This story is autobiographical. It was in September 1939 that Polish Radio’s last live radio broadcast featured Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor played by the young pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, just as the first German bombs were falling. He also played the piece six years later when the war had ended.
He wrote of his experiences after the first performance of the piece when his entire family had been exterminated at the Treblinka death camp but he had survived by pure luck because he was recognised by a guard and stayed on in Warsaw.
Living amongst the rubble, disease and death of the city, often close to starvation, his eventual salvation came from another unusual and lucky break when playing a piano he had found in the bombed-out ruins of a building. A German officer, the sensitive Wilm Hosenfeld, liked his music and saved his life by bringing him food and blankets as he repeatedly played for him.
Hosenfeld later wrote his own story, featuring the horrors of German occupation and the institutional hatred of the Jews. Some three and a quarter million of them were murdered or died of starvation in Poland. He was captured by the Russians and sent to a labour camp where he died. Parts of his own diary is included in the book, showing his revulsion of the inhuman and cruel German hate campaign that he had been part of.
Although the book was originally to be published in Poland in 1946, its reference to the collaboration of parts of the population led to it being banned. It was finally published in 1997 by Szpilman’s son.
Having read this a few times, it still has the power to shock and, in the end, uplift. Yes, it tells of the sadistic and systematic murder of millions of Jews, but in the end the Christian duty of a German officer saves Szpilman as he had saved dozens of others at the risk of his own life.
The film is an accurate version of the book and well worth seeing. There’s little point in my saying more… please read it. It has a message we must not forget.
This review is an updated version of a post first released on the author’s Facebook page in February 2018.