Los Angeles Times
The Pianist," Wladyslaw Szpilman's remarkable memoir of his survival in Warsaw between the years 1939 and 1945, is a significant contribution to the literature of remembrance, a document of lasting historical and human value. Unforgivably overlooked since its publication (in Polish) in 1946 and translated into English just now for the first time, the book is a relative rarity, an account of the Holocaust written in the immediate aftermath of the experience itself. It has all the rawness and specificity of horrors pairiftilly and uncomprehendingly withstood and afterward just as uncomprehendingly-but necessarily-recorded. Writing this book would seem to have been a further act of survival by a man who performed more of them in six years than most human beings do in a lifetime.
In a helpful epilogue, the German writer Wolf Biermann explains the fate of "The Pianist." Soon after the book's publication, was withdrawn from circulation by one of" Stalin's Polish minions. Biermann suggests that it contained too many truths about the collaboration of defeated Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians and Jews with the German Nazis. Certainly this much is true: Szpflman regards everyone with the same sharp unsentimental eye. Jews are good and not so good ("A scoundrel will still be a scoundrel," as Biermann points out, "behind barbed wire"). Germans are 99% horrific, but one individual emerges as the opposite. Friends turn into traitors; strangers offer a lifesaving kindness. To borrow from Primo Levi: There is no why here.
There is only how. To conscientious observers of the last century-and millennium-at the center of this book is one of the largest hows in all of human inquiry: How one people set about systematically and relentlessly annihilating another. It is a. how that Szpilman tells with clarity, intelligence, candor, courage. It is the how' that must be told again and again and again.
But why has "The Pianist" been rediscovered now? One clue may lie in the story of the good Wehrmacht officer who, late in Szpilman's ordeal, discovers him hiding in Warsaw and, instead of killing him, brings him an eiderdown quilt and a supply of food. This man, Wilm Hosenfeld, kept a diary in which he castigated the Nazi regime; he died in a prisoner of war camp in Stalingrad, where he was tortured because Soviet officers thought his claim to have saved a Jew particularly offensive. In bidding Hosenfeld farewell at a point when it was clear that the Germans had lost the war, an emaciated, weakened Szpilman with great humanity and great generosity told him, "If anything happens to you, if I can help you then in any way, remember my name: Szpdman, Polish Radio." Szpilman tried to find Hosenfeld immediately after the war and failed; later, between Szpilman --and -Rosenfeld's family there developed a friendship. Parts of Hosenfeld's diary came i- to Szpilman's hands and are excerpted hiere. "The Pianist," recently published in Germany, was a bestseller there. If there is a connection between the rediscovery of "The Pianist" and its depiction of a "good" German, it is an interestin 'and possibly troubling story, but it is a story about publishing and memory and the effects of time on both; it is not a story about writing, and it does not in any way call into question the merits of Szpilman's memoir. This memoir Itself does not have an ounce of rehabilitation in it; it bums with examination: one man's urgent examination of an experience that devastated and transformed his life.
Today Wladyslaw Szpilman is an accomplished concert pianist and composer who lives in Warsaw, Six decades ago, he was a beginning pianist, also living in Warsaw, in an apartment on Sliska Street vOth his parents, his two sisters and his brother. After the Nazis invaded Poland, their street was swallowed up in the newly created ghetto, where half a mfflion Polish Jews were confined in a neighborhood that previously accommodated a hundred thousand. As the war advanced, their psychological and actual space was increasingly constricted as the Nazis implemented what Szpilman calls,,their "system of exerting pressure by gradual stages." One fact occupied Szpilman's family's minds "every hour and every minute": They were shut in. Prison, he says~ would have been better; prison at least did not torment you with "reminders of the free life you have lost."
Szpiiman renders the early war years in inexorable, visceral, day-to-day bleakness. The mundane and the macabre alternate, as though in some senseless dream. For a time he continues to play the piano in a fashionable cafe. (Later he will sort clothes, dig trenches, work as a mason, smuggle ammunition to fighters in the ghetto's uprising.) There are parallel lives in the ghetto as elsewhere: People of means reside among people with none, but lice do not discriminate. Nor, eventually, do vermin, typhus, hunger, filth. Or danger. Or corpses, which appear on streets good and bad, wrapped in paper or decomposing or stacked up like logs. Or horrors: During the Siege of Warsaw, Szpdman spends two nights and a day upright, with 10 people, locked in a lavatory. He sees a child shot for not doffing his hat to a German officer, just one arbitrary murder in a book packed with them. During a random purge, he sees a man in the apartment opposite thrown out of a window. The man is still sitting in his armchair; only in midair does his body separate from the cushion. Then he falls to his death.
There are vestiges of the normal: His mother sets a handsome table as long as she car4 i-us fatbjer retreats into his music; his brother reads Shakespeare. But neither linen nor literature can stay the inevitable. Soon the "resettlement" comes, with its horrific selections, its train cars smalling of chlorine, its sobbir,: ; sudden eerie stillness. There is rnm 1: from a woman, in hiding with her family, who smothers her infant in order to stop her crying but who is found anyway and who now repeats the words 'Why did I do it?" over and over, keening. There is a miracle: As Szpilman was about to board the train with his parents and siblings, a police officer-Jewish, a former ffiend-plucks him from the crowd and sets him free. He calls to Papa, who waves goodbye, "as if I were setting out into life and he was already greeting me from beyond the grave." He flings himself against the policeman's shoulders, tries to rejoin them. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" roars the policeman. "Go on, save yourself "
And he does. "Torn irrevocably from everything that had made up my life until now," Szpilman makes up a different sort of hfe for himself. a life that becomes about survival and nothing more.
There are many ways to read a book about the
Holocaust-, and one of them, surely, inevitably, is to try to
answer the unanswerable: What makes one man adyre when so many
others succumb? We can only learn from those who testify; the
others, of course, are mute. From Szpilman's testimony we learn
this: It is an ineffable and wholly unpredictable mixture of fate,
determination, accident, instinct. Szpilman's instincts, his intuitions
are strong; several times he comes to a fork in the road and, following a hanch, makes the right choice. Also he thinks clearly: hee knows where to find crustss of bread, and how to shake them free of mouse droppings. He figures out how to thaw frozen water He puts a bowl on his stomach, covers it with a blanket, waits. He is disciplined: Through the long, lonely hours he keeps his watch wound and his calendar current. Even when he is too weak to get up for a drink, he manages to structure his day by remembering English and reviewing his musical compositions so that when he emerges from this
nightmare, it is as if he has been practicing the piano all these Vears.
He learns one essential thing about himself. Hiding out in a building that catches fire, he decides to take his own life rather than be captured by the Nazis. He swallows sleeping pills and bids consciousness farewell. But he has not takenenough pills. He wakes up the next morning. Miraculously, the building still stands. Equally miraculously, he finds that his first emotion is not "disappointment that I had failed to die, but joy to find myself allve. A boundless, animal lust for life at any price."
"Tomorrow I must begin a new life," he declares at the very end of these reminiscences, when Poland is liberated and the nightmare concluded. "How could I do it, with nothing but death behind me? What vital energy could I draw from death?"
But it is not from death that Szpilman will
draw his vital energy, clearly. He will draw it from that phoenix-like,
fire-defeating, water-warming animal lust for life. Surely, too,
he will draw it from writing: from this book, from the act of
telling his story. So that it can be known by his son, who introduces
his father's memoir, and by us, his readers, who are introduced
to it too late but with much gratitude.