The Pianist: the Extraordinary Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45

Wladyslaw Szpilman

History - Second World War

Carmen Callil

19 April 1999 / Sunday Telegraph


April 1999



Hymn in praise of the good soldier Hosenfeld

Our century's horrors afresh in two memoirs of Jews who stayed in Poland under the Nazis, and lived


Losing the Dead

by Lisa Appignanesi - Chatto

IT IS HARD to believe that there could be anything more to publish about the sufferings of the civilian populations - Jew and non-Jew - under German occupation in the Second World War. But The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoir of his existence in Warsaw from 1939 to 1945, is a book so fresh and vivid, so heartbreaking, and so simply and beautifully written, that it manages to tell us the story of horrendous events as if for the first time.

Szpilman was a young pianist in Warsaw at the outbreak of war. In order to survive, he played the piano in the cafes of the ghetto. When the time came, he accompanied his parents, his brother and two sisters to the station for despatch to incineration in Treblinka. After sharing their last meal together - one-sixth each of a cream caramel - his family disappears into the trains, never to be seen again. Szpilman, whisked away by an unknown hand, passes the following years hiding in attics, lavatories, cellars and ruins, living on rusks, on barley, and for long periods on nothing. His account is hair- raising, beyond anything Hollywood could invent.

Often he is saved by Poles, and finally by a German captain, Wilm Hosenfeld, who feeds, clothes and helps to hide him, and for whom he plays Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor on a clapped-out piano amidst the rubble of Warsaw - the most unforgettable scene in an altogether unforgettable book.

This is not a politically correct memoir. Indeed, if there is any bitterness - and there is almost none - it is reserved for the rich Jews of the ghetto, for the Jewish Labour Bureau and the Jewish police, who hunted their fellows and delivered them to concentration camps "with all the professionalism of racially pure SS men". Szpilman also pays tribute to the thousands of Poles who risked their lives to save the Jews, and to their own sufferings in their destroyed city.

Szpilman published his story as Smierc Miasta ("Death of a City") in 1946. The book, unacceptable to Communist Poland, remained out of print until its recent publication in Germany, where it appeared - as does this English edition - together with sections from the diary of Wilm Hosenfeld, a chronicle of the utter despair felt by this good German soldier. Hosenfeld's reward for saving many Jews was seven years, and death, in a Russian labour camp.

The story of the two men - the tormented Jew and the tormented German - form a perfect whole. Everything that has been most horrific in life in 20th-century Europe is encompassed in this exquisite memoir.

Lisa Appignanesi's fine account of her family, Losing the Dead, provides a perfect coda to Szpilman's book, for she writes as the child of those extremely unusual beings: Jewish parents in Nazi Poland who managed to stay alive throughout the War. Well written and intelligent, it is also a rare account of Jews who lived outside the ghetto, and who survived through cunning, energy, some wealth, and luck (Lisa's mother was blonde).

As the daughter of difficult parents, marked for ever by their wartime experiences, Lisa Appignanesi approaches their story with a combination of tetchy sympathy and resentful understanding. In searching out their lives, she also unravels hers. This is a vigorous memoir, full of idiosyncrasy and humanity; an important book of memory for those generations who could so easily forget how much, and why, the massive devastation of the Second World War lives on in its survivors.