Wladyslaw Szpilman’s The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939—45 was first published in Polish in 1946 and was originally entitled Death of a City. It did not enjoy a long shelf life, as Wolf Biermann explains in the epilogue, because
as the countries conquered by the Red Army gradually became more firmly caught in the stranglehold of their liberators, the nomenklatura of Eastern Europe in general were unable to tolerate such authentic eyewitness accounts as this book. They contained too many painful truths about the collaboration of defeated Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians and Jews with the German Nazis.
The Pianist would not be published again until fifty years after its original publication. In The Pianist, Szpilman shares how he managed to survive in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. It is now published with extracts of the German Captain Wilm Hosenfeld’s diary.
Before the war, Szpilman lives with his family and works for the Polish Radio as a pianist. He recalls how everyone knows war with Germany is coming. People wonder what will happen. Szpilman recalls that
arguments were drawn from the experiences of the Great War, and there was a general feeling that the sole purpose of that conflict had been to show us how to conduct the present one better, and do it properly this time.
Many men leave to fight the Germans, but Szpilman and his family stay behind in the ghetto, thinking that “whatever happened, it was better to be together.” The Poles are defeated and the city begins to change. Shops are closed and garbage begins to pile up. Szpilman recalls the happiness his family feels when they hear on the radio that England has joined the war. The Germans might be victorious now, but people take heart in the hope that the Germans will be defeated quickly.
After Warsaw surrenders on the 27th of September 1939, the Germans take control of the city. Proclamations soon are posted that promise
the population peaceful working conditions and the care of the German state. There was a special section devoted to the Jews: they were guaranteed all their rights, the inviolability of their property, and that their lives would be absolutely secure.
The race raids begin soon after. Szpilman explains how cars drive down the streets with drivers searching for Jews; they call them into the cars, where the captives are beaten. Soon decrees are published that limit the freedoms of Jews. Jewish families can only keep a certain amount of money at home, real estate has to be given to Germans, and before long they are required to wear armbands identifying themselves as Jews. Jews are not allowed to travel by train or are charged exorbitant amounts to use the tram. Eventually, word spreads that the Germans are planning to build a ghetto.
By 1941, the Germans begin to close the borders of the ghetto. The Jews take heart with the news that Germany has invaded Russia, hoping that another enemy might bring an end to the war. However, there is little else to bring hope to the people in the ghetto. German soldiers patrol regularly, and they often sadistically kill Jews in the ghetto. Szpilman recalls seeing one man in a wheelchair thrown out of a window. Others die of hunger. Still others die of disease. Szpilman explains how
the clothing of people you passed in the street was infested by lice, and so were the interiors of trams and shops.
Each of these creatures might carry typhus; at one point five thousand people die of it every month. Everyone is concerned about typhus: the poor wonder when they will die of it and the rich wonder if they can obtain a vaccine against it. Szpilman explains that although he could obtain a vaccine, he refuses on the grounds that he cannot have afforded to vaccinate his entire family. Szpilman’s mother protects her family by stopping her children when they come in and remove the lice from their clothing with pincers. She drowns the vermin in a bowl of spirits. People die so quickly that corpses pile up in the streets.
Szpilman regularly walks along the streets on his way to work, and he witnesses many atrocities. Some days, Szpilman walks along the wall of the ghetto to get to work, where smugglers are busy. Szpilman explains that the afternoon is best for smuggling because the police,
exhausted by a morning spent lining their own pockets, were less alert then, busy counting up their profits.
Nevertheless, smuggling remains a dangerous business. One morning, Szpilman witnesses a child trying to smuggle goods under the wall into the ghetto, only to have his legs held by the German authorities, who proceed to beat him until his spine is “shattered.” Szpilman contrasts this child with the smugglers he sees while playing at the Café Nowoczesna, which is at the heart of the Warsaw...
(The entire section is 2091 words.)
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