The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45
By Wladyslaw Szpilman
Translated from the Polish by Anthea Bell
Picador. 222 pp. $23
I once got into a heated argument with an Israeli friend who maintained that the Jews of Europe had gone to the concentration camps "like sheep to the slaughter." This is unfortunately a not uncommon point of view, albeit one that requires a complete lack of empathy and historical perspective. That Hitler's plan for the Jews was not only evil but insidious, and that most of its victims couldn't have imagined what was to befall them, is nowhere made clearer than in the accounts of the Holocaust that were written while and immediately after it occurred, before there was even a name for what had happened to Europe's Jews. Anne Frank's diary is one such account. Wladyslaw Szpilman's is another.
"The Pianist" is remarkable for several reasons. First, as an eyewitness account of the destruction of the Jewish community in Warsaw, Szpilman's memoir is historically indispensable. Second, he writes with the grace and economy of a poet; there are no false notes. And third, his story is so incredible that it must be read to be believed. A Polish-Jewish concert pianist, Szpilman was in his late twenties when the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. Unflinchingly, he recounts the Kafkaesque transformation that he, and the city of Warsaw, underwent from that time on; we watch, through Szpilman's eyes, as his world disappears. He describes the rapid erosion of "normal" life for Jews, the forced move to the ghetto, his considerable efforts on behalf of the resistance movement, even the deportation of his family, without a trace of hysteria, melodrama or self-importance. This is not to imply that his account is without emotion. The power of this book lies partly in the author's restraint, it is true, but there are nevertheless countless passages that will cause any reader to take a deep breath and look at his surroundings with gratitude before reading on.
Like Victor Klemperer's "I Will Bear Witness," "The Pianist" gives us the day-to-day impressions of a reasonable person who finds that the world has gone mad around him. "In the second half of November," Szpilman writes, "without giving any reasons, the Germans began barricading the side streets north of Marszalkowska Street with barbed wire, and at the end of the month there was an announcement that no one could believe at first. . . . Jews had from the first to the fifth of December to provide themselves with white armbands on which a blue Star of David must be sewn. So we were to be publicly branded as outcasts. Several centuries of humanitarian progress were to be cancelled out, and we were back in the Middle Ages."
Szpilman has a clear eye for the telling detail, the absurd anchor in the midst of all this surreality. Here he writes about the Jewish police, who assisted the SS: "As soon as they put on their uniforms and police caps and picked up their rubber truncheons, their natures changed. Now their ultimate ambition was to . . . show off their knowledge of the German language and vie with their masters in the harshness of their dealings with the Jewish population. That did not prevent them from forming a police jazz band which, incidentally, was excellent."
Later, when Szpilman goes into hiding, the memoir takes on the feel of a brutal existential mystery with no answers: "That evening I heard keys turn in the lock of my door and the padlock. Someone unlocked the door and removed the padlock, but did not come in; whoever it was ran quickly downstairs instead. What did that mean? The streets were full of leaflets that day. Someone had scattered them, but who?"
Reading this book, you can't help but feel that Szpilman is not only an accurate and sensitive observer but also a profoundly decent person. Improbably, when it looks as if he can hold out no longer, his hiding place in an abandoned building is discovered by another decent person--who happens to be a German officer--and that decent person saves his life by bringing him food and keeping his existence a secret. As Wolf Biermann, the renowned German writer, puts it in his afterword, "This is like some Hollywood fairy-tale, yet it is true: one of the hated master race played the part of guardian angel in this dreadful story." The book also includes extracts from the German officer's diaries; he died in a Soviet prison camp in the early '50s, despite Szpilman's efforts to locate and help him.
It is criminal that Szpilman's memoir, which first appeared in 1946, was then suppressed in his native Poland for more than 50 years, but it couldn't reappear at a more opportune time. The survivors are dying, and in their absence the world that they came from and the experiences they lived through will belong more and more to the realm of fiction. It is crucial, then, to distinguish fiction from fact while we still can, and to emphasize the importance of the latter. To ignore the distinction, as in the recent, controversial book "Fragments," which pretended to be the work of a concentration-camp survivor, is to give those who deny the Holocaust a foothold and to treat the actual victims and the actual survivors of the Nazi era with appalling disrespect.
Although the Nazis did not manage to kill all the Jews, they did an extremely effective job of eradicating Jewish culture in Europe. They began by making caricatures of their victims, denying them their complexity and their humanity. If, when we study this period, we are to avoid substituting our own caricatures and symbols for real people--that is to say, if we hope to ensure that the men, women and children who lived the Shoah do not lose their complexity and their humanity in the years to come--then we would do well to listen to their voices.
Here, in Wladyslaw Szpilman's "The Pianist," is a clear voice from a world that has vanished. We are fortunate to have him as a witness.