Book Review: The Pianist

This is going to be a short one… Wow.

Wladyslaw Szpilman was a well-known Polish pianist and composer, who performed frequently on Polish radio. He was also a Jew, and after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he became one of the millions of people subjected to Hitler’s anti-semitic laws. After several years living in the Warsaw ghetto, his entire family was sent to the extermination camp at Treblinka, but Wladyslaw was saved by a policeman who was apparently a fan. He then joined a crew working construction in the ghetto for several more months, until he was able to contact friends on the other side of the walls, who helped him escape and hid him in a series of apartments in the city. As the war drew to a close, Warsaw was almost emptied, leaving Szpilman to fend for himself. He then met Wilm Hosenfeld, a German officer who saw no sense in the atrocities he was being ordered to commit and did what he could to keep Szpilman alive until the Russians arrived to liberate Poland.

There is little literary merit in this one. Szpilman was a musician, not a writer. There are just the raw facts, which make for a harrowing story of survival. Written almost as soon as the war was over, it was soon withdrawn from publication by the Russians, who did not approve of the accusations of collaboration with the Germans by Ukranian and Lithuanian mercenaries. It was not until late in the 20th Century that Andrej Szpilman, Wladyslaw’s son, found a copy on his father’s shelf and submitted it for re-publication. The story is shocking, and at times almost unbelievable. It is not surprising that, towards the end, Szpilman frequently contemplates suicide, even going so far as to plan his methods. On one occasion he is convinced the Germans are coming to get him and actually swallows a whole bottle of sleeping pills, but fortunately he wakes up the next morning.

I have read quite a few memoirs by people who survived Hitler’s tyranny in Europe, both Jews and the people who were arrested for hiding them. Every time they are painfully familiar, but each still has something new to offer. The Pianist is certainly worth reading, but it’s not a pleasant bed-time story.

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