The Pianist explores Resistance and Rescue During the Holocaust
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The Pianist explores Resistance and Rescue During the Holocaust

Book Title: The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945

Author: Wladyslaw Szpilman

Illustrator: n/a

Book Summary:

On September 23,1939, Wladyslaw Szpilman played Chopin’s Nocturnal in C sharp Minor live on the radio as shells exploded all around him. It was the last live music broadcast from Warsaw. That day, Germany invaded Poland and a German bomb hit the station and it went off the air. Shortly after Poland surrendered, the 27 year old Szpilman, his two sisters, brothers, and parents made thed ecision to stay in Warsaw because they believed that things would shortly return to normal. However, Szpilman and his family got caught in the net of the Nazi terror and were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto where he alone survived. His family was killed in the death camp, Treblinka.

The Pianist is the memoir of composer and concert pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust. Szpilman survived in hiding and, in the end, was saved by a German officer who heard him play the same Chopin piece on a piano found among the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Enduring Understandings:

  • The Holocaust gave rise to all types of heroes and heroines (those who resisted--the Jews who defied the Nazis whether as part of the resistance fighters, sharing whatever food they could, or living for one more day) , or the rescuers (non-Jewish individuals who risked their own lives to save another, whether by hiding them, offering food and compassion, or publicly refusing to aid the Nazi effort).
  • From those who fought against evil in any way, we are reminded of the responsibility all of us have to one another .
  • It is incomprehensible to imagine the genius, talent, and creativity that was lost in the murder of the 6 million Jewish men, women, and children ( the 1 ½ million ages 12 and under).
  • Those who survived the Holocaust, in general, began their lives again to make a difference in this world and remind us of the sanctity of life. 

Be Inspired:The ideas included are offered as starting points as you and your students explore, discover and live the lessons. Be sure to elicit and encourage student and parent participation, consistently reinforcing the value being addressed. Allow lessons to authentically develop and change based on engagement and interests.

Lesson Plan Components

For the educatorJewish Thought, Text, and Traditionsmore

Wladyslaw Szpilman was, what they called in Poland, “a man in whom music lives.” He was a pianist and composer who was an inspiring and significant figure in Polish cultural life. Szpilman studied at the Berlin Academy of Arts and studied composition with Franz Schreker. When Hitler came to power in1933, Szpilman returned to Warsaw and worked as a pianist for Polish Radio. By 1939, he had composed scores for a number of films and many songs which were popular at the time.

After surviving the Holocaust, he began working again for Polish Radio and returned to concert performance as a soloist and in chamber ensembles. He also wrote several symphonic works and composed over 300 songs, many of them big hits of the times. He wrote the final version of his book in 1945. It described his experiences during the Holocaust, and was a catharsis of sorts. More than 50 years after its first edition, published in 1946, the book has now been published in America and is the basis for the Oscar Award winning movie, The Pianist.

Jewish every dayIncorporate Jewish Valuesmore

Materials and resourcesmore


Copy (book or digital) of The Pianist by Vladyslaw Szpilman
Article: “Students Becoming Real Readers: Literature Circles in High School English Classes,”  
Music: Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor


Trailer for the movie, The Pianist 
Recording of Chopin s Nocture in C sharp Minor (by Wladyslaw Szpilman in his home in Warsaw)
(optional) The film, The Pianist 

Sharing The Storymore

Introducing The story

Note: Most of the questions and activities can be used in conjunction with the film The Pianist, which is closely based upon the memoir.

Play the movie trailer for The Pianist

Ask each student to create 1 question that the clip suggests to him/her. Discuss several and invite thoughts, predictions, and perceptions. List these questions on a class chart to be discussed upon completion of the book and/or film. Throughout their reading of the book, encourage students to add additional questions they would like to discuss to deeper their understanding.

Reading The Story

Involve students in literature circles, grouping them and assigning roles as they read specific chapters of the book. After reading a specified portion of the book, have them meet to discuss and share their questions, perceptions, etc., based on their roles What follows is one way to implement this strategy, the internet provides many more. The article “Students Becoming Real Readers: Literature Circles in High School English Classes,” provides additional information and is closely aligned to the procedure below:

Procedure for Literature Circles:

  • Divide class into groups of 4 each. Assign each a role or each group can determine what roles each individual will have. Roles can remain the same throughout the entire reading, or can change after reading a specific number of chapters:
    • The Discussion Director: Helps keep the conversation flowing. Suggests 2 or 3 significant questions to help reach a deeper understanding and leads the group as they discuss these.
    • Literary Luminary: Selects 2 or 3 specific paragraphs from the book which affected him/her in a significant way. Read these aloud, have others in the group react to them and share own interpretation as well. 
    • Connector: Select a connection to what you have read--either to history, current events, or own personal experiences and discuss with group.
  • When the book is completed, have each group work together to create an artistic representation of one or more aspects of the book, its plot, setting, theme, etc. (i.e. a new digital trailer for the book, etc.; dramatic recreation of a specific scene; poem, illustrative collage, set to music, etc.)

After The Story

Grand Conversation
Involve students in a “Grand Conversation” as they discuss their reflections based on questions suggested from watching the film clip (see “Introduction”) as well as those suggested from reading of the book. You may wish to offer your own questions as well, such as:

  • How does a person survive? Some say it is because of the goodness of others, others will tell you it’s luck. In Szpilman’s case, what do you believe to be most instrumental in keeping him alive? Explain. 
  • The Pianist is a testament to the essential human desire to live What passage do you believe most clearly reflect this? 
  • Pages of Wilm Rosenfeld’s diary are included at the end of the book. How did he explain why the Nazi soldiers could inflict such evil? What flaws do you find in his explanation?
Wladyslaw Szpilman wrote his story in Warsaw directly after the war. In the epilogue to the book, Wolf Biermann, one of Germany’s best known poets, song-writers and essayists, wrote about the melancholy detachment with which the book was written. This same emotional detachment is reflected in the film. Write a piece that might explain this phenomena. 

Against All Odds

At the end of the book, Wladyslaw Szpilman reflects on his survival and the need to go on with his life. He wrote, “Tomorrow I must begin a new life. How could I do it, with nothing but death behind me? What vital energy could I draw from death…?”
  • Interview survivors of the Holocaust and discuss the choices they had to make both during and after the Holocaust. What vital energy did they draw from to help them go on? Compile your findings.


Explore, Discover, and More Extension and Reinforcement Activitiesmore

Play this recording of Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor played by Szpilman in his home in Warsaw in 1997. As students listen to the music that Szpilman played the day Poland was invaded, have them write any specific thoughts, images, emotions that the piece evokes. Allow time for them to share these with the class or in smaller groups.

Film Review
After more than 60 years, the first person account that Szpilman wrote about in the 1940’s has gained immense popularity. Involve students in watching the film version of The Pianist. Have them write a film review that includes reasons why Szpilman’s story has such a wide-spread audience. Additionally, shave them compare the film to the book with specific examples to support your analysis. (If time is at a minimum, select one or more scenes from the book to analyze, rather than the entire film.)

Music Connectionsmore


Lesson Contributors

Dr. Anita Meyer Meinbach and Dr. Miriam Klein Kassonoff from their book, with permission): Memories of the Night: Studies of the Holocaust, 2nd Edition (2004 ). Christopher-Gordon, Publishers, Inc. Norwood, A.