Magazine article The Spectator

Not Shooting the Pianist

Magazine article The Spectator

Not Shooting the Pianist

Article excerpt


by Wladyslaw Szpilman

Gollancz, 1299, 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 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, vis-a-vis 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. …

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