The Times, 8 April 1999
When we speak of the Holocaust, the images summoned are mostly
those of the concentration camp. Wladyslaw Szpilman's powerful memoir,
The Pianist (Gollancz, Åí12.99; ISBN 0 575 06708 X) supplies a whole
other iconography, that of the Warsaw ghetto. A Jewish pianist, he
managed to survive the ghetto and outside it in Warsaw on the run.
The most dramatic aspect of Szpilman's story comes in the war's
final days when he was discovered by a German officer. On learning
that he was a pianist, Wilm Hosenfeld persuaded him to play the Chopin
Nocturne in C sharp minor. Hosenfeld then showed him where to hide
and brought him food.
One can see why the Polish authorities had Szpilman's book
withdrawn soon after its publication in 1946. His account of the "good
Poles" who hid him may have been ideologically acceptable, but that of
a "good German" wasn't. Yet the Hosenfeld section of the book is the
least interesting. Far more arresting are his tableaux of ghetto life
- the lice so inescapable they even penetrated the bread; a German
officer's casual defenestration of a dazed old man in the building
opposite; the corpses who stare up at him as he makes his way home
The ghetto remains for most of us an unfathomable place. Szpilman
describes the torment of confinement. He's also an artful guide to the
differences between the Jews in the ghetto - not the homogenous group
of the Nazi imagination, but people whose prewar status was reproduced
during the war. Szpilman observes them from one of the ghetto cafes
where he plays. He also recounts the sadism of the Jewish police and
the daring of the underground to which he belonged.
Once he's been spirited out of the ghetto, the book becomes a
desperate chronicle of hunger, loneliness and pessimism. Looking out
on a bombed landscape, he imagines himself the last person alive.
Twice he's on the point of suicide when capture seems imminent. The
third time he swallows sleeping-pills but awakes the next day.
For me, this book had an added poignancy. The Chopin Nocturne which
saved Szpilman's life was the same one which saved my mother's, when
she played it in Plazow concentration camp for Amon Goeth. What would
Frederic Chopin have made of that?
THE TIMES MAGAZINE 6/3/99