A Gentleman’s Tale

Not long after the Second World War ended, 1946, Polish classical pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman recorded his horrible memories of the Holocaust in autobiographical form. The manner in which he recorded such horrors as the herding of his family into cattle trucks to be transported to concentration camps such as Auschwitz and how he survived for at least two years in Warsaw on dry beans and water, led me to conclude that Wladyslaw Szpilman was a gentleman.

It is hard to believe that his long fingers did not tremble while reciting Chopin across the ivory keys of his piano during a radio recording as the first bombs raided Warsaw after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. He did tremble, but one would have hardly noticed as this quiet, modest man began to unravel how he came to survive the Holocaust and the harsh winters that accompanied his isolated battle against starvation.

The Foreword to The Pianist, written by Szpilman’s son, Andrzej, describes him not as a writer, but as “a man in whom music lives.” Andrzej goes on to say that his father, Wladyslaw, was “a pianist and composer who has always been an inspiring and significant figure in Polish cultural life. Indeed, long after the Holocaust becomes a memory, Szpilman had been at the forefront of the Polish cultural and arts society, specifically in the realm of classical music.

wladyslaw szpilman

I had to wonder whether Szpilman had not considered composing a symphony or at least a piano sonata to memorialize the events which he has recorded in book form. That he chose to write, originally in Polish under the title, Death of a City, is now a matter of Polish cultural history.

What becomes evident very early in the text is how close he was to his family. His father was also a gentleman and accomplished violinist. He makes it clear to us that his sister, Regina, was perhaps the most level-headed person in his family of six adults, all living in one Warsaw flat. Mother, father, two brothers and two sisters.

The calmness of his prose is in itself quite tragic as he literally detaches himself from events, particularly when describing his gentlemanly and elderly father doffing his hat to cruel Nazi footsoldiers while being forced to traverse his way to and from his home in the gutters, and not on the pavements, of Warsaw, and the violent manner in which his parents and siblings are forced onto the carriages which will carry them to their deaths. That Szpilman was yanked from an inevitable death only to live long afterwards to continue the legacy of testimonies of the Shoa can only be fate. Or divine intervention. Call it what you will.

Wladyslaw Szpilman’s calmness in telling this tale and his generosity of spirit even in such harrowing circumstances extends to a Nazi officer during the closing stages of the war when all is lost for Hitler’s Germany and the Red army marches into Warsaw. Pragmatically, the German officer spares Szpilman’s life, sparing him with food and a German military coat to stave off starvation and keep warm during the last gruelling winter weeks of the Nazi occupation. He is optimistic in promising the officer that he may very well be back after the war playing for Polish Radio and offers to help his former persecutor in any way that he can.

The German officer had caught Szpilman, hidden in a crumbling attic, playing Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor, and paused to listen admiringly before proceeding to interrupt Szpilman’s interlude over the dusty piano. He was not able to spare the German’s life which met its fate in a Russian camp far from Warsaw. In the event, Szpilman dared to compare himself with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as “the prototype of the ideal solitary.”

Wladyslaw Spzilman’s recollection of Warsaw’s occupation by the Nazi Germans is apt and carefully confined to the years of the Second World War, 1939 to 1945. He recalls the early days of trepidation, particularly under the privileged roof of his family’s home, the Germans’ occupation and their harsh stigmatization and prejudice towards him, his family and their fellow Jews whom they encounter in their daily lives. He recalls the swift deployment into Jewish ghetto’s and long after he has lost his beloved family, his long hours of isolation, hidden away by compatriots of the Polish Resistance.

One would have thought that Szpilman was really a man of few words in visualising his own characterisation, but yet, he has recorded a moment of history which will be enshrined in memory for all eternity.




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