Towards the end of World War II, in a burnt-out villa in the destroyed city of Warsaw, the Polish pianist Władysław Szpilman faced a German officer before an out-of-tune piano. Szpilman had not bathed in months, and had been living off scraps for more than a year. Szpilman prepared himself for a blow or a shot. Instead, the officer asked about his profession. Although the question seemed meaningless given the context, Szpilman replied: 'pianist'. The German took him to the battered piano and told him to play, no simple task for a starved man who had not touched a piano for three years. Despite his weakness, Szpilman played Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, the same piece that he had played on the radio the day the Germans invaded Warsaw. After a moment of silence, the officer asked him if he was Jewish, then gave him food and clothing with which to survive the next weeks. When the officer was about to leave, Szpilman took his hand and said:
I never told you my name; you didn’t ask me, but I want you to remember it. Who knows what may happen? You have a long way to go, to get home. If I survive, I’ll certainly be working for Polish radio again. If anything happens to you, if I can help you then in any way, remember my name, Szpilman, Polish radio.
The officer died in a prisoner of war camp, while Szpilman survived. His story was immortalised in Roman Polanski’s acclaimed film, The Pianist.
Szpilman was born 1911 in Poland. Early on he showed an aptitude for the piano, training in Warsaw and then, in the 1920s, moving to Berlin. In the exciting musical environment of Weimar Germany, Szpilman studied piano and composition at the Berlin Academy of Arts, working with Franz Schreker among others. When the Nazis took power in 1933 he returned to his family in Warsaw and worked as a pianist for Polish Radio. By 1939, he had composed many popular songs and classical works, and had made a name for himself as a pianist.
This promising musical career was interrupted by the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. Szpilman and his family were driven, along with hundreds of thousands of other Jews of the area, into the Warsaw ghetto. There, in order to acquire the food necessary to protect his family from starvation, he worked as a pianist at the Café Nowaczesna, a well-known gathering place for Nazis and collaborators. Surrounded by Nazis and wealthy Jews in the café, while thousands outside were staving to death, Szpilman wrote, 'I lost two illusions ... my belief in our general solidarity and in the musicality of the Jews'. This job was replaced by positions at other cafés and nightclubs. Szpilman was a well-known and popular entertainer, with connections to many other intellectuals and artists in the ghetto.
The family managed to eke out a living for several years, but this tentative existence was only temporary. The beginning of the end came in the summer of 1942, when large-scale deportations from the ghetto began. Szpilman watched as relatives and friends were sent on transports, but managed to keep his immediate family safe through luck and perseverance. Finally, however, they too were called for transport to ‘the East’ (Treblinka). As they were boarding the train, an unknown hand pulled him away to safety, however, and he watched as his family was sent to their deaths.
Unable to walk freely outside because of the constant threat of discovery or denunciation, Szpilman relied on the generosity of friends, acquaintances and strangers to survive outside the ghetto walls. In the months that followed, Warsaw was largely destroyed and abandoned; Szpilman barely survived, moving from burnt-out building to building. After months of this existence, he became certain that he was the only person left alive in Warsaw. It was in the winter of 1945, while foraging, that he was to meet the German officer who was to save his life.
Once the war was over, Szpilman received his old job back at the Polish Radio. He also gave concert performances as a soloist and member of chamber ensembles, and composed extensively. He retired from touring in 1986 to devote himself entirely to composing, and died in Warsaw in 2000. At the time of his death, Szpilman was one of the best-known and most popular musicians of post-war Poland. Until the release of his autobiography in German, and later in English, and especially the success of Polanski’s film, Szpilman was virtually unknown in the West. This is slowly beginning to change, as his remarkable life as well as performances and compositions are winning him a posthumous following.
Silverman, J. (2002). The Undying Flame: Ballads and Songs of the Holocaust. Syracuse, N.Y., Syracuse University Press.
Szpilman, Wladyslaw. (1999). The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945. New York, Picador USA.