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A haunting melody
The Pianist - Wladyslaw Szpilman
Member Name: fizzywizzy
The Pianist - Wladyslaw Szpilman
Advantages: Beautifully written yet informative and thought-provoking
Disadvantages: None at all
"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.
Summary: The holocaust through the eyes of a survivor