Detlev Hosenfeld, Andras Szpilman, Wladyslaw Szpilman

Chaired by Rafael Scharf

Readings by Robert Rietti


A powerful book, and what is bound to be a powerful evening, to close Jewish Book Week 1999.

On 23 September 1939 a young Warsaw Jew and accomplished pianist played Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp live on Polish Radio, while German shells exploded outside. It was the lastlive music to be broadcast from Warsaw for the duration of the war. Whilst many members of his family and friends were massacred, he survived amongst the ruins of the city he loved. His life was saved by a German officer, who heard him playing the same piece on a piano found among the rubble.

The Pianist contains, for the first time, the vivid memoirs of the young man (written shortly after the war but suppressed by the Communists), together with extracts of the wartime diary of his rescuer, who perished in a Russian POW camp.

And their names? Wladyslaw Szpilman is the pianist; he is joined by his son Andreas, and by Detlev Hosenfeld, the son of his rescuer Wilm Hosenfeld. This is believed to be the first timethey have appeared together.

Rafael Scharf is the founder of the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies, Oxford




From the Abyss.


By Rafael Scharf


In the flood of books on the theme of World War II, Germany, and the holocaust, it is easy to lose one's way. Occasionally I hear grumbles: is not there too much of it, does this not lead to surfeit and weariness of spirit? Ishudder when I hear this. No, there is not too much, there is never enough; let future generations not reproach us that we did not leave enough evidence for them to study, to draw lessons from, to learn from history (although, as someone said, the only lesson that we draw from history is that we never learn from history). As we are nearing the time when there will be no more eye-witnesses and every piece of evidence, report or confession, every scrap of paper relating to that time will be, is already, worth its weight in gold.


I have in front of me a book whose author is Wladyslaw Szpilman. In Poland, before the war, he was well known as a pianist and composer. Virtually every day he could be heard on the Warsaw radio. When on the 23rd September 1939 the Germans bombed and silenced the Warsaw radio-station, Szpilman was playing a piece by Chopin. Soon after the war, when Warsaw radio started broadcasting again - Szpilman played the same piece. Between those two concerts there is the story of Szpilman's existence, on the margins of life and death, in constant hunger, fear and desolation, in the ghetto and outside it, in that piece of land where the Germans created an inferno for Jews. They did not expect that any of them would survive it and describe it, to the eternal shame of the German people. Szpilman is one such survivor.



His description takes the form of a restrained, objective reportage, as if everything that he he saw and experienced was taking place in some other dimension like a bad dream from which he is bound to wake up. There is not a single word of hatred against the Germans, as I his love and admiration of German music inhibited him from condemning the whole nation. Szpilman considers striving for survival to be his moral duty in order to bear testimony to things, which would be thought beyond belief.


From the introduction and the afterward we learn that the book first appeared in Poland in 1946 under the title 'Smierc Miasta' (Death of a city). Already then it suffered from heavy-handed treatment by the censor - when Szpilman speaks of the German officer whom he owes his life, the censor cannot stomach a 'good German' - he has to be portrayed as an Austrian!


The book soon disappeared from the bookshops - sold out or withdrawn. The censor took the view that there were too many observations not in accordance with the then current version of events. In the sixties attempts were made to have the edition renewed but for one reason or another these attempts came to nought. Andrzej Szpilman express a wish, which I fervently share, that some enterprising Polish publisher would take on this project and renew the edition.


The German title of the book "Das wunderbare Ueberleben" (The miraculous survival) is aptly chosen. Without miracles no Jew of that time survived in Poland, in Szpilman's case there were many miracles: be it when caught by a German patrol after curfew he is lined up against the wall he hears the rifle being cocked for a shot which, for some reason, is not fired; be it when he is dragged away by a Jewish policeman, against his will, from the 'Umschlagplatz', where his family - father, mother, brother, and two sisters - are being loaded onto the death-train; be it when he is hiding in an empty building on the "Aryan" side, is discovered by a German officer who not only means him no harm but takes care of him, provides him with bedding, food and clothing and helps him to survive.


The story of that officer is worth telling - one Wilm Hosenfeld, a teacher by profession, whose function it was to look after the sports-grounds in Warsaw. We now know that Szpilman was not the only Jew of whom Hosenfeld was taking care - and such acts of compassion were very risky indeed. When Hosenfeld brings Szpilman news from the battlefront, which spells out Germany's inevitable defeat, he says good-bye to him, since he is about to be moved to another place, Szpilman then foresees a situation when their roles could be reversed and he, Szpilman, could be of help to Hosenfeld. He says to him: R"emember these words: Szpilman - radio".


As fate would have it - this indeed came to pass. At the end of the war Hosenfeld found himself in a POW camp, but before Szpilman got to know of it, that camp was liquidated. Next news came from Hosenfeld's wife, mother of five. She received a postcard from her husband sent from a camp in Russia, where he was serving a sentence of 25 years hard labour. In that postcard Hosenfeld mentions a few names, among them Szpilman's "whose gratitude he had earned". When Szpilman got to know of it, he says overcame his inner revulsion and went to see "the most influential man in Poland whose hand no self-respecting citizen would deign to shake", to ask him to intervene on Hosenfeld's behalf. Berman promises to help, but after a few days reports that nothing can be done, his Soviet comrades do not agree to Hosenfeld's release. Hosenfeld died in 1952, at the age of 57. Hosenfeld's family gave the publishers access to Hosenfeld's diary which he wrote in Warsaw (last entry 11 August 1944) and which he sent to his family through the army post - it is fearful to think what would have happened to him if a single page of that diary had fallen into the wrong hands.


As an epilogue, the book contains an essay by Wolf Biermann, a poet, the translator into German from Yiddish of the elegy of Yitzhak Kacenelson

,,Dos lid fun ojsgehargeten jidiszen folk" .


Biermann meditates on these themes, poses questions which must be asked but for which there are no answers.


I quote a few of his reflections:


'When 1 read again in this book about the transports to Treblinka in the cattle-trucks, the death-trains to Auschwitz, 1 am haunted by this question: why the Allies, who had detailed knowledge of it all, did not drop a few bombs on the railway junctions or bridges. And also: why those many brave German soldiers did not conspire against those few SS-men, did not shoot them and let the Jews out of the death-trains...


Prisons, ghettoes, concentration camps, the prisoners' barracks and the gas-chambers were not educational establishments for " improvement of the human character. Broadly speaking - who was a scoundrel remained one behind barbed wire. But the matter is not simple: sometimes-ordinary criminals behaved better and were more helpful to others than some perfectly decent, cultured, law-abiding citizens...


To our children who are often confused we must constantly repeat this lesson: you have not taken part in the crimes Committed by your fathers and grandfathers, so let no one tell you that you have a share of guilt. But on us, the good Germans, there rests this responsibility: "To live in truth", as Vaclav Havel puts it. Yours is Johann Sebastian Bach and Goering, Goethe and Goebbels, Heine and Himmler, Buchner and Eichmann - also Wilm Hosenfeld and Hitler."


We read it we are moved. But I wonder to what extent we, in our cosy lives, who have never been hungry, never been cold and, above all, never in fear of our fives and where our experience is limited to the normal hazards of human existence -illness, bereavement, poverty, broken relations, moving houses - to what extent we can begin to understand the life of a person in continuous danger, repeatedly escaping death by a whisker, by a sheer accident, having endured the loss of one's entire family, having to move from one hiding place to another, in total loneliness, for years not exchanging a single word with another human being, in perpetual gnawing hunger, every scrap of food obtained at the risk of life - he describes how on occasions, in winter, to get a sip of water, he had to melt snow in a small receptacle with the only source of heat - his own body. How much of physical and mental torment can a person endure and remain sane?


Of course, the thought that he has had enough, more than enough, is never far from his mind - and the poisoned pills are his most precious possession. He describes an occasion when he felt the end has truly come. He hears the jackboots approaching through the thin partition of his hiding place he won't be taken alive. He swallows the pills - and fails into oblivion. In the event the Germans overlook the door and he wakes up next morning - in a stupor, but alive ... Once again alive... That was fifty years ago and he is, blissfully, alive to-day, and with us to-day - and I admit I find being in the same room with him awe-inspiring.


He is by the nature of things, one of the last who saw these things with his own eyes and we receive them from his own mouth, in his own words. In another few short years there will not be a single eye-witness to those events which are beyond credence, when men created hell for other men. We now know and must not forget to what depth the species, the so-called homo sapiens, the "hairless ape" is capable of sinking. And it behoves us on occasions like this one, and any other, to ask -what are we doing, you and I, everyone of us, every day of our privileged lives, to make sure that such events do not happen, anywhere, ever again.


London, March 14th 1999

By Rafael Scharf for Jewish Book Week 1999.