were to be cancelled out, and we were back in the Middle Ages. (54)

Months of bad winter weather set in, unheralded, and the cold seemed to unite with the Germans to kill people. ... I remember a whole series of days when we had to stay in bed because the temperature in the flat was too cold to endure. (54)

Instead, there was to be a separate Jewish quarter of the city where only Jews lived, where they would enjoy total freedom, and where they could continue to practice their racial customs and culture. Purely for hygienic reasons, this quarter was to be surrounded by a wall so that typhus and other Jewish diseases could not spread to other parts of the city. ... The gates of the ghetto were closed on 15 November. (58-59)

The reality of the ghetto was all the worse just because it had the appearance of freedom. You could walk out into the street and maintain the illusion of being in a perfectly normal city. (63)

Merely getting from the tram stop to the nearest shop was not easy. Dozens of beggars lay in wait for this brief moment of encounter with a prosperous citizen, mobbing him by pulling at his clothes, barring his way, begging, weeping, shouting, threatening. But it was foolish for anyone to feel sympathy and give a beggar something, for then the shouting would rise to a howl. That signal would bring more and more wretched figures streaming up from all sides, and the good Samaritan would find himself besieged, hemmed in by ragged apparitions spraying him with tubercular saliva, by children covered with oozing sores who were pushed into his path, by gesticulating stumps of arms, blinded eyes, toothless, stinking open mouths, all begging for mercy at this, the last moment of their lives, as if their end could be delayed only by instant support. (68)

Karmelicka Street was a particularly dangerous place: prison cars drove down it several times a day. They were taking prisoners, invisible behind gray steel sides and small opaque glass windows, from the Pawiak gaol to the Gestapo centre in Szuch Alley, and on the return journey they brought back what remained of them after their interrogation: bloody scraps of humanity with broken bones and beaten kidneys, their fingernails torn out. ... The Gestapo men would lean out and beat the crowd indiscriminately with truncheons. This would not have been especially dangerous had they been ordinary rubber truncheons, but those used by the Gestapo men were studded with nails and razor blades. (69)

A few steps ahead of me a poor woman was carrying a can wrapped in newspaper, and between me and the woman a ragged old man was dragging himself along. ... Suddenly the old man lunged forward, seized the can and tried to tear it away from the woman. ... Instead of ending up in his hands the can fell on the pavement, and thick, steaming soup poured out into the dirty street. ... The woman was speechless with horror. The grabber stared at the can, then at the woman, and let out a groan that sounded like a whimper. Then, suddenly, he threw himself down full length in the slush, lapping the soup straight from the pavement, cupping his hands round it on both sides so that none of it would escape him, and ignoring the woman's reaction as she kicked at his head, howling, and tore at her hair in despair. (74)

This was the winter of 1941 to 1942, a very hard winter in the ghetto. The poor were already severely debilitated by hunger and had no protection from the cold, since they could not possibly afford fuel. They were also infested with vermin. The ghetto swarmed with vermin, and nothing could be done about it. The clothing of people you passed in the street was infested by lice, and so were the interiors of trams and shops. Lice crawled over the pavements, up stairways, and dropped from the ceilings of the public offices that had to be visited on so many different kinds of business. Lice found their way into the folds of your newspaper, into your small change; there were even lice on the crust of the loaf you had just bought. And each of these verminous creatures could carry typhus. An epidemic broke out in the ghetto. The mortality figures for death from typhus were five thousand people every month. In the ghetto, there was no way of burying those who died of typhus fast enough to keep up with the mortality rate. (16-18)

These ghosts of children now emerged from the basements, alleys and doorways where they slept, spurred on by hope that they might yet arouse pity in human hearts at this last hour of the day. They stood by lamp-posts, by the walls of buildings and in the road, heads raised, monotonously whimpering that they were hungry. "We are so very, very hungry. We haven't eaten anything for ages. Give us a little bit of bread, or if you don't have any bread then a potato or an onion, just to keep us alive till morning." But hardly anyone had that onion, and if he did he could not find it in his heart to give it away, for the war had turned his heart to stone. (21)

In the early spring of 1942 human-hunting in the ghetto, previously a systematically conducted pursuit, suddenly stopped. (75)

That evening it was announced that curfew would be postponed until midnight, so that the families of those "sent for labour" would have time to bring them blankets, a change of underwear and food for the journey. This "magnanimity" on the part of the Germans was truly touching, and the Jewish police made much of it in an effort to win our confidence. Not until much later did I learn that the thousand men rounded up in the ghetto had been taken straight to the camp at Treblinka, so that the Germans could test the efficiency of the newly built gas chambers and crematorium furnaces. (78)

Meanwhile the SS had already taken a couple dozen men from the building out into the street. They switched on the headlights of their car, forced the prisoners to stand in the beam, started the engines and made the men run ahead of them in the white cone of light. We heard convulsive screaming from the windows of the building, and a volley of machine-gun fire from the car. The men running ahead of it fell one by one, lifted into the air by the bullets, turning somersaults and describing a circle, as if the passage from life to death consisted of an extremely difficult and complicated leap. ... The SS men all got into the car and drove away over the dead bodies. The vehicle swayed slightly as it passed over them, as if it were bumping over shallow potholes. (80-81)

The Germans hit upon yet another bright idea to ease their task. Decrees appeared on the walls stating that all families who voluntarily came to the Umschlagplatz to "emigrate" would get a loaf of bread and a kilo of jam per person, and such volunteer families would not be separated. There was a massive response to this offer. People were anxious to take it up both because they were hungry and in the hope of going the unknown, difficult way to their fate together. (94)

Another guest at the Sienna Street cafe was one of the finest people I have ever met, Janusz Korczak. ... Years ago, at the start of his career, he had devoted every minute of his free time and every zloty he had available to the cause of the children, and he was devoted to them until his death. He founded orphanages, organized all kinds of collections for poor children and gave talks on the radio, winning himself wide popularity (and not just among children) as the "Old Doctor." When the ghetto gates closed he came inside them, although he could have saved himself, and he continued his mission within the walls as adoptive father to a dozen Jewish orphans, the poorest and most abandoned children in the world. (15)

The evacuation of the Jewish orphanage run by Janusz Korczak had been ordered for that morning. The children were to have been taken away alone. He had a chance to save himself, and it was only with difficulty that he persuaded the Germans to take him too. ... He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The column was led by an SS man who loved children, as Germans do, even those he was about to see on their way into the next world. He took a special liking to a boy of twelve, a violinist who had his instrument under his arm. The SS man told him to go to the head of the procession of children and play - and so they set off. When I met them in Gesia Street the smiling children were singing in chorus, the little violinist was playing for them and Korczak was carrying two of the smallest infants, who were beaming too, and telling them some amusing story. I am sure that even in the gas chamber, as the Cyclon B gas was stifling childish throats and striking terror instead of hope into the orphans' hearts, the Old Doctor must have whispered with one last effort, "It's all right, children, it will be all right," so that at least he could spare his little charges the fear of passing from life to death. (96-97)

The paperback version of "The Pianist" contains 222 pages. The above brief excerpts from the book should give you some idea as to the writing style of the author and of the story he survived to tell. I strongly suggest you purchase the book and read it for yourself.

War Ravaged City Ruins The book contains the true story of how one young Jewish man survived World War II. He vividly describes the events he saw with his own eyes. He tells where he was forced to hide, who helped him and who betrayed him, and how the constant mental torture and slow starvation took a dreadful toll on his body. In addition to describing the sad fate of his fellow Jews, he also describes the mass executions of all the non-Jewish residents of his city when the Germans realized they were going to lose the war. The Germans did not want to leave any witnesses behind to tell anyone the unspeakably inhuman activities they had willingly and eagerly participated in when they believed they were invincible.

The message of the book is a simple one and it is not just about the atrocities committed by the German government and its military. These same tragic events have happened many times during the history of our world, in many different countries to many different races of people with a variety of different religious beliefs. History repeats itself over and over because each new generation believes they are now too advanced and far too civilized for it to happen again. Only when we as a people firmly believe that we are not somehow exempt will we be able to stop the spread of this type of evil before it gets completely out of control and our own country becomes the next perpetrator of persecution and bloodshed against selected members of the human race.

No government is exempt from behaving in a truly evil manner. The Government of the United States has done evil things in the past and there is nothing to prevent it from doing evil things again at some time in the future.

For example, the United States Government signed numerous treaties with the Native American Indian Tribes. These treaties were carefully written in English. Then the U.S. Government systematically violated each and every treaty they had carefully drafted and voluntarily agreed to.

One of these treaties was with the Cherokee Indians who were living in the Smoky Mountain Region of the Eastern United States. These Cherokee Indians had accepted the Christian religion, and they had been baptized, and they were trying to lead honorable peaceful lives before God and man. However, in May of 1838 seven-thousand United States soldiers attacked these peaceful unsuspecting Cherokee Indians and violently drove them into military stockades. The Cherokees were kept in these open stockades for five months until October of 1838, at which time they were weak from the lack of decent food and from exposure to the elements of nature. Then with winter rapidly approaching the military escorted these barefoot Cherokee Indians, who were wearing rags for clothing and who had no coats or blankets, north into Illinois, then west across Missouri, and finally south again to Oklahoma. Even though they encountered winter snows, freezing sleet, and brutal freezing winds, the Cherokees were not allowed to build fires to keep themselves from freezing to death at night. Finally on March 26th, 1839, at the end of winter, the few remaining starving Cherokee Indians stumbled onto the Oklahoma reservation that was to become their new prison. The bodies of thousands of dead Cherokees littered the ground along the Government's carefully chosen route north through Illinois instead of the more direct route straight east across Tennessee, Arkansas, and then into Oklahoma. The Government's plan was simple, diabolical, and effective. They allowed the Cherokee Indians to die of "natural causes" in the middle of winter during a forced march which they had intentionally delayed for five months until the beginning of winter. Therefore, the United States Government could claim they had not murdered the Cherokee Indians - the Indians simply weren't strong enough to survive the journey. An eyewitness account of this tragic story was recorded by one of the U.S. military enlisted men who was forced to participate as a guard during this heart-wrenching tragedy.

Each of these historical eyewitness accounts contains a simple unspoken question. Will each one of us stand idly by if history once again begins to repeat itself during our lifetimes? I truly hope not.

Acts 4:19 - "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God."
Acts 5:29 - "We must obey God rather than men!"

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