October 7 - 13, 1999
BY GAVIN BORCHERT
How a musician spent his six years between performances.
Even by the standards set by Holocaust memoirs, this book is a stunner. From the fall of Warsaw to the Nazis in September 1939 to its liberation in January 1945, the composer and pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman survived alone in the evacuated, burned-out city. He witnessed the building of the Ghetto wall, endured the eradication of Jews' civil rights (and of Jews themselves), and miraculously escaped deportation to the death camps through a combination
of courageous friends, ferocious self-preservation, and incredible luck. His separation from his death camp-bound family, for example, was strangely and providentially accidental:
We had gone about halfway down the train when I suddenly heard someone shout, "Here! Here, Szpilman!" A hand grabbed me by the collar, and I was flung back and out of the police cordon.
by Wladyslaw Szpilman (Picador USA, $23)
Who dared do such a thing? I didn't want to be parted from my family. . . .
Peering past the policemen's heads I could see Mother and Regina, helped by Halina and Henryk, clambering into the trucks, while Father was looking around for me. . . . He saw me and took a couple of steps my way, but then hesitated and stopped. . . . He tried to smile, helplessly, painfully, raised his hand and waved goodbye, as if I were setting out into life and he was already greeting me from beyond the grave. . . .
One of the policemen turned and looked angrily at me.
"What the hell do you think you're doing? Go on, save yourself!" . . . In a flash I realized what awaited the people in the cattle trucks.
Hiding out in a series of spare rooms and attics, Szpilman watched Warsaw collapse. Dashing from ruin to ruin, avoiding German troops and hostile locals, he lived for years on stagnant bath water, handfuls of oatmeal, and bread crusts.
First published in 1946, The Pianist was long banned behind the Iron Curtain and only now is appearing for the first time in English. The book is saturated with lacerating irony--which seems to have been genetic, to judge from his father's behavior:
My father's attitude was quite different. He sought out the longest streets for his walks, and bowed to the Germans with indescribably ironic grace. . . . On coming home every evening he could not refrain from commenting casually on his extensive circle of acquaintances. . . . He really could not resist their friendliness, and his hand was getting quite stiff from raising his hat so politely. With these words he would smile impishly, rubbing his hands with glee.
The author's irony drives home the surreal randomness of Szpilman's experiences, both the breathtaking atrocities and the luck that allowed his survival.
References to music season the memoir. Szpilman was working for Polish radio at the time of the German assault; his performance of Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp minor was the last live broadcast before the station was shut down and the first piece heard when it reopened. It was also the piece Szpilman played for a German officer near the end of the occupation, in the book's climax. Rummaging for food, he runs into the officer scouting out an abandoned building to use as a headquarters. There's a battered piano in the next room, and Szpilman is asked to play; then the officer hides Szpilman in an attic and brings him the food and blankets needed to survive the final bitter-cold weeks before the Allies arrive. Excerpts from the diaries of this officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, who later died in a Russian POW camp, are included at the end of this staggering book.
© 1999 Seattle Weekly. All rights reserved.