Playing at Survival in Warsaw

An interview with Wladyslaw Szpilman, musician, writer, and survivor.

He lives in a neat, narrow house with a small, well-kept garden. Inside his sitting room there are shelves of old books, a Biedermeier secretaire, a polished parquet floor. Black and white photographs of old friends stand in rows on the piano; prints and framed mementoes hang from the white walls. At first glance, everything about Wladyslaw Szpilman speaks of a certain kind of Central European comfort, of a pleasantly uneventful, bourgeois life. Dressed in a tweed jacket and tie, speaking of popular music and songs, Szpilman himself initially gives off the air of someone who has lived all of his 87 years in civilised surroundings. Then, effortlessly, he moves from the familiar to the horrific.

“I looked like a wild man,” he recalls. “I was dirty, unshaven, my hair was long. The German found me when I was in the ruins of someone’s kitchen, looking for food. I found out later – this isn’t in the book–that he was looking for toothpaste, but no matter. When he saw me, he asked me what on earth was I doing there … What could I say? I couldn’t say that I was Jewish, that I was hiding, that I had been in these ruins for months. I told him that this was my old flat, that I had come back to see what was left …”

So begins Szpilman’s account of how, in the final weeks of the Second World War, having escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and survived months of hiding, he was rescued by a German: CaptainWilm Hosenfeld discovered him, ascertained that he was a pianist–to convince him, Szpilman played Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor on a battered, out-of-tune piano–and without much further ado found him a better hiding place. “He noticed something I had not seen: that just beneath the roof there was a tiny attic …” Together, they made sure Szpilman could climb into it, and pull up the ladder afterwards.

Over the subsequent weeks, the German officer regularly brought bread to the Jewish musician, and news from the Front. Finally, in December 1944, he left him with the words: “The war will be over by spring at the latest.” As Szpilman tells it now, the story sounds like a coincidence, a once-in-a-life-time piece of luck. In fact, it is merely one episode in an extraordinary story of survival, recently published in English as The Pianist. Wladyslaw Szpilman, already a famous musician and composer when the war broke out – Poles of a certain generation still know the words to his popular songs – was rescued not only by a German but by a Jewish policeman, who pulled him out of a queue of people boarding trains for Treblinka; by his talent, which kept him alive in the starving Warsaw Ghetto; and by, in his own estimate, no less than 20 Poles who smuggled him out of the Ghetto and then hid him in their flats, knowing that they and their families could be sentenced to death for helping a Jew.

In the end he survived for several months alone, perhaps the only person alive in the burned-out ruins of Warsaw, drinking water frozen in the bathtubs of empty flats and eating whatever he could find hidden in destroyed kitchens. Written in flat, almost emotionless prose, The Pianist evokes the strange mix of horror and elation Szpilman must have felt at that time. His whole family was dead, his city was in ruins, and yet, against all possible odds, he remained alive. Both the book, and the man himself, are also devoid of any desire for vengeance.

There is no finger-pointing in The Pianist, no hatred. Along with his straightforward portrait of Captain Hosenfeld, he depicts good Jews and bad Jews, Poles who helped him and Poles who cheated him. Ideology, nationality and religion, he says now, had nothing to do with anyone’s wartime behaviour: “One of the Poles who helped me first told me, `I was an anti-Semite, but not any more.’ Then he went on to risk his life by hiding me.”

Although it has only now appeared in English, Szpilman first wrote his wartime memoir in 1945. In that post-war era, it appeared in poor quality bindings, on bad paper, and in a very small print run, which nevertheless sold out immediately. After that, the story was forgotten, or rather ignored. In Poland, it was never reprinted: within a few years of the war’s end, Poland’s communist authorities had grown touchier about the publication of a book which had a German hero, and which also contained flattering descriptions of the Polish Home Army, the wartime, anti-communist Polish underground.

Szpilman tried once or twice to have the book republished, but didn’t push. He was more interested in his music, didn’t consider himself a writer, and most of all had no interest in politics of any kind. “Three times they asked me to join the Communist Party, but I always said no,” he says now.

Only the efforts of his son, who lives in Germany, ensured that the book was published there two years ago, where it became a best seller, and now in Britain.

But even during its years out of print, Szpilman’s story did have some unexpected effects. Among other things, it led him, through a series of chance meetings, to Frau Hosenfeld, the wife of his good German. She wrote to him in 1950, when her husband was dying in a Soviet prison camp, asking for help. Szpilman did what he could.

“I went,” he says grimly, “to see Jakub Berman.”

Berman was the head of the Polish secret police, and, in Szpilman’s words, a criminal whom no decent person in Poland would speak to. Being a celebrity himself, Szpilman simply rang up Berman’s office and said he wanted to meet him on a private matter. They met, Berman listened. Nothing came of it. Captain Hosenfeld died in his Soviet prison camp, having been tortured for claiming to have saved a Jew.

And not just one: over the years, it has emerged that Captain Hosenfeld served as guardian angel for a whole group of people, including others Jews, as well as a Polish priest. His son has been to visit Szpilman: the two of them went together to the building, now rebuilt, where the Wehrmacht officer brought bread to the Jew in hiding. Standing there on the street, the younger Hosenfeld had what Szpilman can only describe as “an attack of hysteria.”

Szpilman himself does not appear prone to such violent emotions. He says he is often asked how he can bear to go on living in a country in which he saw so many people die, but he says that most of the time it doesn’t bother him. Polish is his language, Poland is where he was born “my son says there was a Szpilman here in the 15th century”–and Poland is where his music was popular, even adored.

True, he has never been to Treblinka, where his entire family died: they were on the train that he escaped. “To the end of my life,” he says flatly. “I will never forgive myself that I was unable to do anything to save them.” But he has always lived in Warsaw–some of his best-loved songs are dedicated to the rebuilding of the city–despite, or perhaps because of, the things he saw there.

And he does appear inseparable fromWarsaw, and from a certain old-fashioned aspect of the city’s culture: he easily r e m i n i s c e s about Warsaw café society of the 1960s and 1970s, shakes his head at today’s popular music “I can ‘ t understand any of the words” – and is looking forward, next year, to his fiftieth w e d d i n g anniversary. His wife, a doctor of 70 who appears no older than 50, smiles graciously as she pours tea into English china cups. The horror and the terror are there, in the background, but they don’t show on the surface.

Or not always. After the war, Szpilman gave occasional piano recitals at 8 Narbutta Street, in a building in central Warsaw which he helped to construct as part of a slave labour gang from the Ghetto. Most of the Jewish brigade who worked there were shot, once the construction had been finished, if they hadn’t died already. At the end of The Pianist, Szpilman describes his feelings about returning, once again, to that terrible place:

“The building still stands, and there is a school in it now. I played to Polish children who do not know how much human suffering and mortal fear once passed through their sunny schoolroom. I pray they may never learn what such fear and suffering are.”