When the shells of the invading Nazis forced the closure of Polish Radio on
This quote comes from the website about Wladyslaw Szpilman which you may wish to explore.
Peter is a faculty member who specializes in modern Germanic literature. However he has also taught courses in Scandinavian literature and added much to our discussion several years ago when we read an Icelandic novel he was teaching.
Most of you know the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman from the award winning movie, made in 2002 by Roman Polanski from this autobiography, but in fact the book was written at the end of the World War II. In 1945 in fact and it was titled Death of a City. Aged 28 at the beginning of the war and a pianist on Polish Radio he survived in Warsaw from 1939 until the end of the war, in 1945. A truly remarkable feat indeed for he survived not only being confined to the ghetto, but also the Jewish uprising there followed by the Polish uprising in Warsaw and its final destruction as a city. At the beginning of the war there were 3 million Jews in Poland and at the end only 5000.
The Pianist is one of eight books set for the course Peter is teaching on the Holocaust. This is the second time he has taught this course and with 50 students enrolled it is the most popular course by far in the department of Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies (CNES) which of course covers all the European languages, other than the romance languages.
All eight books are written by survivors of the Holocaust and the only other two I had heard of were Primo Levi who wrote If this is a Man, amongst other works and Tadeusz Borowski who documented his experiences in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.
The Pianist is the first book dealt with in the course since Szpilman describes life in Warsaw before the war. It was written very close to the events and has a kind of amateur truthfulness. He uses a very matter of fact style, with a rather detached manner in fact as he baldly gives a description of the period and the events he lived through. In fact, the film portrays them in a much more emotional way than does the book .
Peter talked about the various ways individual Jews used to survive. As we saw in the book many of the Jews became guards of other Jews and mistreated their fellow men in some very horrific ways. Others were useful as workers in factories and still others worked for the brigade of Jews who met the trains as they arrived at the camps. These guards held the job of taking all the jewellery, belongings and food from those arriving and while they could not keep anything of value they could keep the food and in this way survived.
Although there were concentration camps all throughout German occupied territory, all the killing camps were situated in Poland with Auschwitz the most famous and especially built for the purpose. So another task that allowed Jewish workman to survive was the building of these camps in which their brethren were killed.
Szpilman survived by some extraordinary means, narrowly escaping the deportation and subsequent death of his family. Mostly he existed in hiding, helped by various Polish friends at great risk to themselves and of course finally was helped by the German officer whose name he did not know and only discovered much later.
In Warsaw, after the war, Szpilman continued his career as a pianist on Polish Radio and with the Warsaw Quintet. He died in 2000 just two years before the film was released. After the end of the war, he was a survivor who went on, determined not to let these experiences ruin his life.
In contrast Primo Levi survived his incarceration in Auschwitz by knowing some German and because he was a chemist and useful to the Germans. After the war he continued his life as a chemist and finally as a writer, but in 1987, forty years later, he fell from a balcony to his death which was thought to be suicide. While Borowski, a young poet and writer before the war, who survived both slave labour in Auschwitz and a forced march to Dachau, committed suicide at age 28 by gassing himself.
So now you know what I learned from reading this book and listening to someone who teaches it. I hope you can follow this slightly disorganized summary of my notes. It was a very interesting discussion and although I found the book rather tedious for the first 100 pages, I read the next 120 pages in one sitting, compelled by this man's story. Would I recommend it? As an historical account of course but as a literary work I preferred Elie Wiesel's Night which I wrote about previously.
Our German-Canadian hostess cooked Polish food for dinner, the recipes for which she found on the internet. The food was rather heavy with lots of red cabbage, sauerkraut with sausage and a Polish meatloaf with a hardboiled egg inside, along with pumpernickel bread. However we enjoyed the food and the fellowship we shared over dinner before our book discussion.
Next time we revisit the Muslim world of Afghanistan with another non-fiction book, The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad, which has been on my to-be-read pile for some time.