THE PRESS, Christchurch, New Zealand, August 1998


Music tells Holocaust survivor's harrowing tale


Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp minor played a major role in Wladyslaw Szpilman's life. ROBIN MUNRO relates his story, and speaks to a Christchurch friend of the Polish pianist.


Wladyslaw Szpilman owes his life to music, and in return he has dedicated his existence to it.

The Polish pianist and Holocaust survivor was just 27 when Hitler's invading army entered Warsaw on September 23, 1939. He was performing a selection of Chopin's music live on Polish Radio when a German grenade destroyed the transmitter, silencing the station.

Six years later in 1945, when the station resumed transmission, miraculously Szpilman was there to play the same selection.

Szpilman is now 86. His survival and the part that music played in it has echoes of other stories of compassion and courage that have emerged from one of the darkest periods in modern history, notably the tale of Oskar Schindler, made into the movie Schindler's list by Steven Spielberg.

This story has now been told in a book, and fittingly - since his name, pronounced Spielman, means the player" in German - through the release of a CD.

The CD features Szpilman's Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, which was written while he was in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940. More importantly, it records his version of the piece that saved his life".


It happened like this.


When they, invaded Poland, the Nazis created and sealed off the Warsaw Ghetto and placed about 500,000 Jews in it, about 300,000 of whom would be exterminated in 1942. That year Szpilman,' and his whole family - his parents, brother, and two sisters - were selected to be sent to an extermination camp at Treblinka.

A Jewish policeman kept Szpilman back against his will. The others perished.

He managed to escape to the "Aryan" part of Warsaw Where Polish friends cared for him, but the danger of betrayal meant that even this refuge ran out.

After the Nazis crushed an uprising in the ghetto in 1943 and an uprising by the Polish resistance the next year, Warsaw had been almost levelled. Szpilman eked out a miserable existence among the rubble. For five months he spoke to none. He kept his sanity by recalling note by note every piece of music he had played.

By late 1944, dirty and starving, Szpilman abandoned one refuge after being shot at, and settled in the attic of a damaged multi-storey building, which still had water and food.

After two days he went to gather enough food so that he would rarely have to descend from his hiding place. While examining what was in the pantry he heard a German voice directly behind him. Szpilman had studied piano and composition in Berlin before Hitler's rise and understood German perfectly.

In his book he recounts the following conversations.

"What are you doing here?" asked a tall, elegant German officer.

"What are you doing here?" the officer repeated. "Don't you know that the Warsaw military command staff is about to move into this house?"

Szpilman sank down on a chair and stammered: "Do with me whatever you want. I'm not moving from this spot."

I have no intention of doing anything to you!" the officer shrugged his shoulders. "What is your profession?"


The officer looked Szpilman up and down then something seenled to occur to him.

"'Would you follow me please?"

Finding an out-of-tune upright piano in the house the officer motioned towards the instrument and said: "Play something." Szpilman was worried that playing the piano would bring SS men running.

"Play at your ease! If anyone comes, hide in the pantry, and 1 will say that it was me playing, to try out the instrument," the officer said.

The officer was a Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. The piece Szpilman played was Chopin´s Nocturne in C Sharp minor. It saved his live.

Hosenfeld, clearly moved, discovered that the musician was a Jew and found him a better hiding place. Then he shook Szpilman's hand and left.

Three days later, Hosenfeld returned in total darkness at night, bringing bread. He told Szpilman to hold on, that the war would soon be over.

On December 12, 1944, the officer came for the last time to say that his division was leaving Warsaw where the Soviets were expected any day now. He told Szpilman on no account to give up courage.

And how do you think, I will survive the battle for the streets?" Szpilman asked.

"That you and I have survived more than five years of this hell means clearly that it is God's will that we survive. You have to believe that."


Warsaw was retaken by Polish and Soviet fighters on January 17 and Szpilman was save. There was no street fighting. Hosenfeld, who Szpilman says is the "only human being in German uniform that I ever encountered" was captured by Soviet troops. He was sentenced to 25 years hard labour for "espionage".

In civilian life a teacher and devout Catholic, Hosenfeld had been responsible for sport events and grounds in Warsaw.

Excerpts from his diary published with Szpilman's book show Hosenfeld had long questioned German actions in Poland.

On June 16, 1943, after the Warsaw Ghetto was obliterated, he wrote: We have brought an unerasable disgrace, an eternal curse, on ourselves. I am ashamed to go into the city; every Pole has the right to spit when they see us."

His wife's attempt to have the father of her five children released failed despite the efforts of those whose lives, including Szpilman's, he had saved in Warsaw. Hosenfeld died in Stalingrad, in 1952, aged 57.

Szpilman went on to be music director of Polish Radio and a celebrated composer and performer. He toured the world with the Warsaw Piano Quintet, which he founded in 1963.

For 16 years, violinist Jan Tawroszewicz, who is now a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury's School of Music, played in the quintet with Szpilman.

Says Tawroszewicz: "Of course 1 know his story of survival directly from him. He had it fantastic memory and still has.

"It was something you wouldn't believe if you didn't know it was true - To be alone in a completely destroyed big city and to know you are surrounded, by enemies.

It's a matter of strong will to survive. He knew what would happen if he didn't fight for his life. He had no option. I don't think a weak person would survive.

Jan Tawroszewiczan says that Szpilman was one of the best musicians he has hadthe chance to play with.

"I took from him a lot of his psychology, his attitude, his approach to life - to remember the most important thing to remember in music is to create something. First of all a musician is an artist and not just a player."

Of the crucial encounter with Wilm Hosenfeld, Tawroszewicz says: "He played Chopin, I think, because he was emotional. He felt it would be the best piece to express something, but I think the final result would be the same if he had play, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata."

He last saw Szpilman two years ago in Warsaw. "He was in really good shape and we had a very nice time. We were talking about the past, present, and future. I often wonder what would have happened if Szpilman had told the German officer he was a carpenter."