A refuge in music during a time of chaos

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff, 09/21/99


Wladyslaw Szpilman was performing a Chopin recital on Polish radio when the first German bombs fell on Warsaw, as World War II began. Six years later, the Chopin Nocturne he played for a German officer saved his life.


''The Pianist'' is the diary of a season in hell. Szpilman wrote his book almost immediately after the events in the Warsaw Ghetto it describes, and it was swiftly suppressed by the Communist authorities. To this day, it has not been reprinted in Poland, though the recent efforts of Szpilman's son, who lives in Germany, have led to translations and publications in many languages.


The first American edition unfortunately lacks the small selection of photographs published in other countries, but the book nevertheless leaves indelible images. ''The Pianist'' is a great book, but one so painful that it is impossible to read more than a few pages at a time. At the same time, cruelties and tragedies on a scale impossible to comprehend are somehow mitigated by small acts of human solidarity, which arrive unexpectedly - ordinary but radiant.


In Berlin, Szpilman had studied piano with Arthur Schnabel and composition with Franz Schrecker before returning to Warsaw to become a staff pianist for Polish Radio. Once the war began, he survived for a time by playing in ghetto cafes, some that catered to the intelligentsia, others to wealthy and heedless profiteers. Szpilman's work supported his family - his mother, who struggled to keep up appearances; his father, who played the violin for hours, '' closing the door behind him and returning to that other world of music, where he was happiest.'' There were two sisters, the lawyer Regina and the silent Halina. ''I can't say what she was really like, and now I can never find out any more about her,'' Szpilman writes, as a matter of fact, but with ineffable poignancy. And there was a brother who carried an Oxford edition of Shakespeare with him on the cattle car to Treblinka.


Szpilman and his family were rounded up for ''resettlement.'' In the train yard, they scraped together the last of their small change, and Szpilman's father bought a creme caramel, which he carefully cut into six parts with his penknife; this was the family's last meal together.


Szpilman himself was pulled free at the last moment by one of the hated Jewish police who collaborated with the SS. He survived, working on labor details in the ghetto; later he escaped into the Aryan section of Warsaw, where he was hidden and protected by musicians and music lovers who knew that to shelter a Jew joepardized not only their own lives but the lives of their families. Szpilman was frequently hungry, even starving; sometimes freezing in the winter cold; always in extreme danger. He contemplated and attempted suicide. Nearly delirious, he concentrated on mentally practicing his entire repertory and reviewing lessons in conversational English. In a bombed-out building, where he was living in the remains of the attic, he was discovered by a German officer, who asked him to play something, and Szpilman responded with the Chopin Nocturne. The officer - Wilm Hosenfeld, though Szpilman did not know the name at the time - brought him food, a coat, an eiderdown, and found him a place of greater shelter.


Szpilman survived, returned to Polish Radio as its head, wrote popular songs, and played chamber music. His recital partners included the violinists Bronislav Gimpel, Henryk Szeryng, Ida Haendel, and Roman Totenberg. Hosenfeld was not as fortunate: He perished in a Soviet labor camp in 1952, despite the efforts Szpilman and other Poles made to rescue the man who had saved them. ''The Pianist'' appears in English with a supplement of excerpts from Hosenfeld's diary, preserved and cherished by his family. ''Why did this war have to happen at all?'' asks Hosenfeld, a devout Catholic, in September 1942. ''Because humanity had to be shown where its godlessness was taking it.''


''The Pianist'' is not a literary work, and Szpilman does little to dramatize events, though he is always alert to irony. The German poet Wolf Biermann, who contributes an afterword, says the book was ''written in deep shock,'' and it often seems as if Szpilman were writing about some other person than himself. In Polish, the book was called ''Death of a City,'' and Szpilman's beloved Warsaw is one of its principal characters. The book does seem like a kind of murmured, mumbled exorcism, but there is also an intense quality of vision and hearing in it. As Szpilman ran down the empty streets after glimpsing his family for the last time, he was ''pursued by the fading cries of the people shut up on those trucks. It sounded like the twittering of caged birds in deadly peril.''


It is easy to understand why the authorities suppressed ''The Pianist.'' Qualities of character do not tidily sort themselves along national, religious, or ethnic lines the way they do in the movies; the book is full of things that members of groups do not want to be reminded of, but which every individual needs to hear and heed.


This story ran on page D03 of the Boston Globe on 09/21/99.
©1999 Globe Newspaper Company.