Written first as a diary after the war, this memoir of the Holocaust is distinguished by the author’s vivid description of the situation in Warsaw, Poland. Since he was not writing for publication, Szpilman, then a well-known composer and musician, simply begins his story without preamble in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw in 1940, and then goes back to a year earlier, before Germany attacked Poland. Germany bombed Warsaw mercilessly in September of 1939, and although Britain and France declared war on Germany, Warsaw and Poland fell within a few weeks.
Szpilman, in his late twenties, lived in Warsaw with his parents and two sisters and two brothers. He captures for the reader the mistaken security that his family felt at first, with no real apprehension of what Nazi Germany intended for their race. They were most upset with their own leaders who evacuated when the Germans overcame the Polish Army.
At the same time, the restrictions against Jews eventually imposed by the Germans are bitterly resented. The requirement for Jews to wear a special arm band for identification is something that Szpilman declares that they couldn’t have anticipated as happening to them, even in the worst scenario imaginable. Then the Jews are forcibly relocated in a small part of the city and not allowed out - in the Jewish ghetto which the Germans called the “Jewish quarters”. Szpilman relates how imprisoning it was to live, for two years, with some 400,000 people in an area about 1.3 square miles. He found work playing piano at different cafes in the first months, since at first there were still wealthy Jews, some of whom made money in the black market. They ate and drank while others starved or died of typhus, spread by the incessant vermin.
German lies are mixed with devastating events. Germans sent the Polish police force, which they had recruited and trained in strong-arm tactics, to rout out and arrest many Jewish men. They were told they were going to work in Germany. In the evening, after the men were taken, the curfew was officially relaxed, so that family members could bring blankets and food to them. But the real destination for those arrested were the newly-built crematoriums in Treblinka, where they were the first to test those emporiums of death.
Eventually Szpilman and his family are summoned to the train depot. Waiting to embark, with his family all around him, Szpilman is pulled out of the queue and told to save himself. Crying out to his family, trying to rejoin them through the wall of soldiers, he experiences a shock of fear and comprehension of what this exodus represents. He runs away and is eventually recognized by a Jewish policeman, a relative, who shelters him. Although Szpilman escaped the transport, he is not being followed and goes back to the ghetto and is assigned by the Jewish council to a work detail, demolishing part of the original Jewish ghetto (now much smaller). The Jews are being periodically “weeded out”. His work detail is one day divided up into two groups, with the unfortunate ones being shot immediately.
This and more details illuminate the fractured lives of those in Warsaw at the time. Spzilman eventually flees the ghetto before its final liquidation and is hidden by friends. He witnesses the Warsaw uprising which Germany defeated and as a punishment systematically emptied and razed Warsaw to the ground. He describes how he survived through these events, constantly facing death, battling terror and depression, ending up living as a rat in a hole, flushed out by a German soldier who inexplicably gives him a helping hand.
Spzilman died in 2000, at the age of 89. In his last interviews he reiterates his sorrow, his regret – how in his old age, unease was his constant companion. Saying, “I don’t know what to do with myself.” I hope that his story will stay with us, as we mark the 70th anniversary of World War II – realizing how so many lives were undone - not only those who died, but also those who survived.