by Wladyslaw Szpilman (Translated by Anthea Bell)
Victor Gollancz, £12.99
BY PETER GILBERT
April 9 - 15, 1999
Wladyslaw Szpilman, a distinguished pianist and composer now in his late '80s, played Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor on September 23, 1939, just hours before the German army closed the radio station down.
His memoir, The Pianist, tells the extraordinary story of how he survived in Warsaw (both inside the ghetto and, after his escape, outside on the "Aryan" side) between 1939 and 1945. It was written immediately after the war and then suppressed by the Communists. A bestseller in Germany, this is its first appearance in English.
It is an astonishing account of human endurance in the face of almost unbearable suffering. That the author survived is a miracle, although he was helped by being provided with food and shelter by Polish friends who risked the death penalty by doing so; and towards the end of the war by Wilm Hosenfeld, an anti-Nazi German officer (extracts from his remarkable wartime diary are included in the book) for whom he played the same Chopin sonata. Undoubtedly Szpilman is a man of considerable inner resources. In one of his hiding places, he even had the self-discipline to teach himself English.
The book is very well written. The description of the early days of the occupation is so graphic that one can almost hear the bombs falling and feel the anxiety of the people of Warsaw. His portrayal of everyday life in the ghetto, where he earned a living playing the piano in nightclubs, is equally vivid and terribly poignant.
There are unforgettable cameos: including that of a traumatised woman whose husband had been murdered in front of her, who went around asking everyone if they had seen him; and of the famous pediatrician and pedagogue Korczak accompanying children from a Jewish orphanage to the cattle trucks for Treblinka.
But the most dreadful section is where Szpilman describes being with his family at the Umschlagplaz (goods yard of the railway station) and how, after they had shared a last meal together of a caramel sweet divided into six portions, his name was called by a Jewish policeman (possibly because he had been instructed by the Polish underground to try and save him) and he was dragged reluctantly away from them.
At this point, as his father appears to be waving goodbye to him, the writing becomes a kind of dark intense poetry: "He saw me and took a couple of steps my way. He was pale, and his lips trembled nervously. He tried to smile, helplessly, painfully, raised his hand and waved goodbye, as if I were setting out into life and he was already greeting me from beyond the grave. Then he turned and went towards the trucks." The penultimate sentence of that chapter, where he describes himself wandering along the street weeping aloud, reminded me of Masaccio's fresco of Adam and Eve's expulsion from Paradise.
The Pianist is a work of a very high order in the literature of the Holocaust. Despite everything that happened to Szpilman &endash the loss of all of his family and most of his friends &endash it doesn't contain even a hint of a desire for revenge.
In addition, the book makes a significant contribution towards destroying the pernicious stereotype that all Poles were antiSemitic and willing collaborators in the massacre of the Jews that took place in their country. Finally, the story of Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, who risked his life to save not only the author but other Jews and Polish Catholics as well, but who died in a Russian prisoner of war camp despite Szpilman's attempts to get him released, is deeply heartening.