Wladyslaw Szpilman was a 28 year old Jewish man when Germany invaded Poland and subsequently turned part of Warsaw into a Jewish ghetto.
Szpilman was a concert pianist and composer and for a long time his work as a pianist in café’s in Warsaw was the only income his family had.
Until the summer of 1942, Szpilman and his parents and three siblings lived together. By the end of that summer the German occupiers decided to clear the ghetto and in a short time and with the use of lots of horrific violence the fast majority of Jews were deported by train.
While Szpilman was able to postpone the inevitable for a little while for his family, it was only a matter of time before they too found themselves in the “Umschlagplatz”, waiting to be forced onto cattle trucks. Szpilman is separated from his family at the crucial moment and able to flee the deportation area while his family disappears from his life, never to be seen again.
For Szpilman this heralds the start of three years of fleeing, hiding and fear. Dependent on friends from his pre-war life, his instincts and pure luck he manages to keep himself alive and undetected until the very last days of the occupation of Warsaw.
When he at last does run into a German officer during those last days he once again is very lucky. Captain Wilm Hosenfeld has had his doubts about the war, the German cause and the prosecution of Jews and others for years. Hosenfeld puts Szpilman in a more or less secure hiding place and provides him with the food he needs to survive a bit longer. In doing so, he provides Szpilman with what he needs in order to survive until the end of the occupation, giving him a chance to create a life for himself once again.
This is a heartbreaking story, filled with horrific images told in a detached way, more as if written by an uninvolved outsider than by someone who lived through it.
The tone of the book is such that I found myself almost accepting the brutalities, prosecutions and devastation as a normal occurrence. It was only when I put the book down and allowed my mind to wander that the true horror of everything I’d just read really hit home.
It is telling that normal life seems to continue despite the horror and the madness of the Warsaw ghetto. In the midst of persecution by the Germans, Wladyslaw and his brother Henryk have “normal” sibling fights. In the same way the excitement Wladyslaw feels about holding an anniversary concert in the ghetto seems out of place yet indicates how the human mind will cling to normality in order to be able to survive the unimaginable.
And the will and ability of the human body and spirit to survive almost anything is astounding. How Szpilman didn’t just give up and lay himself down to die is completely beyond me. I guess though that no one can know what they would be capable of until they find themselves in circumstances making it necessary to discover the limits of their ability to endure. I can only hope and pray that I will never find myself in such circumstances.
I’m glad that Szpilman’s last life-line was provided by a German officer. It is so easy to think about that period of human history and just assume that all Germans were despicable creatures. But even during the nightmare that was Nazi Germany things were never that black and white, and it is good to see that message in writing. It is telling though that in the first edition of this book Hosenfeld was identified as Austrian rather than German. I guess people in Poland weren’t ready to think of any German as being essentially human in the days immediately after the war.