The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45 (Smierc Miasta)

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Memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, 1946

Wladyslaw Szpilman was a composer, a pianist, and an animator of cultural life. He studied in the Berlin Academy of Music. In 1933, after Hitler had gained power, Szpilman returned home to Warsaw. He worked as a pianist for Polish Radio, at the same time composing symphonic music and movie soundtracks. He also wrote about one thousand songs.

He described his war experience—the stay in the ghetto and the years spent in hiding in occupied Warsaw—in a book entitled The Death of a City , which had a censored edition in 1946. The unabridged edition of the book, published in Germany in 1998, is entitled The Pianist. One year later it was also published in England, Holland, Italy, Sweden, Japan, and the United States. It appeared on the best-seller lists of such newspapers as the Times (London), the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian (London).

The Pianist is an attempt at coping with the nightmare of the years under German occupation. It belongs to the stream of post-World War II memoir literature in which fiction had to give way to facts. In Szpilman's memoir there is no feeling of hate or the need for revenge. The author writes only about his own experience, about what he had witnessed. He describes the first German repressions aimed at Jews, the creation and the closing of the ghetto, the everyday life in the Jewish quarter, the ever-present hunger and death, the deportations of people destined to be murdered in gas chambers, and a wide spectrum of human reaction in extreme situations. But The Pianist is not only a story about the effects of fanaticism and the Nazi ideology. Szpilman's book is also a homage to music, which gave the narrator the strength and motivation to survive.

In addition to being the record of the fate of an individual, The Pianist analyzes the mechanisms of behavior of the whole community living under the pressure of fear. Szpilman shows the martyrdom of his nation. At the same time, however, he shows his readers a world of restaurants visited by the ghetto youths and Jewish Gestapo agents and their mistresses. He describes the streets where people were dying of hunger and the atmosphere of cafés where the rich tried to drown their fear.

Szpilman's story is balanced, free of hate or the wish of revenge. This restraint makes it possible for the facts to speak. Thanks to the story, scenes—such as a fleeting meeting with Stefan Starzynski, the president of Warsaw; a lamentation of a mother who has strangled her own child for fear that the crying would give them away to the Germans; or a picture of a man lapping up the soup straight from the pavement—become important symbols.

The Pianist was named Book of the Year 1999 by the Los Angeles Times. Director Roman Polanski was shooting a movie about the Holocaust based on the book.

—Joanna Hobot

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The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45 (Smierc Miasta)

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