Szpilman, Wladyslaw

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SZPILMAN, Wladyslaw

Nationality: Polish. Born: Sosnoviec, 5 December 1911. Education: Studied piano and composition, Chopin School of Music, Warsaw; Berlin Academy of Music, 1931-33. Family: Married Halina Grzecznarowski; two sons. Career: Pianist and composer, Polish Radio, Warsaw, 1935-39 and 1945-63; cofounder, with Bronislaw Gimpel, and performer, Warsaw Piano Quintet, 1962-86. Awards: Poland's Gold Cross of Merit, 1950; Polish radio industry award for children's songs, 1953; Polonia Restituta Cavalier's Cross, 1954; Polish People's Republic Tenth Anniversary medal and Polish Composers Union award, both in 1955; Officer's Cross, 1959; Merited Cultural Leader award, 1978. Died: 6 July 2000.



Smierc miasta [Death of a City]. 1946; as The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45, 1999.

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Wladyslaw Szpilman—a world-famous virtuoso and composer, graduate of the Berlin Academy of Music, and author of popular hits—preserved his war experience in a book. The unusual memoir describes the outbreak of the war, the defense of Warsaw, the first days of the Nazis' presence in the town, his life in the ghetto, and the years spent hiding in the capital occupied by the Germans. His memoir was called by critics a record of the human will to survive, which perseveres even in time of mass destruction.

Not accidentally this wartime biography is entitled The Pianist. For the narrator and protagonist of the book music is not a job but a way to live and to survive. Music became a refuge for the author in the critical days of the September campaign of 1939 when, despite the escalation of bombings, he prepared musical broadcasts together with other employees of Polish Radio until the last moment. Also, at the beginning of the occupation, playing music at home became a way of escaping from the more and more sinister reality imprinted with the escalating repressive measures aimed at the inhabitants of Warsaw, especially at the Jews. Music helped Szpilman survive the ghetto experience. Concerts in the restaurants of the Jewish district, to some degree at least, preserved Szpilman himself as well as his family from the hunger present in the ghetto. Music saved Szpilman's life on 16 August 1942 when he and his family landed at the Umschlagplatz. He was recognized as a musician and composer and dragged away from the shipment, which was heading for gas chambers, and pushed outside the police cordon by a Jewish policeman who supervised the loading.

With the help of his friends—Polish artists—Szpilman managed to escape from the ghetto and find a hideout outside the Jewish precincts. At the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Szpilman lost the help of his murdered or exiled friends. He was hiding alone in the ruins, imprisoned in the district of Warsaw that was occupied by the Germans. He watched the agony of the town, the evacuation or executions of civilians. Even in this critical moment repeating his own compositions in his mind was his rescue from resignation, fear, and even madness.

In the last chapter of The Pianist Szpilman, found in the ruins by a German officer, plays Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp minor at the officer's request. Thus one of the last scenes involves the meeting of two people who outwardly have nothing in common but are united by their love of music and their faith in the value of human life. This German officer is Captain Wilhelm Hosenfeld, whose wartime memoirs have been attached to the latest edition of The Pianist. Hosenfeld, a practicing Christian living by the rules, opposed Nazism to the best of his ability by helping the Jews. The German officer recorded shocking images of murders committed by the German army both on the Poles and the Jews.

—Joanna Hobot

See the essay on The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45.

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Szpilman, Wladyslaw

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