hidden europe 51

Out of the Shadows

by hidden europe

Picture above: Visitors to Warsaw can chase the ghosts of the city's Jewish past by exploring the boundaries of the former ghetto (photo © hidden europe).


Władysław Szpilman’s remarkable book The Pianist (made into a film by Roman Polanski) reveals the devastation of Jewish life in Warsaw in 1945. To accompany our feature on Jewish Warsaw we look at the city's Jewish community in the immeditate post-war years.

The ruthless liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis in 1943 could so easily have led to the complete eradication of Jewish life in Warsaw. The Germans would have had it so. SS Brigade Commander Jürgen Stroop opened his report to Heinrich Himmler with the words “Es gibt keinen jüdischen Wohnbezirk in Warschau mehr!” (“The Warsaw ghetto is no more”).

An entire tradition of Jewish culture and community life, which had made Warsaw the pre-eminent Jewish metropolis in Europe, lay buried in the rubble of the ghetto.

“How do you start a life when all that is left is death?” asked the Jewish musician Władysław Szpilman in his 1946 memoir Śmierć miasta (‘Death of a City’). It was only more than 40 years later that Szpilman’s book was translated into English as The Pianist. Roman Polanski’s 2002 film of the same name brought the story of Władysław Szpilman’s survival in wartime Warsaw to a worldwide audience. Its portrayal of Szpilman as an exceptional survivor, perhaps even the sole Jewish survivor, of the Warsaw ghetto contributed to the widespread perception that Jewish life in the Polish capital was thoroughly eradicated by the Nazis.

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