Warsaw had a pre-war population of more than 1.5 million, including about 400,000 people of Jewish heritage. The city was forced to surrender to superior German military forces in 1939 just three weeks after the declaration of war. Wladyslaw Szpilman was playing a concert at the radio station when the invading troops first entered the city. During the next six years, Szpilman suffered through the food shortages, the forcible confinement of Jews to a walled-in ghetto, the large-scale deportations, including his whole family, who died in the gas chambers, the random shooting of civilians by the Gestapo, the fear of being discovered in his hiding place, and the massive destruction of buildings when German troops abandoned the city to the Soviets.
When the war ended in 1945, Szpilman wrote a memoir of his traumatic experiences. In the late 1990’s, his son eventually convinced him to allow his story to be translated into English so that it could reach a wider audience.
The suffering of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto was told dramatically in John Hersey’s novel, The Wall (1950). Szpilman’s writing has the even greater impact provided by a diary that tells the firsthand experiences of a participant in those tragic six years. The casual killing and torturing of civilians by the Gestapo raises a question that has been asked many times, how one person can treat another human being with such disregard of their humanity. Szpilman provides relief from tragedy by describing the help given by Polish friends and even by a German army officer, who risked their lives so that a remnant of Jews were able to survive the Holocaust.