The Independent on Sunday



The music, the walls and the Nazi saviour


By Gerald Jacobs


You can learn more about human nature from this brief account of the survival of one man throughout the war years in the devastated city of Warsaw than from several volumes of the average encyclopaedia.

The man is Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish musician, now 88, who, 60 years ago, was playing Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor on the radio as German bombs began failing outside the studio. It was to be the last live music broadcast by Polish Radio until 1945. It was also, in a sense, the last live gesture of a form of civilisation upon which murderous hands were about to be laid.

Along with the rest of Warsaw's half-a-million Jews, Szpilman and his family were confined to the ghetto, specially created by the German invaders. And, although much has been written about the Warsaw Ghetto, rarely has the sheer claustrophobic sense of living in it been so vividly conveyed as it is by Szpilman: "You could walk out into the street and maintain the illusion of being in a perfectly normal city ... However, the streets of the ghetto - and those streets alone - ended in walls."

In August 1942, as a result of a forceful intervention by (it appears, but is not precisely clear) a friendly policeman, the young Wladyslaw was pulled back from a crowd being herded towards a train of cattle trucks. Among those taken away were the rest of the Szpilman family - Wladyslaw's father and mother, his brother Henryk and his sisters, Regina and Halina. He never saw them again.

The following two and a half years were mostly spent in hiding. At the end of a grim sequence of wanderings and escapes - conveyed here in gripping, economic prose - another unlikely saviour emerged in the shape of a sympathetic German soldier. Taking refuge in a burnt-out villa, Szpilman was searching for food in a larder when he was interrupted by an officer whom he later found out to be Captain Wilm Hosenfeld.

By then, the Germans were leaving Warsaw but this did not deter them or their Ukrainian auxiliaries from continuing to kill any stragglers they happened upon. Hosenfeld was different, however, as is apparent from the extracts from his diary reproduced as an appendix to Szpilman's narrative. Here was a humane individual caught up, like so many others, in the tide of cruelty that swept over Europe, dehumanising everyone it touched.

Sadly, it seems that Hosenfeld died unacknowledged in a Russian POW camp shortly after the war, Szpilman's efforts at securing his release having foundered. The recording of his good deeds - not only towards Szpilman - in The Pianist may be of some, belated comfort to his family. The extracts from his diary offer a number of significant and poignant reflections. "Have the criminals and lunatics been let out of the prisons and asylums?" he asks at one point, answering himself immediately with the dreadful insight that neither criminality nor lunacy were necessary: "Evil and brutality lurk in the human heart."

And, in one of the book's most thought-provoking passages, written on August 13, 1942, Hosenfeld observes: "What cowards we are, thinking ourselves above all this, but letting it happen. We shall be punished for it too. And so will our innocent children, for we are colluding when we allow these crimes to be committed."

The soldier's diary forms an effective counterpoint to the musician's memoir, the latter rendered, after a clumsy, florid opening, into a sprightly, almost conversational English by translator Anthea Bell. As the gravest of dangers close in upon him, Szpilman's story drives along like an adventure, thereby highlighting its incidental and frequently appalling detail all the more sharply.

As the story begins with music, so it ends. In an epilogue, the German poet Wolf Biermann points out that, after the war, Wladyslaw resumed his career (and reopened the Polish broadcasting service) by playing the same nocturne of six years earlier. The genius of Chopin symbolised the triumph over darkness. The nocturne is a night piece into which light is introduced. Some night. Some light.


The Independent on Sunday 28.03.1999