The Pianist – Wladyslaw Szpilman

01st September 1939. Led by Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany declares war on Poland in response to Polish attacks on German border outposts. These attacks were staged by the Germans themselves to justify their invasion of Poland. Poland in 1939 was home to more than 3.5 million Jews.

The Pianist is an autobiographical survival account of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish pianist and composer of note. The book was originally published in 1945 with the title “The Death of a City”, but after Poland disappeared behind the Iron Curtain, reprints of the book were forbidden by the Soviet regime. The reason was simple; the book shows some Germans in a good light, which could not be allowed at a time when USSR was positioning itself as the savior and last resort against Nazism. It was republished in 1998 by Szpilman’s son, although not in Poland itself, and quickly became a bestseller, with Roman Polanski making it into a movie where Adrien Brody portrayed Szpilman.

Szpilman’s tale begins in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940, where he has a job playing the piano at a café frequented by those Jews who still have any money to speak of, mostly the old rich who couldn’t get out of the country before the invasion and the newly rich smugglers and black marketeers. He talks of his journey of learning music in Germany in the 1930s, leaving in 1933 when Hitler came to power. Once in Poland, he became one of its most well-known musicians, playing for the Polish Radio and composing music for scores of films. He tells of how the last radio broadcast from Warsaw was him playing Chopin, interrupted abruptly as the power station was bombed and the city plunged into darkness amid the falling bombs.

Poland put up a strong but ultimately ineffective fight against the Blitzkrieg forces of Nazi Germany. Szpilman describes how the mood of the populace went from anger at the initial attack to determination to fight to desperation as the German forces closed in on Warsaw, and finally to a defeated resignation as the daily bombing raids pounded the will of the people, one bomb at a time. Once the Germans took over, the segregation and humiliation of the Jews began in a slow, methodical manner. Beginning with Jews not allowed in the same shops as Poles and Germans, it proceeded to Jews not being permitted to work in non-Jewish establishments and from there to Jews having to wear armbands and badges with the Star of David prominently, and culminating in the formation of the ghetto and all hundreds of thousands of Jews ordered to move into an area barely large enough to hold a few thousand.

Szpilman’s family is one of the lucky ones. The street their house lies on is part of the designated ghetto area, so they do not have to move, and they survive the formation of the ghetto with most of their belongings intact. The entire event, though, is extremely traumatic for Szpilman, and he is given to bouts of depression, taking to his bed for days at a time, refusing to meet or talk to anyone. In the end, it is his father who brings him out of it; a musician himself, he takes to practicing his violin for hours on end, inspiring Szpilman to do the same, and finally start seeking employment to take care of the family of six – his parents and his three siblings.

Working at the café entailed walking there from his house, with an entire world of suffering and indifference in between. Szpilman passes smugglers awaiting their shipments near the ghetto walls, the poorer Jews selling family heirlooms for food, and the rich patrons of the café indulging themselves while burly doormen drive the poor away from its doors. He also talks of the outbreaks of cholera and typhus in the crowded conditions, with the prices for typhus vaccine doses reaching astronomical heights.

The Footbridge connecting the two Ghettos

To spare himself these daily horrors, he spends most of his time after work with fellow musicians, talking and creating music. He mentions another acquaintance of his, a member of the underground. This man took part in smuggling secret press reports into the ghetto and tried to form resistance cells, and in Szpilman’s own words, “He treated me with kindly contempt, which he thought the proper approach to artists, people who were of no use as conspirators.” Szpilman finds comfort in the man’s eternal optimism, and their conversations fortify him emotionally. Then, in 1941, he finds a job at another larger café where he can earn more.

Combined with the family selling bits and pieces of household items from time to time, the job ensures that while they aren’t living in the most comfortable of situations, they don’t have to starve. All this time, conditions in the ghetto continue to deteriorate, with people being deported for “resettlement” and a steady influx of Jews from the other countries being invaded by Germany. Things come to a head in 1942, when there is a sudden increase in the number of mass deportations and the arbitrary rounding up and killing of Jews. During this time, the Germans announce that only those who work in the German-run factories will be exempt from the deportations, creating a rush to get any jobs by any means possible.

Szpilman and his family watch with growing fear as street after street, house after house falls to this random choice. When it is their turn, his younger brother and sister are spared as they hold work permits, but the rest of them are marked for resettlement and ordered to report to the Umschlagplatz, the train station. They pack what meagre belongings they possess and join the rest of the people being transported. As they await the train, they are joined by the other two siblings who have decided to stick together no matter where they end up.

As the train arrives and the people are herded towards it by the Germans and the Jewish Police, Szpilman is suddenly pulled out of the crowd by one of the latter. This man recognizes him, and knowing the final destination of the trains saves his life by telling him to hide until the train has departed. The rest of his family isn’t so lucky, and this is the last time he sees any of them. The separation marks a turning point in Szpilman’s life; he is now alone, exposed without any valid documents, and is faced with either joining the Jewish Police or the work gangs, both of which are equally abhorrent options for him.

Szpilman takes time here to lay out his arguments against the Jewish Police. They are mostly from the higher social circles, sons from the more well to do families who Szpilman is familiar with. He recalls how in return for extra rations and protection against deportation, they are willing to turn against their own people. With the increase in deportations, those in the Jewish Police are given quotas of people to bring in every day, failing which their own families will be added to the list – the ultimatum causes them to sink to even lower depths in the pursuit of self-preservation.

His argument against the work gangs is simpler; as a pianist, his hands are the tools of his trade, and he is afraid of damaging them through manual labour to the extent that he may never be able to play again. But it is a minor one as opposed to his reservations against the Jewish Police, and the prospect of protection from deportation, however meagre, along with daily meals and the ability to trade for food with Poles makes him join one of the work gangs that is engaged in rebuilding some of the collapsed sections of the ghetto wall. He uses the opportunity to step outside the ghetto for the first time in three years to send a message to some of his Polish musician friends of old, imploring them to rescue him.

The other members of the work gang, aware of Szpilman’s identity, seek to protect him by putting him in charge of the inventory shed, away from the hard labour of the wall. It is a role more suited to his lack of skills, but not wholly without its own perils, as the Jewish resistance fighters are using the incoming supplies as a cover to smuggle arms and ammunition into the ghetto. As the person in charge of the inventory, he is expected to retrieve the smuggled goods and hand them over to the resistance while evading the German guards, leading to a couple of close calls that play havoc with his already fragile state of mind. Thankfully for him, his career as a resistance member is short-lived, as he is transferred to another work gang and his interactions with the fighters are terminated. The foreman of the second gang too, shields him to the best of his abilities.

While working with the second work gang, his messages to his friends, some of whom are active members of the Polish underground, bear fruit. As part of the work gang, moving out of the ghetto is now routine for Szpilman, and they take advantage of this to smuggle him out of the gang and into a hiding place. For his safety, he is moved from place to place, as the Gestapo are hunting the Polish underground members with equal ruthlessness. His escape from the ghetto spares him the fate of the resistance fighters and the remaining Jews after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is brutally put down by the Germans.

In one of the places, he is forced to hide without food and water for days, as the door to door searches make it impossible for his rescuers to approach him. When help does arrive, it is dubious in nature. The person in charge of bringing him food and supplies is untrustworthy, looking in on him only about every ten days or so, and then too with the bare minimum of sustenance. Weak, disheveled, he is forced to flee from the place when he is discovered hiding there by the neighbours, which turns out to be a blessing in disguise. He gets in touch with an old colleague, who agrees to hide him and is taken care of in a much better manner.

His latest hiding place happens to be in the German dominated area of Warsaw, ironically making much safer than most, and he ushers in 1944 in this way. Soon after, his benefactor gives him the news that the Polish underground will begin their offensive against the Germans. The ensuing carnage leaves him isolated in the building after its residents are marched away by the Germans at gunpoint, and as he emerges into the aftermath, he is met by street after street of empty houses shot up in retaliation to the Polish underground’s audacity in attacking their conquerors.

Szpilman moves from one destroyed hulk to another, staying in some places where there is still water and some leftover food, but always moving. He finally settles into the attic of a relatively unscathed building, being too weak to move around anymore. He hears movement in the building after a few days and stepping out of his hiding place late one evening, he finds it is being converted into an office by Germans. Once again, he is in a position that is dangerous yet safe. Hiding in the attic by day, he descends into the office at night to forage for food left behind. On one of his forays, he discovers a larder full of canned food; determined to take enough that he wouldn’t have to come down for days, he is so engrossed in his task that he doesn’t realise there is someone watching him, until the German officer demands to know what he is up to.

The event turns out to be another one where his uncanny luck holds out. The German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, was a teacher in peacetime, and vehemently opposed to the Nazis treatment of the Jews (the book has excerpts from his diary, where his opinions on the topic are crystal clear). In his own quiet way, he had already helped several Jews escape and survive, and he now helps Szpilman too, providing him regularly with food and clothes for the weeks that they both are there. As the defeated German army retreats from Warsaw, Hosenfeld gives him one last package and the advice to hold on for a few more days; the Russians are almost at the gates of the city.

In the lull that follows the withdrawal of the German forces, Szpilman steps out of his attic after months, only to be mistaken by Polish partisans as a German himself; dressed as he is in a German greatcoat given to him by Hosenfeld. He is fired upon and runs back into the building which is soon surrounded. As he is ordered to surrender, he comes out with his hands up and shouting repeatedly that he is Polish too. He convinces them, and is taken away to be fed, bathed and clothed. On his way, he passes the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto, and wonders what his future will be. The book ends with a friend of Szpilman’s meeting him a few weeks later with the news of a German POW claiming to have helped him, but try as he might, he cannot track him down; he never even knew the German officer’s name.

My foremost thought while I was reading The Pianist was, it reads like a One Percenter’s accounting of having to suffer through an inconvenience. In the postscript by Wolf Biermann, a prominent German Jewish poet, Szpilman’s sense of detachment from reality is attributed to the book having been written during the immediate aftermath of the War when he was very likely still in deep shock. Even allowing for that, it cannot be denied that Szpilman and his family were among the privileged few among the Jews of Warsaw whose social status protected them from a lot of the horrors that the less fortunate suffered through.

His accounts of strolling through the ghetto as a means of occupying his time, his leaving one ghetto café for another because “his art wasn’t appreciated” all read like a surreal plane which existed parallel to but did not mingle with the sobering truth of the ghetto. His hesitation to join work gangs to protect his pianist’s hands, at a time when the very next day could see him dead, points to a level of separation that can only be observed in someone who has never had to face any hardship. This attitude of his is discernable years later too, when after a world tour he remarked to Biermann, “When I was a young man I studied music for two years in Berlin. I just can’t make the Germans out . . . they were so extremely musical!”

The daunting task of survival affects different people in different ways. Some choose to fight till their last breath, some give up and let themselves be consumed, and yet others simply survive, floating from one island of temporary safety to another through no conscious action but merely letting themselves be pushed along by the tides of fate. For a long time, I looked upon the last group with disdain, until I understood that for an ordinary person the very definition of survival is letting someone else make the hard decisions as long as they remain relatively safe for the foreseeable future; and the supporting reality that these ordinary people make up the majority of the populace.

When I watched the movie (one of those rare instances where I watched the movie before I read the book), the question in my mind was, “Why would anyone want to live this way, simply drifting along and at the mercy of happenstances?” The question and its answer were important for me, having grown up reading Mila 18 and other stories of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, where the choice was simple for the resistance fighters – live with dignity or die in defiance. Even after reading the book the question never went away, but over time the understanding of the answer has somewhat mellowed my attitude towards those who choose not to choose.

3 thoughts on “The Pianist – Wladyslaw Szpilman

  1. First things first!
    Congratulations! Until we reached the last two paragraphs, you never let your personal biases play your mind and run it, during your visual storytelling! It takes a great level of self-control and conscious expression of yourself as a writer, to keep the story as close to what it was, till you were finished telling it, to share your opinion.

    Secondly, I share your disdain for the ones who are privileged and still do not use it for good during the crisis and simply float through life when the world was burning everyone alive. Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism when you are privileged and you simply do not know how to be otherwise!
    Having said that, it’s serendipitous how he was unscathed and he was looked after, especially when it was known that he was a pianist and needed to protect his hands, take up his slack, or rather lack of what he wouldn’t do as an individual working alongside them. He then goes on to meet a German Officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfield, who happened to be a teacher and opposed the Nazi treatment of Jews! What were the odds, that even when he had nothing to offer other than just take, he was taken care of! Perhaps there are instances in Life where circumstances and people in it do favor those who implicity behave as per their belief!
    He wasn’t harming anyone or being pompous or spiteful, except that he didn’t wish to do anything that could damage his hands(he could’ve died a lot earlier, but that didn’t worry him) I’m curious to know what makes the environment comply and I will sign off with that inquiry 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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