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I was given several books recently but have only just got round to reading them and one of the ones was The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman which had been on my reading 'list' for quite some time. The cover of mine is different to the one shown as it is predominantly grey in colour and has a picture of a piano. My edition was published by Phoenix in 2002.
As part of my first degree I studied WW2 in Europe and for many years have had a fascination with events in Europe from 1935 -1945.Despite having read and seen footage of archival films during this period of history I had not read anything much based on individuals' experiences. Reading this made me much more aware of the daily fight for survival that many faced in the Warsaw ghetto.
If you need a good read to cheer you up then this is not the book because it is 'the extraordinary story of one man's survival in Warsaw 1939-1945' so, in historical context, obviously takes place during the Holocaust. I found it to be thought-provoking,surprising,a little intense at times but there was gentle humour in places too plus a good insight into the Jewish and non-Jewish communities as well as individuals. In parts it was harrowing but at the same time it made a compelling read and it has been on the bestsellers list which I find not at all surprising.
The book is basically a memoir and is beautifully and sensitively written. The characters really come to life and certain parts are jaw-droppingly astounding and shocking, events are well described and there was no part of the book that I felt was 'padded' or uninteresting - it was all painfully relevant.
I viewed the academy award winning Roman Polanski film of this book which I thought was excellent but I found reading the text to be far better in trying to make sense(?) of everyday life in the ghetto because it was so personal and well written.
The Pianist is one of the only small handful of books I have read that has 'stayed' with me and I therefore have to award the full 5 star rating.
"The Pianist" is the true account of Vladyslaw Szpilman's experience as a Polish Jew living in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War. Szpilman was living with his parents and his brother and two sister's in Warsaw when the Germans invaded and very quickly over-ran Poland in 1939. At the time he was working as a pianist for Radio Warsaw and, poignantly, he was playing Chopin's "Polonaise" at the time that the station is closed down by the Germans. At first things do not change much but slowly the Germans make it clear that they have plans for the Jewish citizens of, not just Warsaw, but throughout Poland. (Of course, this was to affect Jews throughout Europe but this was not known at the time the war broke out.) The first step is the law stating that all Jews must wear a yellow star badge; this is, at first, degrading for those who must wear it but, unaware of what is to follow, many wear it thinking that it is a small price to pay to be able to live freely. Later though, rumours are rife that there are plans afoot which will have a much greater impact on the lives of Jews. It is the creation of the Warsaw ghetto - an area of the city where Jews would be required to live within high walls unable to access any other part of the city unless instructed to do so by the Germans or the Jewish police.
The Jewish police were not, as you might expect, there to help Jewish citizens within the ghetto. As a supposed concession to the Jewish people, the Germans allowed them to have representatives who would stand up for their interests. In actual fact, the Germans used the Jewish police as a way of ensuring that unpopular actions were obeyed; on the whole these men were as cruel and ruthless as the Germans. They were known to be very easliy persuaded by bribes and many people were spared being sent to concentration camps because they had given some treasured heirloom in exchange for a document saying that they were carrying out a job that was essential, only to be shipped to certain death the next time the Germans made a sweep of the ghetto.
Szpilman's account follows the history of the ghetto and shows how what was thought by the Jews who lived within it's walls to be a sign that they were to be spared, turned out to be a waiting room for thousands of people who were later sent to the concentration camps. In the early period after the creation of the ghetto, Szpilman still worked as a pianist, making a little money by entertaining the wealthier ghetto inhabitants in cafes in the evenings. At this period life in the ghetto was relatively unchanged, wealthy women were still competing to impress with their charity work and their furs, people still enjoyed evenings out with friends, listening to music. But as more measures were taken against the Jews things deteriorated: food became scarce, people struggled to get coal to heat their houses and started to break up their furniture for firewood. Citizens of the ghetto were faced with an agonising decision - to keep any valuable jewellery and sums of cash incase they should need it in the future to buy their own lives or to use it now to buy food for their families.
As time went on the actions grew worse, parents shot in the street in front of their children, children shot, houses torched to ensure that anyone hiding was forced to emerge. For a time, Szpilman and his family were able to avoid being sent away for "resettlement". Sometimes it was because they were able to get work which was considered essential and this allowed them to remain in the ghetto, another time it was because Szpilman was able to find someone to simply not put them on the list of recommended names to be sent to the camps.
However, it is clear from what Szpilman writes (and, of course, from our knowledge of history) that it would be only a matter of time before the Szpilman family were faced with the iminent prospect of being packed onto a train to be sent to their deaths. When it happens, an unexpected act sees Szpilman tragically separated from his family. In a breathtaking scene he has to seize the opportunity to live and flees without even managing a final goodbye to his family.
The following part of the book is an account of the years in which Szpilman moved around the ghetto and the rest of the city doing whatever was necessary to stay alive. There are accounts of people who risked their own lives to save Szpilman and descriptions of dramatic incidents where he came within a hair's breadth of being discovered. My heart was in my mouth as Wladyslaw hid in the most cramp nooks and crannies each time believing that the game must surely be up.
The story is not spoilt by knowing that Szpilman survived the war, this book was written afterwards. However, he owed his life to a surprising source of help and it is what makes this book a story a hope and goodness. However horrific the crimes committed against the Jewish people, the underlying theme here is one of optimism - Wladyslaw and his family never gave up the belief that things would work out. Even when there was barely any food to go round six adults, his mother would set the table as smartly as she could and insisted that the whole family were there at meal times, and when Wladyslaw was weak with hunger and close to death from the cold weather, he never gave up a hiding place.
Szpilman is a fine story teller. Horrifc incidents are described with such economy of language that the author shows how appalling they were but without them becoming the major focus of the book. This is a book about the people of the ghetto and how they did their best to cope in terrible circumstances. It contains a wealth of information relating to social and political history but Szpilman weaves these details effortlessly into his prose so that the book reads more as a novel than of any autobiographical or academic piece I have ever read before.
Following Szpilman's account, there are excerpts from the diary of a German officer who was opposed the the actions against the Jews and his struggle to serve in the army against his beliefs. This is a revealing and assuring document which, again, reinforces the theme of hope in the book. It shows that even a small act of goodness counts for a great deal.
This book was first published in Poland immediately after the Second World War but the authorities quickly had it withdrawn and refused for many decades to allow it to be re-published; eye witness accounts such as this, the government claimed, showed up embarrassing cases of collaboration with the Nazis by defeated Poles, along with Ukrainians, Russians and even Jews themselves. I feel privileged that I am now able to read this today. It is a remarkable and compelling account of events which should never be forgotten. If it were up to me this would be a compulsory text in our secondary schools - the method of the telling of the story combined with the generous level of factual information would make it an ideal way to teach young people about the Holocaust.
ISBN - 0753814056
List price £7.99
New and used copies available from just a few pounds through internet sites
"The Pianist" was made into a film, directed by Roman Polanski which won the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002. It's star Adrien Brody won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Wladyslaw Szpilman.
There are hundreds upon thousands of books about the Second World War. Some are autobiographies. Others are memoirs. Some just give facts about that certain time and the deaths that occurred. If someone asked to associate any person with the Second World War the name Hitler would most likely come up. A close second might be Anne Frank. Anne Frank’s diary has been translated into hundreds of different languages, has been read by many, and known by all. I often found myself comparing The Pianist to Anne Frank whilst reading. It wasn’t as long as a read but it was much more harrowing than Anne Frank. It’s hard to remember, though, when reading Anne Frank that these details are coming from a child. Of course, as a child, she wasn’t told as much. Things were kept from her. Things were kept from her to protect her. The Pianist isn’t like that. Not one bit. Things aren't kept from Wladyslaw for his protection. He sees all. He hears all. He knows all that’s happening. And he tells us. In great detail. It may be difficult to read but it’s surprisingly gripping. It’s totally unbelievable. Yet a magnificent true-life story of a man who just wanted to live. I didn’t know whether I wanted to read The Pianist. I’d read about it. I’d heard about it. I’d wanted to see the film and some friends of mine had and said it was a harrowing watch but still a wonderful, insightful film. I always vow that if a film has been made out of a book I will read the book first. It’s something I always want to do for some reason. Yet even though I wanted to read the book, and see the film afterwards I was still very wary. I’d read how difficult a read it was and how detailed Wladyslaw was with his descriptions of his time during the war. I was wary. I must admit that even though I know things like this have happened it doesn’t mean I want to actually learn about it. To know the gory details. So I w
as very wary of reading it. I didn’t know whether I could take it, whether I’d be affected by it. But after finding it in an attic sale for 50p I couldn’t leave it any longer so I grabbed it and began to read it later that night. I was shocked within the first few pages, but I knew then that I wouldn’t regret reading it… Wladyslaw Szpilman lives with his brothers and sisters and his Mother and Father in a small flat in Warsaw. They live and ordinary life, really. Wladyslaw plays the piano at the local radio station and is loved and adored by many. But in 1939 the Second World War broke out and ruined their lives. They then lived in fear. They had no freedom. No chance of living. Instead of being thankful to god for food and clothes they were now thankful for life. Not a happy life, just life itself. Just being able to breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. To live. Reading about their lives it sounds awful. No one (not even the worst of the worst off in the world) leads a life similar to theirs back then. But what shocks you even more is, that the Szpilman family aren’t different to any other family. They’re a normal, common, Jewish family. Just like any other. So, if they lead this life others must have had to too. The awareness of how people lived during the Second World War then sinks in. And you realise this will be a read like no other. What I realised about 50 pages into the autobiography was that his love for playing the piano wasn’t expressed that often. Seeing as it was called “The Pianist” I imagined many of speeches about his love for playing the piano. For the piano itself. The pain he felt whilst being torn away from his piano. The only other thing (apart from his family) that he loves in the world. But he barely ever mentioned it. That’s not an advantage or a disadvantage. It’s not that important, really. But what I hadn’t realised is that, basica
lly, The Pianist is the name of the book. If you saw someone’s autobiography on the shelf and it was called “The Carpenter” you would probably think that it would be about a Carpenters life. About a Carpenters work/experiences. But, it doesn’t has to be. Basically that’s just his love. What’s important is not the fact that he would be a Carpenter, but what kind of life he has and what kind of story he has to tell. That’s what The Pianist is like. It’s basically an autobiography that happens to hold the name of the writers’ occupation. Yet, deep down, it holds no relevance. You realise, then, that what’s important is his story. His experiences. I wasn’t really expecting there to be passionate writing. You barely ever find an autobiography (unless it’s written by an author) that’s written really well with passion. But, usually, an autobiography is the only type of literature that can be tolerated with bad writing. Because an autobiography’s brilliance is not behind the writing but behind the stories that are told in it. That’s the necessity of an autobiography. But, surprisingly, The Pianist holds both wonderful stories and fantastic passionate writing. Wladyslaw Szpilman writes with utter passion and you feel you’re there experiencing these things with him. You feel you’re actually there too with him, which you don’t really feel whilst reading an autobiography; well I don’t feel it, anyway. The Pianist is an exception on that front. You can actually feel his pain whilst reading some parts. Your heart goes out to him. Your heart goes out to all that suffered. I did find it hard to read at times. I really did. I found it hard to be able to cope with some of his descriptions of the bodies and how some were killed. Yet it was still insightful into life at that time. It taught me a lot about The Second World War. Not necessarily about the fa
cts and the information of the time and who invaded who, but actually about the feelings of different people. How Jews reacted to it and what they went through. You learn a lot about how brave they were at that time. But it's a bit too honest if anything. You do feel upset. I felt that I had to read it within a week so that I could get it over and done with. Because, although it was a wonderful autobiography it wasn’t something you can ever “enjoy” it’s not that kind of book. It’s not for enjoyment purposes. It’s not something you read because you want a good read. You read it to get insight. You’ll be disturbed there’s no doubt about it, but although you won’t necessarily enjoy you will appreciate it. I did. Totally. It’s a book I will treasure for the rest of my life. It’s not one I’ll read again, I doubt, as it upset me and had so much affect on me the first time round, but I’ll always treasure it. Always. The chapters are pretty short (the longest I think is about 12 pages of length and on average they’re about 8-10 pages long) and the autobiography itself is under 200 pages of length. It won’t take you long to read and it won’t be a strained read, and I bet you’ll probably read it pretty quickly. This is all an advantage to it really. It makes it that bit more treasureable for some reason. You do want to finish it because it is so sad and hard to read, but you still feel it’s like saying goodbye to a friend. It didn’t take me very long to read it, but I still felt like I didn’t want to part with it even though I found it so disturbing. It took me under a week to read (even though I had a break in between it!) and after finishing it; it struck me that I could do that; I could just leave it. I could leave all the disturbing descriptive parts of the bodies. All the hard to read sentences. All the difficult chapters. I could leave the
m. Leave them on a bookshelf and for the pages to turn yellow and to rot. I can leave it there. Wladyslaw couldn’t do that, though. He had to go on with it. Every day. For six years, and even longer. He couldn’t close a book and leave it all be. He had to live that day in day out. And that’s the message you’re left with after reading; along with many others…. A must read for anyone. Even the faint hearted. Be brave for once; just like Wladyslaw was. Just remember – he had to live it all. You can put the book down whenever you want. Hard hitting, isn’t it? © Matt Roberts 2004.