The Times Literary Suplement
by DAVID PRYCE-JONES
The last nocturne reprised
The extraordinary story of one man's survival
in Warsaw, 1939-45
Translated from the Polish by Anthea Bell
222pp. Gollancz. £12.99.
0 575 06708 X
Wladyslaw Szpilman was one of the very few Jews who remained in his native city of Warsaw from the beginning to the end of the Nazi Occupation. He survived the Warsaw ghetto, and the uprising of August 1944 and its aftermath. Time and again, he was trapped in the Nazi human-hunt, as he calls it, only to escape at the last minute by pure chance. As soon as the ordeal was over, he wrote this memoir, which was first published in 1946.
In Warsaw, there had been some like Emanuel Ringelblum, the historian of the Warsaw ghetto, who had been able to leave behind writings of the greatest power, illuminating not just these particular atrocities but human tragedy itself. Szpilman had no literary skills. A modest man, all he wanted was a hearing. The simplicity of what he had to say is terrifying. It was of no concern to the incoming Polish Communists, and they soon suppressed this book. Its re-emergence seems all of a piece with Szpilman's endurance, as though he and his story could master fate.
As a young man, Szpilman was a composer, paying his way with a job as a pianist on Polish Radio. Most of his friends were artists or musicians like himself A photograph of him taken at the time shows a handsome face, with much sensitivity and even vulnerability in it. Those looks alone suggest that he would be defenceless when the Germans invaded. Living at home, he felt protective towards his parents, his younger brother Henryk, a rather theoretical socialist, and his two sisters, Regina and Halina. These were cultivated people. Whether they considered themselves Jewish in any meaningful sense is something Szpilman does not say.
Within a matter of days, this pleasant work turned upside down. As Warsaw fell, Szpilman played a Chopin nocturne in a final broadcast of Polish Radio. He was to earn some money as , pianist in a cafe, where, as he expresses it in hi! matter-of-fact way, he lost his belief in solidarity, and in the musicality of the Jews. German brutality was immediate. Walking home onc evening in spite of a curfew, he and his father anc Hentyk ran into an armed patrol. 1n the harst. torchlight I saw my father kneeling on the wei tarmac, sobbing and begging these policemer, for our lives."
By the end of 1940, half a million Jews had been forcibly relocated into a ghetto. It so happened that the Szpilinans' flat was already in a street set aside for this ghetto. The ensuing degradation was instant. In danger of starvation and deportation, some Jews became smugglers and profiteers, and a few turned collaborators as Jewish policemen. The Szpilmans rejected all morally ambiguous possibilities.
Sadism and murder closed in around them. Szpilman was helpless when a German caught a boy smuggling and beat him to death. Other Germans threw out of a third-floor window a neighbour of theirs, an elderly cripple in his wheelchair. Janusz Korczak was to achieve posthumous honour as the man who chose to accompany the children of his orphanage to their death in the gas-chambers. Present at their departure, Szpilman saw how an SS man happily led 1 away the little column, because he 1oved children, as Germans do, even those he was about to see on their way into the next world". He tells of a Polish surgeon, Dr Raszeja, who entered the ghetto to perform a difficult operation. The SS shot the anaesthetized patient on the operating table, the surgeon and everyone present.
"It will all pass over, his mother said. In moments of stress, his father played the violin. The day came, in August 1942, when self delusion and subterfuge proved equally futile. The whole family was rounded up to go to the Umschlagplatz, an enclosed square from which they and thousands of others were to be- deported to their death. There the father bought and shared a single caramel between the six of them. Henryk had an Oxford Shakespeare in his pocket. Someone, a dentist, exclaimed that they should attack the Germans. Smiling, the father replied, "We're not heroes! We're perfectly ordinary people." As everyone was being crammed into the cattle trucks, a Jewish policeman recognized Szpilman and pulled him back from the others. "Father waved goodbye", in Szpilman's envoi, "as if I were setting out into life and he was already greeting me from beyond the grave."
At the risk of their lives, Polish friends arranged for Szpilman to slip out of the ghetto. Dependent on their bravery and goodwill, he found refuge in a series of flats, lofts and cup boards. Often he was close to starvation. Through a window he was able to observe in the distance the famous ghetto uprising of 1943, in which he would certainly have died along with every last Jew there. Through another window in a different building, he observed the equally famous Warsaw uprising of August 1944. Except for the Germans, he found himself alone in the wrecked and eerie city.
Searching for food one day in a derelict house, he suddenly encountered a German officer. The drama retains its full force. Szpilman poured out his whole story. There was a tuneless piano in the place, and the officer made him play it. His name was Wilm Hosenfeld, and he was in charge of the city's sporting facilities. He declared himself ashamed to be a German. The fact that they had both survived the last five years, he said, was obviously God's will. In the final period of the German occupation, he provided Szpilman with food and clothing in secret.
This new edition of The Pianist carries extracts from
Hosenfeld's diaries. A somewhat naive man, he had at first believed
that Hitler was providing the Germans with their due in Europe.
The reality of Nazism disabused him. In a measured epilogue, Wolf
Biermann, the former East German dissident, has some further evidence
which ties up loose ends. Hosenfeld had done his surreptitious
best to help victims, Poles and Jews alike. For a time after the
war, Szpilman tried to find him, but in vain. Captured after the
evacuation of Warsaw, Hosenfeld was to disappear and die in a
Soviet prison camp. Even after all these years, though, it is
moving to be able to add another name to the list of Germans known
to have behaved with humanity in the war. As for Szpilman, he
played again that Chopin nocturne on Polish Radio, as it were
resuming where he had left off. Almost ninety now, with Nazism
and Communism safely in the past, he is still living in Warsaw.