The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945
Named one of the Best Books of 1999 by the Los Angeles Times, The Pianist is now a major motion picture directed by Roman Polanski and starring Adrien Brody (Son of Sam). The Pianist won the Cannes Film Festival’s most prestigious prize—the Palme d’Or.
On September 23, 1939, Wladyslaw Szpilman played Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor live on the radio as shells exploded outside—so loudly that he couldn’t hear his piano. It was the last live music broadcast from Warsaw: That day, a German bomb hit the station, and Polish Radio went off the air.
Though he lost his entire family, Szpilman survived in hiding. In the end, his life was saved by a German officer who heard him play the same Chopin Nocturne on a piano found among the rubble. Written immediately after the war and suppressed for decades, The Pianist is a stunning testament to human endurance and the redemptive power of fellow feeling.
Written immediately after the end of World War II, this morally complex Holocaust memoir is notable for its exact depiction of the grim details of life in Warsaw under the Nazi occupation. “Things you hardly noticed before took on enormous significance: a comfortable, solid armchair, the soothing look of a white-tiled stove,” writes Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist for Polish radio when the Germans invaded. His mother’s insistence on laying the table with clean linen for their midday meal, even as conditions for Jews worsened daily, makes palpable the Holocaust’s abstract horror. Arbitrarily removed from the transport that took his family to certain death, Szpilman does not deny the “animal fear” that led him to seize this chance for escape, nor does he cheapen his emotions by belaboring them. Yet his cool prose contains plenty of biting rage, mostly buried in scathing asides (a Jewish doctor spared consignment to “the most wonderful of all gas chambers,” for example). Szpilman found compassion in unlikely people, including a German officer who brought food and warm clothing to his hiding place during the war’s last days. Extracts from the officer’s wartime diary (added to this new edition), with their expressions of outrage at his fellow soldiers’ behavior, remind us to be wary of general condemnation of any group. —Wendy Smith
The last live broadcast on Polish Radio, on September 23, 1939, was Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp Minor, played by a young pianist named Wladyslaw Szpilman, until his playing was interrupted by German shelling. It was the same piece, and the same pianist, when broadcasting resumed six years later. The Pianist is Szpilman’s account of the years in between, of the death and cruelty inflicted on the Jews of Warsaw and on Warsaw itself, related with a dispassionate restraint borne of shock. Szpilman, now 88, has not looked at his description since he wrote it in 1946 (the same time as Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man?; it is too personally painful. The rest of us have no such excuse. Szpilman’s family were deported to Treblinka, where they were exterminated; he survived only because a music-loving policeman recognised him. This was only the first in a series of fatefully lucky escapes that littered his life as he hid among the rubble and corpses of the Warsaw Ghetto, growing thinner and hungrier, yet condemned to live. Ironically, it was a German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, who saved Szpilman’s life by bringing food and an eiderdown to the derelict ruin where he discovered him. Hosenfeld died seven years later in a Stalingrad labour camp, but portions of his diary, reprinted here, tell of his outraged incomprehension of the madness and evil he witnessed, thereby establishing an effective counterpoint to ground the nightmarish vision of the pianist in a desperate reality. Szpilman originally published his account in Poland in 1946, but it was almost immediately withdrawn by Stalin’s Polish minions as it unashamedly described collaborations by Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Poles and Jews with the Nazis. In 1997 it was published in Germany after Szpilman’s son found it on his father’s bookcase. This admirably robust translation by Anthea Bell is the first in the English language. There were 3,500,000 Jews in Poland before the Nazi occupation; after it there were 240,000.Wladyslaw Szpilman’s extraordinary account of his own miraculous survival offers a voice across the years for the faceless millions who lost their lives. —David Vincent
Winner of the prestigious Golden Palm award at the 2002 Cannes film festival, The Pianist is the film that Roman Polanski was born to direct. A childhood survivor of Nazi-occupied Poland, Polanski was uniquely suited to tell the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew and concert pianist (played by Adrien Brody) who witnessed the Nazi invasion of Warsaw, miraculously eluded the Nazi death camps, and survived throughout World War II by hiding among the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. Unlike any previous dramatization of the Nazi holocaust, The Pianist…