Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 19th April - 16th May 1943 - 77th Anniversary

In a history increasingly bleached by time, Warsaw suffered gross physical destruction by the Nazis, murderous repressions without parallel in revenge for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from 19th April - 16th May 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. 

The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest and most infamous of the Nazi ghettos where a total of almost 480,000 Jews[1] died from either disease, malnutrition, execution or simply murdered at Treblinka. In the ghetto it was said that everyone had ‘death in his eyes’ or ‘a skull instead of a face’.[2] The creation of it necessitated the displacement of over two hundred thousand Poles and Jews from their homes and businesses. A popular saying among Germans at the time was ‘The Poles we hate instinctively; the Jews we hate in accordance with orders.’[3] The displaced lost everything. 

The Germans divided the ghetto into three main sections. In the ‘Little Ghetto’ wealthy Jews and the intelligentia lived well. 

The pianist Władisław Szpilman (known under the witty pseudonym Al Legro and the hero of Polanski’s film The Pianist) wrote of the Café Nowoczesna where he played Chopin and more popular fare to earn money ‘This was the meeting place of the rich; dripping with gold and glittering with diamonds; this was where painted harlots, at tables bedecked with delicacies, seduced the wartime noveaux riches, to the accompaniment of popping champagne corks.’[4] 

Niezapomniany Szpilman | Pianista Warszawy - Polityka.pl
Władisław Szpilman (1911-2000) 'The Pianist'
(His playing in some rare recordings is featured today on Polish Radio 2 Dwojka in the programme Chopin osobisty (Personal Chopin) presented by Róża Światczyńska at 14.00 CET - also streamed online)

He went on to describe the hunger and illness of the poor in the ‘Big Ghetto’, dead children lying uncollected in the streets. The third section was the industrial ghetto where the Jewish workers and their families were worked to death as slave labour. 

The ghetto witnessed the departure of the packed cattle trucks from the Umschlagplatz (Shipment Square), the transport hub for the extermination camp of Treblinka and the Lublin labour camps. Words are inadequate to convey the horror of this place, a circle of Dante’s Inferno masquerading as a railway siding. The Jewish police ‘delivered’ up to twelve thousand souls per day to the Nazis in the Umschlagplatz to die or work as slaves. Desperate parents drugged their infants and concealed them in knapsacks and suitcases which were often lost on the carts, babies waking in the terrifying dark, buried alive, never to be seen again. Jews were driven to the overcrowded holding areas of the wickedly named ‘Hospital for Infectious Diseases’, a building swimming in faeces, urine and blood ‘as if designed by a satanic architect’. Cattle cars were packed with a hundred and twenty people in a space designed for twenty horses and then the gas. 

After a tiring day at the ‘Umschlag’ one sadistic SS officer habitually drove around the ghetto streets in a Mercedes sports car picking off strays with his revolver. Another asked a woman carrying a baby on her shoulder if she had had a difficult day’s work. She responded positively to his gesture of concern. He then asked her if she would like a loaf of bread. She thanked him profusely for his generosity. As she walked away with optimism in her heart he took careful aim and shot her baby through the head.

An unparalleled expression in Western music of this suffering is the seven agonizing minutes Ein Überlebender aus Warschau Op. 46 (A Survivor from Warsaw) (1947) for orchestra and narrator by Arnold Schoenberg. In a text written by Schoenberg himself in English (a narrator living in the sewers of Warsaw), German (a violent Nazi sergeant barking orders to the gas chambers) and Hebrew (the prayer Shem’a Yisroel) he expresses how consolation in extreme adversity can come from song and prayer. A work of shattering intensity. 

The uprising in April 1943 led by Mordechai Anielewicz was an act of inconceivable courage that has achieved formidable symbolic and moral stature. Yet after ninety percent of the Jews had been murdered and the ghetto destroyed and replaced by the concentration camp KL Warschau (where tens of thousands of Gentile Poles died) there remained in Warsaw ‘the largest clandestine community of Jews anywhere in Europe, in fact probably the largest community of people that has lived in hiding in any city, ever.’[5] Some ten percent of Poles in Warsaw assisted Jews to hide, and many more provided food, clothes and money for their Jewish friends. Few were betrayed to the common enemy. Some 28,000 Jews hid on the Aryan side while so-called ‘wild’ Jews returned to the burned-out ruins of the ‘wild’ ghetto and lived like rats. An iconic moment of German-Polish reconciliation occurred in December 1970 when the then Federal Chancellor of Germany, Willy Brandt, spontaneously fell to his knees (the Kniefall in Warschau) in a silent apology at the memorial to Jews murdered by the SS in the ghetto. ‘On the abyss of German history and carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what people do when words fail them.’ he commented later. This kneeling figure became a symbolic image of the way forward for a mercilessly divided Europe. 

(Text from A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland  Michael Moran)
75 years on: the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in film | Film | DW ...
Willy Brandt, spontaneously fell to his knees (the Kniefall in Warschau) in a silent apology at the memorial to Jews murdered by the SS in the ghetto.

[1] Statistic from Secret City : The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945 Gunnar S. Paulsson (New Haven 2002) 1 An extraordinary account of Jews in hiding with carefully researched statistics and many astounding individual stories of courageous Jewish resistance. See also Words Outlive Us : Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto ed. Michał Grynberg trans. Philip Boehm (New York 2002) 1 This is a heartbreaking collection of first-hand testimonies of life in the ghetto. These eyewitness accounts were written by a remarkable range of people from all walks of life either in the ghetto or clandestinely outside, discovered in the rubble of Warsaw or passed through the hands of survivors. The grimmest of truths lies in the details that speak from pages that ‘challenge us to imagine the unimaginable’. This is individual suffering by real people and not the sanitised, meaningless generalisations trotted out as contemporary ‘history’. Indispensable if you have the courage not to turn away.

[2] Ibid., Words Outlive Us pp. 145

[3] Quoted in Secret City : The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-1945 Gunnar S. Paulsson (New Haven 2002) 240

[4] Śmierć miasta (Death of a City) Władisław Szpilman, compiled by Jerzy Waldorff (Warsaw 1946). This is the original unedited text of The Pianist trans. Anthea Bell (London 1999). 

[5] Ibid., Paulsson 2

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, flower, tree, hat, suit, sky and outdoor
Ghetto Memorial Warsaw 19 April 2020 - photo © Chris Niedenthal

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This was an immortal and moving concert

Martha Argerich and Friends - POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews - Warsaw - 17th February 2018

Lt. to Rt. Michael Guttman, Martha Argerich, Annie Dutoit, Jing Zhao, Akane Sakai

This desperately moving and emotionally committed concert was enough to impel the very stones to pity. As a demonstration of the healing power of music and an unflinching  confrontation of historical memory, it was unsurpassed. The performances will remain in my mind as one of the more profound musical experiences of my life. 

Although short in duration and modest in scope, this inspiring first POLIN Music Festival entitled Roots'n'Fruits ran from 16-18 February  in Warsaw at the Museum for Polish Jews. The festival is hopefully the bud of a beautiful flower of historical regeneration and reconciliation in Poland. The opening concert of the festival was dedicated to the great philanthropist Zygmunt Rolat who has always cultivated the deepest respect and understanding between cultures.

This chamber concert opened with the Variations on a Theme by Paganini (1941) for two pianos by Witold Lutosławski. This work set the retrospective moral tone of the evening. The premiere of the piece was performed in the same year as its composition by Lutosławski himself together with Andrzej Panufnik at the Aria Cafe in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Lutosławski earned his living and supported his mother through piano playing at cafes such as Art and Fashion and Aria. Many concerts were held in secret in private homes. 

Martha Argerich came onto the stage with her customary self-effacing demeanor to become the medium, the conduit for the spirit of the composer she happened to be engaged with at the time. This virtuoso work was performed in spectacular style with great élan and panache together with Akane Sakai. I felt an element of competition, a rivalry emerging between this work and the original that even surpassed on occasion dear Nicolò Paganini's original violinistic conception. A superbly wrought and glittering ornate counterpoint was cultivated by these two artists between the two pianos.

Akane Sakai then performed a selection of Szymanowski's 20 Mazurkas from his Op. 50 (1924-26). From 1922 Szymanowski began to spend a great deal of his time living in picturesque Zakopane, a remote but superbly photogenic Polish town (now a ski resort) in the High Tatra mountains. 'A bird of paradise in the back-blocks' as the music critic Dorota Szwarcman once perceptively referred to him. He was exposed at this time to the wild and uninhibited, sometimes mournful and melancholic, nearly always raucous, even crude on occasion, improvised music of the Górale highlanders which imbues these late works. Adrian Corleonis referred to the mazurkas as expressing a type of 'sophisticated primitivism'. Surely they are the most musical and evolved response in modern times to the mazurkas of Chopin. Although finely articulated by Arkane in their dense complexity, I felt the embedded mazurka rhythm did not communicate itself or move me in any organic or deep manner. 

She then played the two mazurkas which comprise op.62 (1933-34) which are not particularly redolent of Polish folk elements. In a letter to Zofia Kochańska in February 1933, Szymanowski wrote of the first: 'I have written a very pleasant and cheerful mazurka, and I enjoy playing it very much. It’s funny but as I get old the music I write gets more and more cheerful!!' He may well have been inspired by memories of Chopin rather than any attempt to recreate the spirit of the mazurka. The second mazurka was commissioned by a London melomane, Sir Victor Cazalet, when the composer was resident in England in 1934. In fact the premiere of both took place in London played by the composer at a private concert on 4 November 1934. Sakai communicated the more abstract musical fabric, dense texture and timbre of these mazurkas with virtuosity.

A backwater of the Vistula River near Młociny in Warsaw on the morning of the concert
Szymon Laks (1901-1983) from a family of assimilated Jews, was a composer, conductor, author and translator. He was a prisoner  in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp for over two years and was appointed the conductor of the orchestra of the camp. One of the first things that he noticed upon arrival at the camp was the huge collection of the finest musical instruments and the band setting up their music stands. As an introduction to his Cello Sonata one of Martha Argerich's daughters, Annie Dutoit, came onto the stage and read a gruelling and shatteringly emotional account of his arrival and period of incarceration in Auschwitz as a musician from his memoirs entitled Music of Another World.  

Szymon Laks with his wife and son 
(from the family archive/ Culture pl)
The book was controversial as he was strongly in opposition to those who feel that music must have provided a 'self-defense' for the suffering prisoners. On one occasion Christmas carols merely gave further pain to those suffering in the women's infirmary. The history  of the horrors and development of the camp are described in minute detail in numerous sources but certain activities seemed to me particularly obscene. The playing of classical music in Auschwitz is shocking if one believes that art has any humanizing function.  On misty  mornings  like that  of my visit, squads of prisoners would stagger to work in the fog and return through the gate dragging their murdered, dead and emaciated companions back through the slush and slime. 

One of the six camp orchestras (one contained  over a hundred musicians), perhaps directed by the conductor of the former Warsaw Radio Orchestra, might strike up Schubert’s festive Marche Militaire. In Auschwitz it became a hellish danse macabre, utilized to maintain the prisoners’ marching step. The orchestra  played during the monstrous Selectionen when  the healthy  were separated  from  children,  the sick  or infirm,  who  were  immediately  dispatched   to  the  gas chambers. Amid the suffering one clearly saw ‘the perceptible expression  of its geometrical madness... When this music plays, we know that our comrades, out in the fog, are marching like automatons; their  souls are dead and the music drives them, like the wind drives dead leaves, and takes the place of their wills . . .’(If This is a Man Primo Levi).

Thomas Mann, agonizing over the relationship of ethics and aesthetics in his novel Doctor Faustus, perceptively refers to music as ‘that curiously cabbalistic craft’. The composer Adrian Leverkühn makes a Faustian pact with Satan, a dalliance with the ‘poisoned butterfly’ of music. For the Nazis, German music became the emotional confirmation of their rightness in exterminating the disgusting ‘vermin’ in their midst. All musical genres were performed in the camp, from the symphonies of Beethoven to the blackly humorous song 
The Best Times of My Life.

'A Hungarian at the  piano,  a virtuoso  . . . He  played  Mozart, Beethoven,  Schubert, Bach.  And  then  he  suddenly   played  a funeral march by Chopin. And when he stopped, he sat without moving,  hands  on the keys. We all understood; we understood him and he understood us.’

Music on the occasion of an execution made the anguish particularly acute. The  fine women’s  orchestra  at Birkenau  (directed  by  the famous violinist Alma Rosé, whose mother was Gustav Mahler’s sister) was particularly sought after by the musical connoisseurs of the  SS after  a demanding  day on  the  selection  ramp  dispatching women and children to the gas chamber. Dr Mengele liked to relax to the unresolved chords of Tristan und Isolde after a tiring day carrying  out  comparative  autopsies  on murdered twins. This psychopath once asked Anita to play Schumann’s deeply affecting Träumerie (Dreaming).  Later  she  was to  ask  with  savage irony  ‘What was he dreaming about?’

Laks wrote equally grimly and with black humour:

'...when an SS-man listened to music, especially of the kind he really liked, he somehow became strangely similar to a human being … at such moments the hope stirred in us that maybe everything was not lost after all.  Could people who love music to this extent, people who can cry when they hear it, be at the same time capable of committing so many atrocities on the rest of humanity? There are realities in which one cannot believe.'

The suicide rate of musicians was among the highest in the camps as they were occasionally forced to play their entire family into the jaws of death.

We then heard the Cello Sonata (1932). The fine Chinese cellist Jing Zhao joined Akane at the piano. This spirited neo-classical prewar work was unknown to me (as is too much of his music). Given the context portrayed in the reading of the destiny of this composer that followed its composition, one could not help but be uplifted and profoundly moved by the triumph of the human spirit over direst adversity.

Following this our mood was wrenched out of the 'slough of despond' into carefree joy and bliss by Martha Argerich joining Jing Zhao in the Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major Op.3 by Chopin. A brilliant performance in true style brillant manner 'But there is also bravura, verve and a Slavic, typically polonaise vigour, as well as an undeniable feel for the spirit of the dance. That is just how it was danced at grand balls in Poland.' (Mieczysław Tomaszewski)  All this was present in one of the best performances I have ever heard of this 'light' work.

Młociny Park in Warsaw on the morning of the concert
After the interval, Michael Guttman and Akane Sakai performed two parts of  Baal ShemThree Pictures from Hassidic Life written in 1923. Bloch writes of his music 'It is neither my purpose nor desire to attempt a reconstruction of Jewish music, nor to base my work on more or less authentic melodies...I am not an archaeologist; for me the most important thing is to write good and sincere music [...] What interests me is the Jewish soul, the enigmatic, ardent, turbulent soul that I feel vibrating throughout the Bible...it is all this that I endeavour to hear in myself and to transcribe into my music; the venerable emotion of the race that slumbers way down in our souls.

We heard the rarely performed I. 'Vidui' (Contrition) Un poco lento and III. 'Simchas Torah' (Rejoicing) Allegro giocoso. Michael and Akane gave a fine sense of nobility to the more introverted 'Vidui', a haunting cantilena of redemption. Simchas Torah, inspired when Moses handed the torch to the children of Israel, is deservedly popular in its exhilarating mood. This was brought off wonderfully well to these rather untutored ears.

Finally the Piano Trio No.2 in E Minor Op. 67 (1944) by Dimitry Shostakovitch. This is arguably the greatest of Russian piano trios performed by Guttman, Argerich and Zhao. Ivan Sollertinsky, a Professor at the Leningrad Conservatoire, was one of the composer's closest Jewish friends. He died suddenly in February 1944 and Shostakovitch dedicated the trio to his memory. 

The work begins with ethereal, unsettling, scarcely physical high harmonics on the cello - surely the most extraordinary beginning of any chamber work in the western canon. The bleakness and austerity were perfectly captured here by the players, especially the profound understanding and familiarity with the work displayed by Martha Argerich. The tense rhythmical urgency of the second movement scherzo was superbly conveyed especially by that so characteristic 'Marthaesque' high voltage electrical charge irresistibly investing power to its forward momentum. 

The Largo was a profoundly moving and introspective period of unfathomable grief, plumbing the depths of the suffering human soul. The pain of attrition and the sudden mindless violence of war. The heart rending Jewish melodies Shostakovitch offers or possibly invents in the hellishly ironical danse macabre within the final movement were terrifying - in turn seductive, secretive, furtive, almost hysterical with anguish, wailing, the climactic piano part a lava flow of thunderous notes which only Argerich can command so awesomely with her genius. As the work closes the almost celestial harp arabesques on the piano laid over a world of suffering expressed in the violin and cello. Oh that desperate Jewish dance that sobbingly leads us back along a path of bleak yet infinitely courageous resignation to a blighted destiny...

A perfectly judged encore of warmth and soft embrace - the second movement of the untroubled and loving  Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor. Civilization, that welcome  reverse of the human coin.

A musical and humanist experience I shall treasure forever among the few that have deeply moved me in my life.

And the Vistula  flows heedlessly on to the sea....


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