Friday, 19 January 2018

Book Review: The Pianist by Władysław Szpilman doubt, the vast majority of Eastern European Jews who died during World War II and weren’t shot or otherwise killed on the spot wretchedly lost their lives in the overcrowded ghettos or in the concentration camps spattered across the Third Reich. Today it’s common knowledge that the latter were designed as extermination camps of industrial dimensions or as forced labour camps where the younger and stronger were selected to slowly starve to death while (often pointlessly) slaving away “for the benefit of the German people”. But some escaped this horrible fate getting the unexpected chance to go underground like The Pianist Władysław Szpilman whom unknown hands dragged from his family boarding the train to Treblinka (and certain death) and who, after some more months of forced labour, managed to go into hiding in Warsaw to write down his and his family’s story after the war.

Władysław Szpilman was born in Sosnowiec, Congress Poland (today: Poland), in December 1911. Having studied piano and composition at the universities of Warsaw and Berlin, he soon gained fame as a pianist and composer in his country. As from 1934, he worked for Polish radio, an occupation that was abruptly interrupted by the German invasion of September 1939 and the following persecution of the Jewish population in Poland. Immediately after the war Władysław Szpilman returned to Polish radio and wrote his memoirs over five years of fighting for survival first in the Warsaw Ghetto with his family and later alone underground. The book was published under the title Śmierć miasta, i.e. Death of a City, in 1946 to be reprinted only years after the fall of Communism in 1998, moreover first in German and English translations titled The Pianist. In 1963 he retired from Polish radio to focus on giving piano concerts and composing. Władysław Szpilman died in Warsaw, Poland, in July 2000.

In August 1939, The Pianist Władysław Szpilman is twenty-eight years old. Like everybody else he and his family fear that German troops might invade Poland and this is exactly what happens in the night to 1 September. England and France declare war to Germany, but neither country can relieve the weak Polish defence army right then. Soon Warsaw is under siege and German bombardment. Although it’s dangerous to be out in the streets, the young pianist keeps going to work at the broadcasting centre of Warsaw Radio every day. On 23 September he plays Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor.
“[…] It was the last live music broadcast from Warsaw. Shells were exploding close to the broadcasting centre all the time I played, and buildings were burning very close to us. I could scarcely hear the sound of my own piano through the noise. After the recital I had to wait two hours before the shelling died down enough for me to get home. […]”
The same afternoon Warsaw Radio goes off air because a bomb destroys its power station and on 27 September the city surrenders. Life hardly changes for its inhabitants until the German commandant begins to publish severe decrees prohibiting this and that on pain of death. Step by step, the rights of the Jewish population are ever more curtailed. Jews may keep only a small amount of money, they have to wear white armbands with the blue star of David, they have to do two years’ labour in concentration camps, and as from November 1940 they are confined to the ghetto.
“[…] Compared to the time that followed, these were years of relative calm, but they changed our lives into an endless nightmare, since we felt with our entire being that something dreadful would happen at any moment — we were just not sure yet what danger threatened, and where it would come from.” 
For nearly two years Władysław Szpilman supports his parents, brother and two sisters playing the piano in different cafés in the vermin-infested ghetto. They all escape the frequent deportations to concentration camps and manage to stay alive. Then comes summer 1942. The last Jews in the ghetto are due for “resettlement”, among them the Szpilmans. Just when they are about to get on the cattle truck, someone flings Władysław Szpilman out of the police cordon. He has to watch his family leaving for death in Treblinka, while his fight for survival continues as a Jewish labourer and eventually in hiding.

Unsurprisingly, The Pianist is a first-person narrative with the limited perspective and knowledge of a man who looks back on tragic events in his life. Although he tells the shattering story of his and his family’s desperate fight for survival in Warsaw during the holocaust in all its grim detail, his tone is remarkably unsentimental, even matter-of-fact which may be the result of the incredible horrors that he lived and that he could bear to remember only distancing himself emotionally from the experience. The author himself said that writing the memoir had been his way of coming to terms with the past, notably the loss of family and friends, and of opening up for a life as pianist and composer. After all, it was the hope for this glorious future that had not only kept him alive but also made him take every possible measure to protect his fingers. In spite of being the work of a musician, the memoir shows considerable literary quality. The language is clear with a (comprehensible) dash of sarcasm every now and then even though it’s never moralising. The author also refrains from stereotyping and shows that there were evil Jews and good Germans too.

Re-reading The Pianist by Władysław Szpilman after more than a decade has been just as impressive an experience as reading it for the first time. Although the memoir isn’t set in a concentration camp and it naturally lacks the psychological insight of the psychiatrist, much in it reminds of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (»»» read my review) written at the same time and for the same purpose. Neither author embellishes anything. Neither of them paints human society in black and white with all culprits belonging to one group and all victims to another. The English and German editions include extracts from the diaries of the German officer who saved the pianist. They show him as a man with a conscience who felt ashamed for his country bringing such suffering over people. I highly recommend the book that has also been adapted for the screen.


  1. Thank you for re-reading and reviewing this book. There is something right in the world when a musician survives horrible things and when people of conscience act in the face of oppression.

    1. Unfortunately, many other musicians - amateurs as well as professionals - died in the holocaust no matter how talented they were. We lost a lot of genius through Hitler's racial fanaticism... The more important it is to remember so it won't happen ever again!


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