Music was his passion.
Survival was his masterpiece.

When the German invasion of Poland began on September 13, 1939, the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman was in Warsaw performing Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp minor for the radio, but his performance was cut short when a bomb struck the studio. It was the beginning of a nightmare for Szpilman and all Polish Jews: six years later, at the war's end, the Jewish population of Warsaw would be reduced from 350,000 to 20. Szpilman was among that pitifully tiny handful of survivors.

He was born in Sosnowiec, Poland in 1911 and showed musical promise from an early age. He studied piano at the Warsaw Conservatory and then at the Academy of Arts in Berlin under Arthur Schnabel and Leonid Kreutzer, where he also learned composition under the tutelage of Franz Schreker. He returned to Warsaw in 1933 and gained fame as a pianist and composer; he was often heard performing classical and jazz music on Polish radio.

Of course, the German occupation changed Szpilman's life dramatically, as Jews experienced a steady erosion of their rights and freedoms. By December 1939 they were forced to wear the star of David on their sleeves; soon the amount of money they could possess was severely curtailed, they were restricted to starvation rations and forbidden from public transit, parks, and sidewalks. By the next year they were confined to a small walled ghetto; the once-prosperous Szpilman family (Wladyslaw, his parents, two sisters, and brother) was resettled first to a small pair of rooms, later barracks shared with the half-million other Jews squeezed into the shrinking ghetto by the Nazis.

In pursuit of the "final solution" - the extermination of the Jews - the Nazis began shipping them to Treblinka. As the Szpilmans were herded with thousands of other towards the boxcars that would take them to their deaths, a Jewish collaborationist guard pulled Wladyslaw out of the crowd and barred him from joining his family; when the young man protested, the guard hissed, "I'm saving your life". Except for Wladyslaw, the Szpilman family did not survive.

Szpilman lived in the ghetto for a time with other Jewish men, performing labour for the Germans, but eventually begged friends in the Polish resistance to help him escape. He survived for over two years in empty apartments, relying on these brave friends for food, but in spite of their assistance he slowly starved, at times coming close to death.

In 1943 the remaining 40,000 Jews in the ghetto staged an uprising which continued for a month. Though they fought bravely and inflicted heavy casualties, the rebels were severely underarmed. After an SS offensive the rebel leaders committed suicide; the Germans flushed out the remaining Jews and shot or deported them to concentration camps where they were gassed. The Warsaw uprising was similarly doomed to failure. The Nazis retaliated by systematically destroying first the Jewish ghetto, later the entire city of Warsaw.

Eventually Szpilman, starved, filthy, and alone, was discovered by a German captain, Wilm Hosenfeld; he had been scavenging through the devastated city searching for food. When asked what he did, Szpilman replied that he had been a pianist, and when told to play something, he chose Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp minor. It was the first time he had played aloud in years; in hiding, he had practiced silently, hearing the music in his mind. Hosenfeld, moved by what he heard, brought Szpilman food and an eiderdown, thereby saving his life. Finally, in 1945, the Nazis withdrew from Warsaw, though not before destroying what remained of the city; the Russians, who had been camped across the river for months, moved into the ruins.

Hosenfeld died in 1952 in a Soviet labour camp, in spite of Szpilman’s attempts to save him; his diaries, possessed by his son, revealed that he had saved several Jews during the war.

When Polish radio returned to the airwaves in 1945, the first broadcast was, fittingly, Szpilman playing Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp minor (BBC TV, by contrast, resumed programming with Mickey Mouse, which doesn't have quite the same resonance, I think you'll agree). From 1945 to 1963 Szpilman was director of music at Polish Radio, after which he founded the Warsaw Piano Quintet with Bronislaw Gimpel. He continued to compose and play around the world, and lived in Warsaw until his death in 2000.

In 1945, immediately after the war, Szpilman attempted to exorcise the horrific things he had experienced during the war by writing about them. His book, initially entitled Death of a City, described in vivid detail the Nazi occupation and destruction of Warsaw and the Jewish population. It was remarkable not just for the human face it put on this grim history, but for its lack of self-pity or anger. Szpilman saw that there were good Germans and bad, good Poles and bad, and he set down what he had seen and experienced with dispassionate accuracy, acknowledging human nature in all its complexity. Published in 1946, the book soon went out of print, and the Soviets had no interest in reprinting it.

In 1950, Szpilman married a doctor, Halina Grzecznarowski, and had two sons. The elder, Christopher, is a history professor in Japan; the younger, Andrzej, is a dental surgeon and violinist who tried for many years to have his father’s autobiography reprinted. The Soviets refused several requests to republish the book, but finally, after the breakup of the Soviet empire, it came out in German in 1998 and in English the following year under the title The Pianist.

Roman Polanski, himself a Holocaust survivor from Krakow, had long wanted to make a movie about that period in history, though not based on his own life. When he read Szpilman’s book, he knew that he had found the right material. Polanski had been a boy during the German occupation and saw his mother and father shipped off to the death camps; he survived by wandering the Polish countryside, sleeping in barns and running from German soldiers who would shoot at him for their amusement. As a filmmaker Polanski crafts stories with nightmares at their heart (think Rosemary's Baby or Chinatown) and he has certainly known his own share of nightmarish experiences: not just the Holocaust, but the brutal murder in 1969 of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson family, and later his ignoble seduction of an underage girl in Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston’s house, which led to his exile to Europe (in 1978 he skipped bail after pleading guilty to the charge of statutory rape and hasn't been back to the US since). But many feel that with this film he has arrived at the primal nightmare at the heart of his art, and that this is the movie he was destined to make.

For the sake of authenticity, Polanski viewed thousands of archival photos and films – the Nazis were fervent recorders of their sorry successes – and many of the scenes in the movie are copied exactly from these sources. Polanski also found his own memories flooding back, and he drew on this frightening well of experience to imbue the film with a stark but convincing reality. (The hauntingly moving scene where Wladyslaw walks despairingly through streets scattered with abandoned possessions and dead bodies, crying for his family shipped off to their deaths, was recreated from a memory Polanski had of Krakow.)

Adrien Brody was cast in the central role; virtually unknown at the time, he is mesmerizing as the deteriorating Szpilman, and received a well-deserved Academy Award for his masterful performance. Ronald Harwood also won for his screenplay, but the big surprise was Polanski's receipt of the Oscar for best director. It's not that Polanski didn't deserve the award - the movie is amazing on so many levels - but that he is something of a pariah in Hollywood since he fled his rape charges, and few believed that he would receive the recognition he deserved. He took possession of the actual statue some months later in France, where he lives; it was brought to him by his friend Harrison Ford. "The Pianist" received the Palm D'Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.

The book is an easy read, in spite of its horrifying subject matter, and the movie is a real tour de force. I highly recommend both.
The Internet Movie Database

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