The Washington Post Column

War Without Myth

I met Wladyslaw Szpilman a year before he died, in his comfortable, well-appointed Warsaw home. A piano dominated his sitting room; on the piano stood silver-framed photographs of his friends, musicians and actors whose faces would have been familiar to a certain generation of Warsovians. Szpilman himself wore a tweed suit and joked lightly with his wife as she poured the tea. Nothing about him spoke of horror, or of danger, or of anything but a comfortable bourgeois life, lived among solid wooden furniture and old books.

Nothing about him, in other words, seemed at all reminiscent of “The Pianist,” the stunning film that has just been released about Szpilman’s life. “The Pianist” was directed by Roman Polanski, himself a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, and is based on Szpilman’s own wartime memoir, written in 1945. It tells of how Szpilman, already a famous pianist before the war, was imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto with the rest of his Jewish family; how he survived thanks to his talent; how his family was deported to Treblinka; how he was pulled off the deportation trains by friends among the Jewish guards; how he escaped “over the wall” and lived in hiding for the rest of the war; how he then survived for several months in the ruins of Warsaw. After the Poles staged the failed Warsaw uprising, the Germans dynamited the city, building by building. Szpilman survived, drinking water that had collected in bathtubs and scavenging for canned food in the rubble. “I looked like a wild man,” he told me. “I was dirty, unshaven, my hair was long.”

Seeing the film, and reading the reviews in the American press, I was struck — as I was at the time I met Szpilman — by how differently the Second World War is remembered by those who survived it and by those who know it from books. Szpilman, like Polanski himself, did not mythologize his experiences. There are no hero or enemy nations in his memoir or in Polanski’s film. Szpilman encountered brave Jewish resistance fighters and corrupt Jewish ghetto policemen, courageous Poles who risked their lives to hide him and thieving Poles who cheated him out of his meager rations. In the final days of the war, Szpilman also received help from a German officer, Capt. Wilm Hosenfeld, who found him lurking in a ruined house. “When he saw me, he asked me what on earth I was 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 apartment, that I had come back to see what was left.” Hosenfeld had fought loyally for the Nazis. But even after he learned Szpilman was indeed Jewish, he brought him food and helped him stay hidden until December 1944, when he parted with the curt words, “The war will be over by spring at the latest.”

How different, by contrast, are modern American perceptions of a war that few of us remember. On the whole, we prefer our victims to be heroes. Yet Szpilman was not a hero, only a survivor who never claimed to be anything else. On the whole, we like to make easy, sweeping generalizations about our historical enemies, in a way that makes us feel morally superior: Daniel Goldhagen’s book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” became a bestseller in America, in part, because he blamed the Holocaust on the German national character. Yet Szpilman’s life story tells the opposite story: that the potential for tremendous evil, and tremendous good, lurks within every nation.

Above all, we dislike ambiguity. Steven Spielberg’s Oskar Schindler, hero of the popular film “Schindler’s List,” was a Nazi who turned his factory into a refuge for Jews out of the goodness of his heart. The real Oskar Schindler turned his factory into a refuge for Jews in order to make money out of their cheap labor. The real Oskar Schindler was a far more ambiguous character, in other words — far more human and far more interesting — than his cinematic counterpart turned out to be.

Szpilman embraced ambiguity, so much so that he remained in Warsaw, playing the piano, until his death two years ago. He lived with the war for the rest of his life, yet never simplified his memories, never made his experience of war into an argument for nationalism or communism or any other ideology, and never used his victimhood as an argument for his own moral superiority. Every day, he walked past places where terrible crimes had occurred — and then walked into concert halls and played music.