2 September 99


The Survivor From Warsaw



Wladyslaw Szpilman was digging trenches in the outskirts of Warsaw shortly after Nazi Germany attacked Poland in September 1939. Shoveling next to him was a frail "old Jew in kaftan and yarmulka" whose "dogged labour, far beyond his normal capacities, produced vanishingly small results." Alarmed that the old man would do himself in, Mr. Szpilman urged him to stop. But the man couldn't. "'I have a shop,' he whispered."

Doom permeates "The Pianist," Mr. Szpilman's stunning memoir of near extinction in war-torn Warsaw. The book is filled with unforgettable incidents, images and people. First published in Poland right after the war, "The Pianist" was quickly removed from the stores and the author, who is still alive at 88, never returned to the subject. Its power derives from its immediacy but also from the deep reserves of culture the author was able to summon so soon after the war in an effort to make sense of it. Thanks to a new translation, American readers can now sample his artistry for themselves.

The day the gates of the Warsaw ghetto were permanently locked -- Nov. 15, 1940 -- Mr. Szpilman (pronounced SHPEEL-man) found its dark streets swarming with residents "all in an agitated state, running back and forth like animals put into a cage and not yet used to it." One night the SS rounded up a few dozen men and forced them to run down Mr. Szpilman's street in front of their car. A volley of machine gun fire ensued, and "the men running in front of it fell one by one, lifted into the air by the bullets, turning somersaults and describing a circle, as if the passage from life to death consisted of an extremely difficult and complicated leap."

At the Umschlagplatz, the square where in the summer of 1942 Warsaw's Jews were herded into trains for "resettlement" at Treblinka, Mr. Szpilman's brother, Henryk, found solace in the small Oxford edition of Shakespeare that he pulled from his pocket. It was here that Mr. Szpilman's family shared its last meal -- a cream caramel that his father cut into six parts for himself and his wife, two sons and two daughters.

It was also at the Umschlagplatz that, in the chaos of boarding, one of the ghetto's Jewish policemen (a class Mr. Szpilman abhorred) pulled him away while the rest of his family was transported to their deaths. The rescue was inexplicable, and Mr. Szpilman makes no effort to account for it. Several times he alludes to his popularity as a pianist in the ghetto's rather shady cafes, which meant he probably was recognized by his rescuer. Survival on these terms represented a kind of failure. Mr. Szpilman felt responsible for his family, and his playing had been their main source of income. Now at 31 he had only himself to think about.

Perhaps that's what ultimately saved him. Again thanks to his cafe fame, he was allowed to join a group of Jewish laborers who were taken from the ghetto each day to work-sites in the "Aryan" sections of Warsaw. This mobility led to renewed contacts with colleagues from his prewar world of musicians, and in early 1943 -- several months before the remnant of the ghetto erupted -- he managed to slip away and go into hiding in various spots arranged by these friends. It was the beginning of a whole new series of ordeals, punctuated by at least one betrayal and long periods of near starvation. No sooner was Mr. Szpilman again well taken care of than on Aug. 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising broke out beneath his windows, and from that point until Soviet entry into Warsaw in early 1945 he was utterly alone.

Mr. Szpilman may have been the only citizen of Warsaw to remain behind after the Germans crushed the uprising and left the city a ghost town of rubble. His hiding place was an attic missing a wall and part of its roof. After several close calls involving German troops and their Ukrainian and Lithuanian allies, he was confronted by a German officer while searching for food -- a captain who turned out to be "the one human being wearing [a] German uniform that I met."

The man brought Mr. Szpilman food and clothing. Just before the final German withdrawal Mr. Szpilman told him his name in case he needed help after the war. But he didn't learn the German's identity until years later, and only because the officer mentioned Mr. Szpilman in letters to his wife from the Soviet camp where he was imprisoned until his death in 1952. He was Wilm Hosenfeld, and this edition includes excerpts from his war diary. The epilogue by Wolf Biermann (a former East German dissident who now lives in Hamburg) notes Mr. Szpilman's visit to Hosenfeld's family in 1957. The photograph they gave him of Hosenfeld was reproduced in the German and British editions but is unfortunately missing here.

Like others of his time and social station Wladyslaw Szpilman seemed not in the least religious. So it is doubly heartbreaking when late in his memoir, walking through devastated Warsaw, he laments the absence there of even the remains of his two sisters and that "I shall never find a grave where I could go to pray for their souls." Nor could there be philosophical consolation. Shortly before the mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto, the artist Roman Kramsztyk tried to cheer him. "'You wait, it'll all be over some fine day, because ... there really isn't any sense in it, is there?" Kramsztyk was shot to death a few days later.



Mr. Pleszczynski is executive editor of The American Spectator.

©DowJones 1999