Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman first published in 1946 (in Polish), in 1999 in English

Named one of the Best Books of 1999 by the Los Angeles Times

This riveting memoir by a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto was originally written in Polish right after World War II by the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman who grew up in Warsaw in an intellectually and musically gifted family. Szpilman (1910-2000), who considered himself a member of the cultural elite, worked as a pianist on Polish radio. Through his powers of observation and the power of his writing, he paints a portrait of the Jewish community as it becomes the subject of increasing stress. He gives us an inside view of the various strata in the Jewish community and we follow his own desperate efforts to survive in a ghetto that was liquidated and leveled before the Germans fled. After the war Szpilman remained in Poland, the only surviving member of his immediate family, where he continued as an esteemed pianist and composer.

Note: This is not a memoir about family and family background. Other than telling us that his father came originally from Sosnowiec and describing how he and his immediate family managed in the ghetto before they were all, except for him, put on a transport, there is no family information. The focus of this memoir is on a first-hand look at the Warsaw ghetto and how it functioned, from its beginning to its end. Some friends and some Jewish administration officials are named.

The original Polish version was suppressed by the communists.The current edition in English includes a few photos. (The German edition includes many more.) The English edition of the memoir also includes a short foreword by Szpilman’s son Andrzej, an epilogue by a close friend, Wolf Beirman, who writes about Szpilman’s first manuscript and its initial reception in Poland in 1946, about Szpilman’s later career, and about Szpilman’s post-war search for the German officer who helped save him. The English edition also includes an excerpt from the journal of the German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld.

A movie of this memoir, also called The Pianist, directed in 2002 by Roman Polanski (born in 1933) was nominated by the Academy of Motion Pictures for Best Picture. Adrien Brody won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Szpilman and Polanski won the Oscar for Best Director. Polanski was himself a Jewish Polish citizen who was hidden by Catholic Nuns during the war. To watch a trailer for the movie which is available on DVD, click here.

If you want to explore an interesting Wladyslaw Szpilman website where, for example, you can see photos not in the memoir, listen to some of his music, and read more about The German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, click here.

(unnamed) Szpilman – author’s father, violinist; home town - Sosnowiec
Wladyslaw Szpilman – author
Henryk  - author’s brother; scholar
Regina – author’s sister; lawyer
Halina – author’s sister

Places – all in Warsaw
Sienna Café
Szutuka Café
Café Nowoczesna
Umschlagplatz – where Jews were gathered before being put on transports

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