The Spectator


Not shooting the pianist


By Stephen Cang



By Wladyslaw Szpilman

Gollancz, fl2.99, pp. 224


For a Jew to survive the Warsaw ghetto was amazing. For a German officer to feel agonised and ashamed of his country and his countrymen as their cruelty and madness destroyed human beings as if they were mere physical objects, to record his shame in diaries kept throughout his service in Warsaw, diaries which miraculously survived being posted to his family in Germany via the regular mail in late 1944, is probably unique. Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, excerpts from whose diary form part of The Pianist, saved Wladyslaw Szpilman by giving him food, an eiderdown and an overcoat when death from cold and starvation cannot have been far off.

Szpilman survived to play Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor on Polish radio as its first broadcast after the war; he had played the same piece as its last in September 1939, before a shell knocked out the transmitter. He then resumed his career as a pianist, became Head of Music at Polish Radio, and retired in 1963 to devote himself to composing. He is alive today and is coming to London for the launch of his book. Szpilman wrote his account immediately after the war's end. The Pianist was published in Poland in 1946, then suppressed by the communist authorities and remains unavailable in Poland to this day. The original suppression is presumed to reflect the communists' inability to tolerate the fact that, as Szpilman shows, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and other communist peoples could be as cruel and murderous as the Germans. Anti-German feeling was itself so strong in Poland in 1945 that Szpilman had to disguise Hosenfeld as an Austrian, to make him less unacceptable.

The Polish title of the book was Death of a City; published in German last year, it became The Miraculous Survival; in j English, excellently translated by Anthea Bell, it appears as The Pianist. These differences doubtless reflect the relative positions of Poles then, and of Germans and the English now, visàvis the events recorded. Szpilman writes of the gradually rising terror created in Warsaw by the Germans, of the step-by-step degradation of its Jewish population by the systematic withdrawal of such normal freedoms as being able to travel on public transport or to buy food. He describes his entire family's deportation to be murdered in Treblinka, the German death camp nearest Warsaw. He details his own increasingly hazardous existence in the progressively destroyed city, among burning buildings, rotting corpses, without food or water for days on end, in constant terror of being betrayed or discovered, ready to kill himself when no further hope of survival seemed possible.

It is all told with a simple clarity that lodges the story in one's stomach through a mixture of disgust, terror, despair, rage and guilt that grips the reader almost gently. At times the tone is sub-laconic, providing a kind of relief: 'I lost two illusions here [playing in a café for the rich]-my belief in our general solidarity and in the musicality of the Jews'; or, when asked to stop playing so that a guest could test the gold $20 coins by tapping and listening to their ring, 'the only music in which he took any interest', or even 'I was not as familiar with the dead as I would become afterwards.' The uninterrupted fear he felt living in the ghetto is likened to awaiting an appendicitis operation-the never-absent sense of something dreadful impending. There is a freshness in his writing, a feeling even in the irony, that bring the war years disturbingly close. As Wolf Biermann perceptively remarks in an excellent postscript, the book reads as if written in shock-as it must indeed have been. The shock is effectively transmitted nearly 60 years later.

It would be possible to read this book simply as an extraordinary story of horrendous times. But to do no more would feel like a sort of acceptance of such events, a kind of permission for them to happen, unless some attempt were made to consider their implications and possible consequences. Yet now, so long after the German nation began its slide into a shameful programme of psychotic cruelty, destructiveness and systematic murder, all in the heart of what had been regarded as 'civilised Europe', should it be only Szpilman's story itself that strikes the reader? Should there not also arise the question of what, today, is to be made of his story ?

Are we to shrug, feeling that such things happen, have happened since the second world war, will happen agaat somewhere, some time, and how lucky for us that we are spared such desperate tests and horrors? The book is said to be a best-seller in Germany (how much will German readers be able to identify with Captain Hosenfeld's views?); one hopes that it may be widely read here. But to what end? Should there not be some 'aftermathology', whose aim would be to trace the necessary programmes of action to be taken by the Germans, the Poles, the Jews and others, programmes whose aim would be to deal with the facts of 1933 to now in such a way as to achieve-what? Talk of reconstruction, reconciliation, re-this and re-that, remains somehow unconvincing. There is an analysis to be made of what needs to be undertaken, by whom, and under what conditions. Otherwise we are left with a most uncomfortable sense that an account such as Szpilman's may be only an episode in a story that is still running.


The Spectator


6 March 1999