The Pianist: About Wladyslaw Szpilman

Wladyslaw Szpilman (1911-2000) [pronounced "Vuadysuav Shpilman"; also addressed as Wladek ("Vuadek") Szpilman] was born in Sosnowiec, in Poland.

As a young boy, he studied piano with Josef Smidowicz and Alexander Michalowski, themselves students of Franz Liszt. In 1931, he left for Berlin and continued his studies at the Academy of Music, under the direction of Leonid Kreutzer; and the Academy of Arts, under Arthur Schnabel and Franz Schreker. During these years, he composed a 'Concerto for Violin'; his Suite for piano 'Zycle maszyn' ("Life of Machines"); numerous pieces for piano and orchestra; film scores; and popular songs that brought him celebrity in his homeland. At the age of 27, Szpilman had established himself as one of Poland's foremost composers and concert pianists when Poland was attacked.

In 1935, Szpilman was hired at the Polish state radio station of Warsaw. He was performing live on the airwaves, playing Chopin's 'Nocturne in C# [C sharp] Minor,' when the Luftwaffe dive-bombed the station on September 23rd, 1939.

As Jews, Szpilman and his family (parents, brother Henryk, and sisters Halina and Regina) were soon evicted from their apartment and herded, with several hundred thousand others, into the Warsaw Ghetto. There, Szpilman scraped by, playing piano in the bars where black marketeers and collaborators gathered.

On August 16th, 1942, it was one such Jewish collaborator, Itzak Heller, who stopped Szpilman from boarding the train that took his entire family to their death in the camps. Szpilman remained behind in Warsaw. Aided by an ad hoc network of pre-war acquaintances (such as his friend Dorota) resistance fighters (like Janina), and – most surprisingly – a German officer (Captain Wilm Hosenfeld), Szpilman survived the war.

Warsaw was liberated in January 1945. Szpilman immediately wrote his memoirs, Death of a City, recounting his incredible but true experiences amidst torment. In a detached tone, his authentic account told of life in the Ghetto and of the victims and torturers in that singular world. The book was published in Poland in 1946 – but was then banned and suppressed by the Communist authorities.

Polish radio started up again, fittingly, with Szpilman performing the Chopin piece that had been so violently interrupted six years earlier. He was named musical director of the state radio station. He also resumed his career as a pianist, playing in concerts and solo performances in Europe and America. He performed all over the world in piano duet with Bronislav Gimpel (with whom he also founded the Warsaw Piano Quintet).
Szpilman also began composing music again. Many of his 300-plus songs became popular standards in Polish culture. The songs he wrote for children in the '50s earned him a 1955 prize from the Polish Composers Union. He later applied his composing talents to create ballets and classical pieces for younger audiences. In 1961, he founded the International Festival of Song at Sopot for the Union of Popular Song Writers in Poland. In 1964, he was elected member of the Academy of Polish Composers. He retired from concert performances in 1986, but continued composing. He resided in Warsaw for his entire life.

In 1999, Szpilman's son Andrzej, whose father had never spoken about the war years (not uncommon among that generation of fathers and sons), arranged for the book to be published in Germany. The new edition incorporated wartime extracts from the diary of Captain Hosenfeld, who died in a Russian POW camp in 1952. The response to the book led to a worldwide translation and publication as The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939–1945, generating international attention and acclaim. Roman Polanski, who had already met Szpilman twice years before, committed to make a film version of The Pianist. At their third meeting, in early 2000, Szpilman expressed his pleasure that the book was to be brought to the screen by a compatriot.

Wladyslaw Szpilman passed away on July 6th, 2000, at the age of 88, a few months before filming of The Pianist began. He is survived by his wife Halina and sons Krzysztof and Andrzej.

Below are excerpts from reviews accorded The Pianist upon its 1999 publication:

Szpilman's memoir haunts the mind in tiny, searing cameos. You'll cry - I did - but please read it.
--Miranda Seymour, THE [U.K.] SUNDAY TIMES, November 28th, 1999

Stunning…filled with unforgettable incidents, images and people.
--Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, September 2nd, 1999

Szpilman's memoir couldn't reappear at a more opportune time…it is a clear voice from a world that has vanished. We are fortunate to have him as a witness.
--Deborah Sussman Susser, THE WASHINGTON POST, November 18th, 1999

Remarkable…a significant contribution to the literature of remembrance, a document of lasting historical and human value…To know Wladyslaw Szpilman is, in the most hopeless of contexts, to know a modicum of hope.
--Michael Frank, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, December 5th, 1999 [The Best Books of 1999 – Best Nonfiction of 1999]

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