A Pianist's War Notes

6.26 a.m. ET (1026 GMT) October 15, 1999


By Erica D. Rowell  

"I played Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor. The glassy, tinkling sound of the untuned strings rang through the empty flat and the stairway, floated through the ruins of the villa on the other side of the street and returned as a muted, melancholy echo. When I had finished, the silence seemed even gloomier and more eerie than before. A cat mewed in the street somewhere. I heard a shot down below outside the building - a harsh, loud German noise."

- Wladyslaw Szpilman, The Pianist


After watching his family carted off to Treblinka and barely managing to escape a similar fate, Wladyslaw Szpilman, author of The Pianist (Picador, $23, 240 pages), suddenly found himself trying to "buy back" his life with music.

It was 1945, and his hiding place - the attic of a flat still standing in an otherwise burnt-out building - had been discovered. Would the performance end up being a mere prelude to his death?

After four years of being a fugitive, it came down to this: Not having touched a piano in two and a half years, his "fingers were stiff and covered with a thick layer of dirt." Just days before, he had survived being discovered by outwitting a German with a bribe of liquor. Now, he had to play piano for this soldier, and the fear that the music would attract even more of the enemy sat heavily with him in the dank, windowless room.

This life-or-death recital becomes yet another extraordinary example of the man's uncanny ability to survive in a world with no rules and no rhyme or reason.

Unlike The Diary of Anne Frank, this first-person narrative of World War II was written after the fact. It is not a day-by-day account of events that culminate with the tragic loss of life, but is a look back at the flight of a man trying to make sense of his ultimate escape. As his son Andrzej Szpilman puts it, the book "enabled him to ... free his mind and emotions to continue with his life."

First penned in 1945, directly following the Allied victory, The Pianist chronicles Szpilman's life from 1939 to 1944 in a matter-of-fact prose that is almost startling in its mundane telling of horrific, terrifying events.

His first-hand account of war-ravaged Poland follows the incremental fall of Warsaw. The story opens as the gates of the Warsaw ghetto closed in 1940.

Szpilman describes his life as a musician, playing in various cafes frequented by Polish singers, artists and comedians, and immediately one of the most striking aspects of the book is the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Life went on quite normally despite the fact that the Nazis took away the Jewish Poles' freedoms, bit by bit.

The book also makes it painfully clear how insidious was the façade that the Nazis built into the city's takeover in order to elude suspicion of their extermination plans. Only in the 20/20 vision of hindsight do things seem completely abnormal, abhorrent and abysmal.

Rumors abound throughout the ghetto - some true, some false. And throughout, the reader is at the mercy of the same ebb and flow of information that Szpilman was receiving. More than half a century after the book's events, more recent examples of ethnic cleansing eerily echo the portrait of life and death he sketches in the story, underlining the importance of The Pianist and memoirs like it.

The very personal account of the musician's life in the book offers a glimpse of history through a peephole. We experience, for instance, the Warsaw uprising from one of Szpilman's attic perches. Unable to see and hear all that is going on in the streets below, the reader stays with the storyteller, hunkered down in the safety of his eyrie-hideout. But the narrative is nevertheless complete even when his perspective is narrowed.

During the famous ghetto uprising, when our eyes are limited to the author's averted glance of survival, we get the gist of what is happening because he is a thorough raconteur. Along with the bits of information he is able to gather from his hideout is the scene's set-up: Earlier, he had recounted successful efforts by the underground movement to smuggle ammunition into the partition. So even when the musician must rely on his ears rather than his eyes to understand what's happening, the passages unfold in vivid detail.

The piece an emaciated Szpilman chose to play for the German on that November day in 1944 was the same song he had played for Polish Radio on Sept. 23, 1939 - the day that broadcasts ceased when a German bomb hit the power station.

There is a twist to the pianist's story that gives the book a rather unique ending, and a kind of postlude to the memoir touches on the unlikely person who comes to Szpilman's aid. Perhaps the most disappointing part of the book, though, is the way the postscript appears - seemingly tacked on.

But, after all, the caveat in the introduction is that Szpilman is not a writer. He is merely a pianist with a story to tell that's worth reading.

Erica D. Rowell is a news editor for Fox News Online.