The Times, 8 April 1999



When we speak of the Holocaust, the images summoned are mostly

those of the concentration camp. Wladyslaw Szpilman's powerful memoir,

The Pianist (Gollancz, Åí12.99; ISBN 0 575 06708 X) supplies a whole

other iconography, that of the Warsaw ghetto. A Jewish pianist, he

managed to survive the ghetto and outside it in Warsaw on the run.

The most dramatic aspect of Szpilman's story comes in the war's

final days when he was discovered by a German officer. On learning

that he was a pianist, Wilm Hosenfeld persuaded him to play the Chopin

Nocturne in C sharp minor. Hosenfeld then showed him where to hide

and brought him food.

One can see why the Polish authorities had Szpilman's book

withdrawn soon after its publication in 1946. His account of the "good

Poles" who hid him may have been ideologically acceptable, but that of

a "good German" wasn't. Yet the Hosenfeld section of the book is the

least interesting. Far more arresting are his tableaux of ghetto life

- the lice so inescapable they even penetrated the bread; a German

officer's casual defenestration of a dazed old man in the building

opposite; the corpses who stare up at him as he makes his way home

each night.

The ghetto remains for most of us an unfathomable place. Szpilman

describes the torment of confinement. He's also an artful guide to the

differences between the Jews in the ghetto - not the homogenous group

of the Nazi imagination, but people whose prewar status was reproduced

during the war. Szpilman observes them from one of the ghetto cafes

where he plays. He also recounts the sadism of the Jewish police and

the daring of the underground to which he belonged.

Once he's been spirited out of the ghetto, the book becomes a

desperate chronicle of hunger, loneliness and pessimism. Looking out

on a bombed landscape, he imagines himself the last person alive.

Twice he's on the point of suicide when capture seems imminent. The

third time he swallows sleeping-pills but awakes the next day.

For me, this book had an added poignancy. The Chopin Nocturne which

saved Szpilman's life was the same one which saved my mother's, when

she played it in Plazow concentration camp for Amon Goeth. What would

Frederic Chopin have made of that?