The Pianist: The Warsaw Ghetto Historical Background


When World War II broke out on September 1st, 1939, the Polish capital of Warsaw was one of Germany's first targets: the Luftwaffe bombed the city intensively for a fortnight, and then troops laid siege. Despite courageous resistance attempts, electricity outages and water and food shortages forced the residents to capitulate on September 27th. The Germans marched into Warsaw on October 1st. Of Poland's 3.5 million Jews, 360,000 artisans, traders, workers, and professional people lived in Warsaw, representing roughly one-third of the capital's total population. Following their occupation of Poland, the Germans used SS Police and Gestapo to set out on a deliberate and brutal course of subjecting the Jewish population to degradation, deprivation, starvation, confiscation of their homes, funds, and property, and random killings, leading to their total annihilation "the final solution," as it was named by the Nazis. By December 1st, they were ordered to wear white armbands with a blue Star of David. Conscripted into labor squads, the Jews were forbidden to use public transportation and parks, to sit on benches, or to walk on the sidewalks. As all of the Jews in the region were forced in, the Ghetto population swelled to nearly 500,000 by November 15th, 1940, when the designated "Jewish District" was walled in with bricks. 100,000 Jews soon died, whether from famine and epidemics or from being shot dead at the whims of the SS Police and Gestapo.

But the Ghetto inhabitants strove for a degree of normalcy even under such horrible conditions. Schooling efforts continued. Clandestine political and cultural activities were held.

In July 1942, mass deportations began. Nearly 310,000 Jews were evicted from the Ghetto and loaded onto cattle cars, sent to the Treblinka extermination camp. The executions touched off an insurrection in the Warsaw Ghetto on April 19th, 1943. The revolt was led by Mordechai Anielewicz, from his bunker at Mila 18, and backed by the remaining 40,000 Jews only 200 of whom were armed. SS troops, under the command of the infamous Gruppenfuehrer Jurgen Stroop, used tanks and artillery to put down the revolt. 7,000 Jews died during the fighting, which also claimed many Nazis. The standoff still lasted until May 16th. Anielewicz and his core group committed suicide. A few Jewish fighters, including Marek Edelman, managed to escape. The remaining 30,000-plus survivors were either executed on the spot or sent to the gas chambers. The entire Ghetto was razed.

When the Germans were forced to retreat from Warsaw in January 1945, there were only about 20 Jews left alive in the city. One was Wladyslaw Szpilman.

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