Observer, 28.03.1999


Notes from the Warsaw ghetto




The Pianist byWladyslaw Szpilman Victor Gollancz £12.99, pp222


THE GRAND historical narrative of the Second World War, with its alliances and troop movements, its capitalised heroes and villains, is now largely established. Yet 54 years on, the smaller, individual accounts of those who lived through the war's terror continue to shock or surprise by their very particularity.

Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoir of life in Nazi-occupied Warsaw and the Jewish ghetto has a singular vividness. It was written and published immediately after the war, only then to be buried by the new Communist regime. Its uncomfortable truths about collaborations between Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and the Nazi occupiers were of no use to the new order. Nor was Szpilman kind to a stratum of Jews who helped to implement Nazi rule in the ghetto. No translations appeared in 1946. The immediacy of Szpilman's account goes hand in hand with a rare tone of innocence. History has not yet been written, certainly not digested. We are drawn in to share his surprise and then disbelief at the horrifying progress of events. His shock and ensuing numbness become ours, so that acts of ordinary kindness or humanity take on an aura of miracle.

Born in 1911 to a musical family, Szpilman studied piano in Warsaw and Berlin and was already a well-known pianist working for Polish Radio when war erupted. His family lived in the area that was soon to become the walled ghetto, and he evokes daily experience within its teeming, impoverished and ever-shrinking confines with a gripping matter-of-factness. The restless smugglers who haunted the wall's perimeter waiting to burrow into a hole or catch a parcel thrown over its height at an agreed signal, the clatter of carts, the dreaded stomp of jackboots, the countless beggars and snatchers (who would literally grab a package from anyone else's arms and run off), the vermin, the lice so thick they dropped from the ceilings of public offices, the freezing cold indoors and out, the hunger, the misery, the truncheons with embedded razor blades. the random and sadistic killings ­ all are conveyed with an understated intimacy and dailiness that render them painfully close. Almost worst of all, for Szpilman, is the inability to walk to the other side of a once-familiar street, the unbreachable reality of those brick walls, the reminder that life is a prison.

At the beginning of its existence, the ghetto still had a social stratification. At the café where Szpilman worked as a pianist. the diamond-encrusted rich drank champagne and did their deals. By the time of the deportations in the summer of 1942, when around ó,000 people a day were crushed into freight cars to be transported to Treblinka, differences had disappeared. Szpilman's description of sitting amid the crowd on the fatal Umschlagsplatz and waiting in the heat for the train that will take them to death, is riveting. With his last small change, his father purchases a single cream caramel and divides it into six for the family. It is their final meal together.

Just as the train is being filled, Szpilman feels a hand on his collar dragging him outside the police cordon. He is being saved, despite himself. He returns to the shrunken ghetto and begins work as a building-site labourer outside the walls. The ghetto uprising is being prepared and every night, in the sacks of potatoes or beans that the workers are allowed to bring back, he and his fellows carry clandestine arms and ammunition brought to them by partisans. Just before the uprising, Szpilman steals away from the convoy of labourers, rips the white band with its blue Star of David from his arm, and makes his escape into Aryan Warsaw. Polish friends hide him in one locked room after another and bring him scraps of food. He has poison and a rope ready for the moment when the jackboots come to the door.

Some 16 months later, as the Warsaw uprising progresses, he finds himself almost alone, jaundiced and starving in the bombed and burnt-out city. It is then that he meets the German officer who is his ultimate wartime saviour. Wilm Hosenfeld, having heard him play the piano with jittery fingers, brings him food and blankets and has him hide in an attic.

Hosenfeld's brief wartime diaries are appended to this volume. They reveal him as an utterly commendable Christian who is devastated by the horror the Nazi regime has wrought. All Germans, he feels, will have to pay for the barbaric crimes in which they have colluded, if only by letting them happen. He paid: he died in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp in 1952, despite Szpilman's `efforts to have him released as a friend of the Jews and the Poles.


Lisa Appignanesi is the author of Losing the Dead (Chatto & Windus). Her latest novel is The Dead of Winter (Bantam)