The Life of Wladyslaw Szpilman


Think about this poem:

In a little town early one morning/ frightening people, weeping and wailing, running about like mad, half naked and undressed, a cry is heard: “Jews, get out of the house!” Gendarmes, police, many Ukrainians, to kill the Jews, that is their aim! They shoot, they beat, it’s terrible, horrible, they drive the Jews to the trains. No pen can ever describe/ how the wheels go round and round. As the Jews are being martyred, going, going to Treblinka. / Our brothers across the ocean/ cannot feel bitter pain. They cannot feel our bitter anguish/ as death lurks over us every moment. The war will end some day. The world will realize the unheard-of horror. Our Jewish heart is filled with pain: Who will be able to heal our hurt? Rivers of tears will flow, when they will find some say/ the biggest grave in the world/ in Treblinka (Meltzer 116).

Now, how do you feel? Do you have chills up and down your spine? Do you feel bliss, joy, and peace, or do you feel pain, anger, and hatred toward the monsters that brought so many people to their death for nearly seven years?

There were millions of moms, dads, sisters, brothers, grandmas, grandpas, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews who died in World War II, but there were also millions who survived the atrocities and lived to tell their stories. Some people are so focused in remembering the people who died that they seem to forget the ones who went through hell and survived the war. Although Wladyslaw Szpilman lived seven years of his life in the Warsaw Ghetto and experienced and witnessed horrible things that one can only imagine, he was a survivor and a hero of World War II.

II.Early Years

Wladyslaw Szpilman was “born into a family of Musicians” (Mazelis 1), in the polish town of Sosnowiec in December 1911 (The Story 1). He had two sisters, Halina and Regina, and one brother, Henryk (The Art of 2). Szpilman was a family man, who loved his family very much, but his true love and passion was playing the piano. Being inspired by his father who played the violin, it was no surprise that Wladyslaw was going to follow a similar musical path as his father had done with his violin (Szpilman 28). After his first piano lessons at “Chopin School of Music in Warsaw, under Josef Smidowicz and Aleksander Michalowski, who both were former students of Liszt,” he decided that playing the piano was what he really liked and continued his studies further “at the Academy of Arts (Akademie der Kuenste) in Berlin under Arthur Schnabel and Leonid Kreutzer in 1931” (The Story 1-5).

In the year 1935, Szpilman received the opportunity to be a pianist at a Polish State Radio Station in the city of Warsaw, so without hesitation he accepted the honor. Szpilman loved to play inspirational pieces written by Frederick Chopin (Szpilman’s Warsaw 2). The piece which Szpilman was recognized for playing right before the radio station had been destroyed was “Chopin’s C Sharp minor Nocturne” (The Story 1).

Along with composing music for other instruments and programs, such as violin concerts and a symphonic suite called the Life of Machines, he also composed his own music to play on the piano (The Pianist, The Story 6). Many people who lived in Warsaw only listened to the Polish radio station when Szpilman was playing (The Pianist).

He was an inspirational, free spirited piano player who loved what he did for a living. He had no boundaries and was free to express himself. He, like any other Jew, was allowed to be free. However, in 1939, all that was about to change (The Pianist).

III.Warsaw Ghetto

Before 1939, the world was on the brink of war and the kettle was coming to a slow simmer. On October 1, 1939, at the Polish capital, Warsaw, the World War II’s simmering pot was about to come to a boil (The Art of 1). Wladyslaw’s wonderful life at Warsaw, along with everyone else that lived in the town, was going to come to a halt. The people of Warsaw would start to experience what Hitler’s was really like.

Germany’s first target was to destroy Warsaw (The Art of 1). The Germans needed to come up with some sort of diversion to eliminate the human beings in the town, without doing it suddenly and openly to the world, so they created a Ghetto and made lies about the Jews, so they had an excuse (The Pianist). What the Jews did not know was that they were part of a plan, a plan that would exterminate their existence on the face of the earth. That plan was the “Final Solution,” which was Hitler’s idea of having a perfect race (Danzer 544).

The Warsaw Ghetto walls began their assembly on November 15, 1940; the Szpilman family were threatened to move to the ghetto part of Warsaw, but they did not want to go (Mazelis 2). But, they had to, or they would be executed when the Nazis found them; Szpilman explains what was to happen in a paragraph from his book:

Sure enough, around noon the troops did indeed begin clearing the old people’s homes, the veterans’ homes and the overnight shelters. These shelters accommodated Jews from the country around Warsaw who had been thrown into the ghetto, as well as those expelled from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Hungary. By Afternoon protestors had gone up in the city announcing the beginning of the resettlement action. All Jews fit to work were going to the east. Everyone could take twenty kilos of luggage, provisions for two days- and their jewelry. When they reach their destination those able to work would be housed in barracks and given jobs in the Germans factories. Only the officials of the Jewish social institutions and the Jewish council were exempt. For the first time, a decree did not carry the signature of the chairman of the Jewish council. Czerniakow had killed himself by taking cyanide. / So the worst had happen after all: the people of a whole quarter, a place with a population of half a million, were to be resettled. It seemed absurd- no one could believe it (89-90).

When the Jews heard that the Germans were headed for their town, they wanted to flee and hide so that they would not have to face evil. Wladyslaw and his family decided to stay and protect their honor and their home (The Pianist). They knew that there would be some changes and that they would have live in fear everyday; but, they figured if they fled then they would have to live in fear no matter where they lived (The Pianist).

“The Germans had promised that the Jews would be treated fairly,” (Mazelis 1) but everyone knew that was not the truth. The Warsaw Ghetto, on the other hand, was just what it appeared to be to the naked eye: no lies, no cover-ups, and no one pretending to be nice. If a German soldier did not like the way someone looked at him, he shot him or her right then and there. The whole Szpilman family, along with all the other Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, had been forced to wear armbands bearing the Star of David and then move to the Warsaw Ghetto, and if they refused, they would be shot (The Pianist). These bands allowed the Germans to easily recognize their targets (The Art of 1). The Warsaw Ghetto was a horrible place, but Wladyslaw pursued his piano career, playing at whatever Ghetto CafÃ?© he could find. Although he was able to play and do what he loved, he was only doing it to make a living for himself and his family; there seemed to be no joy in it anymore for him. He usually played at many different cafÃ?©s, but he was quite pleased when he finally could play at the largest cafÃ?© in the Warsaw Ghetto, which was the Sztuka cafÃ?© (Szpilman 16).

The conditions that Wladyslaw usually experienced while walking home after playing all day were very gruesome. Corpses were lying all around, and the only thing covering their identity was newspapers (17). Also, all the lice and vermin that the Warsaw Ghetto was infested with was enough to make a person sick to their stomach (17).

“In July 1942 the Mass deportations began” (The Art of 1). That was when the real panic began. For Wladyslaw, this was a time that he and everyone who had heard his story would never forget; that is when he and his family were going to be deported to the death camps. “After spending nearly two years in the Ghetto, he and his family are finally deported” (Mazelis 2). Wladyslaw and his entire family were to be taken to the extermination camps in train cars, but as the cars were being loaded, “Itzak Helier,” (The Art of 2) a Jewish guard “stopped Wladyslaw from boarding the train that took the rest of his entire family to death” (2). Wladyslaw’s family was gone just like that.

After wandering the streets looking for places to hide from the Gestapo and suffering from days of starvation, grieving, and no will to go on, Szpilman was picked up by the Germans and taken to the part of town where he was forced to work for the Germans on various jobs (The Pianist). After months of being worked with little nourishment, he planned an escape to go see if and old friend would help hide him (The Pianist). The hiding place he had been staying at was no longer safe, so he went to another address that a friend had given him incase anything were to happen. He went to the address; a pregnant woman and her husband took in Szpilman. They fed him and gave him clothing until they could find a place for him to hide the next morning (The Pianist). Szpilman was in hiding for months before the Russians liberated Warsaw in 1945 (The Art of 2). The only reason Szpilman lived was because he had been saved twice during the war, once by the Polish officer and once by German Captain Wilm Hosenfeld who gave him food and clothing (The Pianist). Szpilman had been liberated and was ready to move on, but there were things that occurred that made him think about his horrible experiences and losses.

IV.Liberated Years

Two weeks after liberation, Szpilman went for a walk down the street of Warsaw when a gruesome discovery prompted a difficult realization.

A human skeleton lay by the wall of a building, under a rebel barricade. It was not large, and the bone structure was delicate. It must be the skeleton of a girl, since long blond hair could still be seen on the skull. Hair resists decay longer than any other part of the body. Besides the skeleton lay a rusty carbine, and there were remnants of clothing around the bones of the right arm, with red and white armband where the letters AK had been shot away. There are not even such remains left of my sisters, beautiful Regina and youthful, serious Halina, and I shall never find a grave where I could go to pray for their souls (Szpilman 185-186).

After his liberation and settlement in Warsaw, Szpilman began his pianist career all over again. According to Marc Servin, in 1945, Szpilman picked up where he had left off six years before on the Polish Radio Station, with his playing of Chopin’s C Sharp (5).

Still having many flashbacks from living in the Warsaw Ghetto, Szpilman explains in his book:

Sometimes I give recitals in the building at number 8 Narbutt Street in the Warsaw where I carried bricks and lime – where the Jewish brigade worked: the men who were shot once the flats for German officers were finished. The officers did not enjoy their fine new homes for long. The building still stands, and there is a school in it now. I play to Polish children who do not know how much human suffering and mortal fear once passed their sunny schoolrooms. I pray they may never learn what such fear and suffering that I experienced (Szpilman 189).

He gained and held the position of director of music for nearly 18 years after liberation (The Story 1). “In 1963, he and Bronislaw Gimpel founded the Warsaw Piano Quintet with which Szpilman performed world-wide until 1986” (Servin 5). “He composed over 300 songs which were very popular” (The Art of 2).

Although Szpilman had experienced things he never again wanted to experience, he wanted to write a book about his life in the Warsaw Ghetto so that people would have something to read and remind them of the atrocities of war (The Story 7). It took him three-and-a-half months to write the book, which at the time he named Death of a City, and it was published in Poland in 1946 (Szpilman’s Warsaw 2, The Art of 2). “The book was banned by the Communist authorities” (2). After the book had been banned according to a Newsweek Interview, the book was republished in 1998 (1). Along with the book being republished, it was also renamed and had been translated by Anthea Bell (The Story 8). The current book now includes extracts from Captain Wilm Hosenfeld’s diary (8). Marc Servin quotes about Szpilman and his book, “but his book is distinguished by the dazzling clarity he brings to the banalities of ghetto life, especially the eerie normalcy of some social relations amid catastrophic upheaval” (3). “To say that the music was Szpilman’s life-blood is more than just a poetic metaphor” (5).

In 1950, Szpilman married a wonderful and beautiful woman named Halina Grzecznarowski (The Story 6-7). They had two children, one named Andrezj, is a “dental surgeon by profession” and their other son, Christopher is a history professor (Newsweek Interview 1; The Story 7).

Even though Szpilman was persecuted and nearly lost his life in Poland, it was and still is his home. He chose to remain there after the Holocaust and raise his family there.

V.Later Years

Szpilman’s story caught the attention of not only Poland, but also a famous filmmaker, who received a copy of The Pianist’ novel from his lawyer (The Story 8). Roman Polanski, who escaped from the Kraww Ghetto at the age of seven, read the inspirational novel and decided that he should make his story national for everyone to watch and experience (The Art of 1).

This was the first movie that I have watched that was so horrific and sad that it made me cover my mouth and tear up when it came to the tragic things that the Germans did to the Jewish man from a six-story balcony, and they made the rest of the family run in the street, down the stairs run until the German monsters shot them like target practice; then after shooting the Germans, they ran over them (The Pianist). These were some of the examples of the atrocities that Polanski wanted the world to see, along with the specific hardships that Szpilman went through. So, Polanski made a movie. According to David Denby, “Polanski offers a superbly confident and poised depiction of the stages of destruction and the anomaly of escape” (1). The movie provides a vital record of the horrible treatment the Nazis had given their enemies (The Art of 1). When the movie showed in Poland, there were 3,500 people who saw the premier of Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½The Pianist’ and applauded for nearly 20 minutes (The Story 8). The film “won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and garnered seven Oscar nominations” (7).

The film was not the only thing that was recognized, Szpilman won the Non Fiction Prize in 2000 (The Story3). He was recognized for his heroism and survival in the Warsaw Ghetto. The only sad thing was “he lived 55 years after his miraculous survival in Nazi-occupied Poland, where millions of Jews were put to death,” and his life was to come to and end (Mazelis 1). Wladyslaw Szpilman died on July sixth, in 2000 in Warsaw, leaving his two sons in awe because he had never mentioned his experiences in the war to them (The Story 2; Newsweek Interview 1).


Although there were many deaths during the war, there were and still are those survivors who lived to tell their stories and remind people of how human beings were treated and that people are not groups of differences; they are living, breathing human beings who are equal.

What the Germans did to the Jews was wrong, and when something is wrong, people have to stand up for what is right. Back then it was very difficult to stand up to the Nazis, but Szpilman did his best to stay strong.

Szpilman was an astonishing and amazing person who tried his hardest to fight for what he believed in, but he was still overpowered by a manipulated monster, the Nazis. Wladyslaw Szpilman lived seven years of his life in the Warsaw Ghetto and experienced and witnessed horrible things that some people can only imagine; he was a survivor and a hero of World War II who will be added to the long list of people who should never be forgotten.

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