The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw
“The Pianist” is a book of memories, written by a famous Polish musician and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman about his life in German-occupied Warsaw in the period of 1939 to 1945. His entire family, including his parents, two sisters and brother, were killed by the German occupiers. The first publication of this book entitled “The Death of a city” was published in Poland in 1946, but remained practically unnoticed. Szpilman’s book became widely known only in 1999, when the newspaper “Los Angeles Times” awarded “The Pianist” the title of the best book of the year in the category “best nonfiction”, having characterized it as “a significant contribution to the literature of remembrance, a document of lasting historical and human value” (LA Times Bestsellers List, 1999). And after that, in 2002, Roman Polanski’s movie “The Pianist” won the 55th Cannes Film Festival’s top award.
The author of the book, a pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, a graduate of the Academy of Arts in Berlin, had worked as a pianist for Polish Radio until the beginning of the Second World War. In Poland he was known as a composer of symphonic music, film music, and his songs were rather popular. On September 1, 1939 Szpilman’s family, including Wladyslaw, his mother, father, brother Henrik, and sisters Halina and Regina, were in Warsaw. In 1945 a half-dead Wladyslaw remained alone—all his relatives had died. He celebrated the New Year in a destroyed house, so exhausted that the rats were running over his blanket, and when he was asleep they were scratching his face with their sharp claws. 1939—1945 are two fatal dates for Warsaw Jews. The dash between them is the sign, which crossed out hundreds of thousands of people, the sign of denial of humanity. Szpilman spent all these years in Warsaw ghetto. Day after day he descended the steps of hell, the steps leading to destruction, and all these years he watched, listened, and memorized. Immediately after the war he wrote “The Pianist” – a chronicle of the Jeish fate during the Holocaust.
Szpilman’s memoirs are different from the memories of other ghetto survivals due to a special intonation, having nothing in common with the pathos of wrath or the sentimentality of a victim, but having a neutral tone and deep concentration of an observer, and aristocratic self-esteem, brought up by the spirit of music. Author’s view in “The Pianist” is a view of a chronicler, responsible for his annals. It is almost the view of an investigator. He is not just looking at the German policeman, who shot dead a Jewish boy for not taking off his cap, but he is exploring the face of evil: “I looked at him; he did not even have particularly brutal features, nor did he appear angry. He was a normal, placid man who had carried out one of his many minor daily duties and put it out of his mind again at once, for other and more important business awaited him”.
Szpilman impartially depicts a terrible surreal existence of man in the ghetto: a convulsive struggle to survive and a constant chance of being killed or sent to concentration camp destroyed human psyche and moral nature. In the ghetto Szpilman earned money by playing the piano in the cafe. That is where he did his most bitter confession: “I lost two illusions here – my belief in our general solidarity and in the musicality of the Jews”. For the ghetto has seen everything: starving children and speculators living in luxury, women exhausted by overwork and prostitutes flaunting in gold and diamonds, the heroic Jewish resistance fighters and the Jewish police, active accomplices of the Nazis in carrying out raids. But the author does not judge anyone, he only testifies. He witnessed the sacrificial heroism of Janusz Korczak, who accompanied children from the orphanage to martyr’s death. Szpilman experienced himself the price of meanness and treachery: hiding from the Nazis in an apartment of Polish friends he nearly died of hunger, because the person who was responsible for feeding him actually robbed him. And all these people—both scoundrels and saints—were put too death just because they were Jews. The author accidentally escaped the fate of concentration camp prisoners, because someone identified him as a pianist Szpilman and snatched him from the hands of the police.
“The Pianist” is the book, which contains no fiction, but the actual course of events describes somewhat symbolic, metaphorical and mysterious fate of Szpilman. The author’s profession, which coincides with his name (Spielmann means a musician in German), helped him to stay alive twice. And, of course, the symbol of human unity is the fact that Szpilman was saved by people of different nationalities: the Jewish police, Polish patriots and German officer. There is no rational explanation to the instances when Szpilman avoided a seemingly imminent death. Once he had decided to commit suicide: “I found the little tube of sleeping tablets, tipped the contents into my mouth and swallowed them. I was going to take the opium too, to make perfectly sure I died, but I had no time to do it”. He fell asleep and woke up next morning. However, Szpilman was saved not only by his extrasensory perception, but also by his unbroken spirit. In November 1945, left alone in a ruined house, suffering from hunger and thirst, a dirty and exhausted musician recovers the music from his memory. He tries to recollect the contents of all the books he had ever read and repeats the English words. He is teaching himself English, formulating questions and trying to answer them fully and correctly. In this way “The Pianist” gives the readers the lessons of courage and humanity, the lessons which are required to resist the barbarism called fascism.
The book ends with the excerpts from the diary of Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, the German officer who saved the musician in the January of 1945. Hosenfeld keeps asking himself “How could this happen?” How could people commit such heinous crimes against the unarmed civilian population, against the Jews? This question is of current interest as well. Humanity is still looking for an answer, and this is why this book is worth reading.
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