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The Pianist: fiction and nonfiction

Jeremy Bernstein

When Warsaw fell to the Germans on Sept. 28, 1939, effectively ending Polish resistance, it is estimated that there were about 3.5 million Jews living in Poland. When the war ended, some 200,000 were still alive. Among the survivors were Roman Polanski and Wladyslaw Szpilman.

Polanski, who will turn 70 in August, was a young boy while Szpilman, who died in the year 2000 at the age of 88 in Warsaw, was in his 30s. Like the rest of the Jewish survivors, both men had good luck, determination and the help of others. If a Pole was caught hiding a Jew, not only was he or she killed, but so was the entire family. Nonetheless, heroic Poles hid Jews, including Polanski and Szpilman.

Polanski was from Krakow, while Szpilman, a pianist and composer, was from Warsaw. The two men first met in Los Angeles in 1967, and then many years later in Warsaw. At this time Polanski optioned Szpilman’s account of his wartime experience for a film.

The first version of Szpilman’s memoir, entitled “Death of a City,” was written in Polish and published in 1946. It was then never reprinted for more than a half century. The new version, “The Pianist,” was published in English in 1999. There were attempts to bring it out in Poland and Germany in the interim but they were always blocked by censorship of one kind or another.

Seeing Polanski’s film, or reading the journal, is a shattering experience, but it is not the same experience, and that is what I want to discuss. Polanski has not produced a documentary, although what he puts on the screen is based on what actually happened. But much is left out, and what remains is sometimes enhanced or distorted in the interest of telling a story.

Polanski’s film begins and ends with the war. We are not told what happened before or afterward. I think this makes some of it less comprehensible than it might have been.

For example, we are not told that Szpilman had studied the piano with Artur Schnabel in Berlin, leaving Germany only when Hitler came to power in 1933. This explains two things which are puzzling in the film. There is a crucial moment – I will discuss it more fully later – in which speaking German appears essential to Szpilman’s survival. We are offered no explanation of how Szpilman acquired this skill.

The second is something that both the book and the film have in common. There is no sense of hatred towards Germans. That is left for the viewer or reader. He never speaks of revenge. When he was asked about this he responded, “When I was a young man I studied music for two years in Berlin. I just can’t make the Germans out . they were so extremely musical!”

In his own strange way, Szpilman has put his finger on something very profound, something that is left out of the film. It is not clear how it could have been included without distorting its shape. In the film there are only two kinds of Germans – vicious, physically repulsive sadists or, in one case, a radiantly good-looking army officer – the one who saved Szpilman’s life.

The deeply disturbing thing about the Holocaust is that it was largely carried out by perfectly ordinary people. I will never forget a photograph of an SS officer in the process of shooting Polish Jews who had been forced to dig their own graves. The scene was being witnessed by his fiancee, who had come for the entertainment. They looked like the sort of couple you might see taking a Sunday picnic in a park.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the Holocaust, it is that there is a residue of evil in most of us and, if this is manipulated, any one of us might become this officer. I do not say this to excuse the Germans for what they did. There is no excuse possible. I am only saying that this lesson is one you will not learn from Polanski’s film.

The film and the book begin in different places. The film begins with Szpilman giving a Chopin recital on Polish National Radio on Sept. 23, 1938 – the last live concert on Polish radio until the end of the war (the film ends with Szpilman returning to the same recital and then playing a concerto with an orchestra). The recital is interrupted by the bombing of the city. The rest of the film proceeds chronologically.

The book begins at the sealing of the Warsaw Ghetto in November 1940. After that date any Jew caught trying to leave the ghetto was to be shot on sight. It then works backward to the events that led up to this. The film can only suggest what life in the ghetto was like.

In fact, for some time there were two ghettos. There was a “small” ghetto in which the more prosperous Jews like the Szpilmans lived and a “large” ghetto which had been packed with poverty-stricken Jews moved from wherever they had lived. There was only one passage between these ghettos that the Germans opened and closed on various whims. One of the memorable scenes in the film – and the book – was that of German policemen forcing arbitrarily created couples, including cripples, to dance to ever faster music until they dropped from exhaustion.

I don’t think the film, although it makes a valiant attempt, fully captures the life in the ghetto. In the beginning it was fairly normal. The wealthier Jews frequented restaurants and cafes. Indeed, Szpilman’s book begins by describing how he supported his family by playing in these cafes. This is also shown in the film.

What is not conveyed is what the crowding of the ghetto meant in terms of people’s health. The ghetto was so crowded that when anyone went out on the street, say to shop, it was impossible not to collide with other people. This meant that lice, which were ubiquitous, passed from person to person constantly. These lice carried typhus, from which many people died. Szpilman describes how his mother and father and his two sisters and brother constantly tried to pick lice off each other.

He also notes that if one had enough money one could buy a dose of anti-typhus vaccine. He had enough for one dose, but decided not to buy it for himself since he could not afford to vaccinate his entire family. Considering what was going to be their fate, no amount of vaccine would have been enough. I don’t think Polanski’s film fully depicts the squalor, which got worse and worse as the ghetto became more crowded. No film can convey the stench, much of it from dead bodies.

Until the summer of 1942, it was not clear to Szpilman, or anyone else, exactly what the Germans had in mind. There were raids in which people were taken off and shot but these appeared to be haphazard events involving relatively small numbers.

But then there was a change. The Germans began a systematic attempt to liquidate the ghetto completely. By this time the extermination camps at places like Auschwitz and Treblinka were operational. They were first tested out on Poles picked at random off the street.

A physics colleague of mine, Jacques Prentki, was picked up in such a raffle. He escaped by jumping from the boxcar of the slowly moving train taking him to one of these camps. He told me that when he got back to Warsaw he was ready to kill the first German he saw.

In the summer of 1942, the wholesale deportation of ghetto Jews began. At the border of the ghetto there was what was known as the Umschlagplatz – the transshipment place. Jews were forcibly driven to this assembly point at a railway siding, where boxcars carried them to the death camps. Any that resisted were killed on the spot. There were Jews who aided in this process in the hope that they could buy a few more days or weeks of life. They, too, were eventually exterminated. Some were even executed by Jewish resistance fighters, once the resistance in the ghetto got organized.

Later the Germans brought in Ukrainians to help with this grim work, and Szpilman writes that these people were even worse than the Germans. Perhaps the most harrowing part of the film – and the book – is Szpilman’s description of his family’s displacement to the Umschlagplatz, which occurred on Aug. 16, 1942.

To picture the scene one must imagine people packed into a small area in midsummer with no food and water. Szpilman describes a place that was avoided. It had bodies piled into it, including children who had had their skulls smashed when they had been seized by the legs and swung violently against a wall. The film leaves out this detail. It does include a woman who kept repeating “Why did I do it?” This refers to the fact that she had smothered her baby accidentally to keep it from revealing their hiding place. As it was dying, the baby made enough noise so that the Germans found the rest of the family.

At one point Szpilman’s family was able to scrape together enough money to buy from a boy who was selling them at very high prices – what he planned to do with the money one cannot imagine – a single cream caramel that Szpilman’s father divided into six parts. It was their last meal together. Then it was their turn to be herded into the cattle cars.

Szpilman writes, “We had gone half way down the train when I suddenly heard someone shout, `Here! Here, Szpilman! A hand grabbed me by the collar, and I was flung back and out of the police cordon.” A Jewish policeman had pulled him out of the line, but Szpilman’s reaction was to try to break through the wall of police and rejoin his family. He was able to shout to his father but could not reach him. That was the last time he ever saw his family. One of the Jewish policemen said to an SS officer in German, “Well, off they go for meltdown.”

To understand the rest of the book – and the film – one must have some understanding of the German invasion of Poland. This you will not find in the film. This invasion was qualitatively different from, say, the German invasion of France or Denmark. These countries had cultures for which the Germans had some respect. Their goal, apart from pacifying the populations, was to persuade them of the superiority of Germany and the German way of life. With Poland something completely different was intended.

Polish culture was to be eliminated, and the Poles were to be reduced to drones to be exported to Germany to work as slaves and then disposed of. Hitler put it clearly when he wrote, “It is essential that the great German people consider as its major task to destroy all Poles.”

Hans Frank, the lawyer whom Hitler had named as the governor general of Poland in 1939, put it somewhat differently. He said, “You must not kill the cow you want to milk. However, the Reich wants to milk the cow . and kill it.” He managed to do both, for which he was tried at Nuremberg and hanged.

This German goal had the effect of radicalizing the Polish population and putting them in the same position as the Jews. There was, and is, a considerable undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Poland, but during the war much of this was muted in face of a common threat. This, I believe, is one of the reasons why so many Poles risked their lives trying to save Jews and why some of them risked their lives to save Szpilman.

After escaping from this deportation, Szpilman returned to the ghetto, or what was left of it. He was too demoralized to try to flee – and to where? When he finally did escape, it was carefully prepared.

Labor in the ghetto was organized by a Jewish Council, the members of which collaborated with the Germans until they, too, were exterminated. Through someone he knew on the council, Szpilman was assigned to various jobs involving manual labor for which he was totally unsuited. He managed to help smuggle arms into the ghetto and came very close to being caught. As the days went on, the Jews doing this work were divided into groups, some of which were slated for deportation. It became clear to Szpilman that it was only a matter of time before he, too, would be deported and that he must find a way to escape.

In the film, Polanski gives the impression that one could simply walk out of the ghetto so long as one could meld into the general population. As I have said, any Jew caught leaving the ghetto was immediately executed. Escape required careful planning. There were couriers to the underground, both inside and outside the ghetto, who were skilled at finding their way in and out. One of them contacted a couple – the Boguckis, he an actor and she a singer – to set up such a plan. Much is made of them in the film, although in the book they play a cameo, albeit crucial, role.

What happened, Szpilman tells us, is that he was able to slip out of the ghetto by joining a group of non-Jewish workers who had been working in the same project just as they were leaving. Bogucki was waiting for him at a prearranged place and led him to an unused artist’s studio where he could hide, at least for a short while. He was ultimately relocated in a bachelor’s flat where he was brought food twice a week. He also received news through the underground newspapers that flourished in Warsaw.

It was from these papers that Szpilman learned about the uprising of the Jews in the ghetto that began on April 19, 1943, and lasted a month before it was put down. In the film, Polanski locates Szpilman’s flat in sight of the ghetto, so that he witnesses the uprising from close at hand. In the book he tells us that if he leaned out his window he could see firelight on the distant horizon in the direction of the ghetto. Polanski could not resist the temptation of showing Jews fighting back when they had the chance.

In August, Szpilman’s hiding place was discovered by his neighbors and he had to flee for his life. Once again he found temporary refuge with courageous Poles who risked their lives by taking him in until they helped find his last prearranged hiding place – a large flat in a quarter occupied mainly by Germans. Here he remained until August 1944, when the Warsaw uprising began.

This revolt had been in the offing for several years but had to wait until the Russians were at the outskirts of Warsaw. The underground army consisted of about 25,000 men, of whom only some 2,500 were armed. The Germans had about 16,000 well-armed troops who were reinforced as the rebellion proceeded.

By Aug. 7 Warsaw was on fire. Hitler ordered the city to be reduced to rubble. Szpilman could watch some of this from his flat until, on Aug. 12, he learned the Germans were about to shell the building. With his building on fire, Szpilman decided to kill himself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills, which a doctor had given him to alleviate the pain of a liver ailment he had contracted. He lay down on his sofa expecting to die. But he didn’t.

The next morning he awoke and struggled to get out of his burning building. In the total chaos he went to the now-empty German hospital across the street, hoping to find food and water. He managed to locate some filthy water in buckets that were to be used in case of fire, along with some moldy crusts of bread. It soon became clear that it was not safe to stay, since the Germans kept returning to search the place. For several weeks he scavenged among the hulks of buildings until he finally found shelter in the ruins of a bungalow that had once been part of an estate. Here he was nearly apprehended and had to flee to a nearby villa where he lived in attic.

It was now November and, in addition to everything else, Szpilman was freezing. He was in the process of searching for food when, as he writes, “I was so absorbed in my search that I never heard anything until a voice right behind me said, `What on earth are you doing here?’ A tall elegant German officer was leaning against the kitchen dresser, his arms crossed over his chest. `What are you doing here?’ he repeated. `Don’t you know the staff of the Warsaw commando unit is moving into this building any time now?'”

With this, the most extraordinary moment in the film, and the book, begins.

Szpilman collapsed on a chair and said to the officer, “Do what you like with me. I’m not moving from here.” The officer assured him that he had no intention of doing anything to him and asked him what he did for a living. Szpilman said that he was a pianist. Then something occurs that is surely one of the great moments in film, and in the book. The officer demands that Szpilman follow him to the next room where there is a piano, and demands that he play something.

Szpilman is terrified that the SS will hear but the officer assures him that he will tell them he was trying out the piano. Szpilman sits down to the piano, which had been too long exposed to the open air. He had not played for two and half years and his fingers were covered with a thick layer of dirt.

He writes, “I played Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor. The glassy tinkling sound of the untuned strings rang through the empty flat and the stairway, floated through the ruins of the city and returned as a muted melancholy echo. When I had finished, the silence seemed even gloomier and more eerie than before. A cat mewed in a street somewhere. I heard a shot down below outside the building – a harsh, loud German noise.”

The officer offers to take Szpilman out of the city where he will be safer. Szpilman says he can’t go. Now the officer realizes that Szpilman must be Jewish. He asks him where he had been hiding and accompanies Szpilman to his hiding place. He notices that above the attic there is a loft with a ladder that can be pulled up once one has climbed it. He tells Szpilman that this is where he must hide. He asks him if he has had anything to eat – the answer is no – and he offers to bring food.

Szpilman is so surprised that he asks the officer if he is really German. He is told that he is, and is ashamed of it. Three days later he returns with food. On Dec. 12 the officer comes back for the last time. He is leaving Warsaw with his detachment.

Szpilman tells him that if he survives he will once again be working for Polish radio and he tells him that his name is “Szpilman.” Polanski cannot resist a German pun and has the officer say “`Spielmann’ is a good name for a pianist” (“Spielen” means to play in German). This is not in the book and it is not even made clear whether the conversation took place in German. It turned out that this remarkable soldier had taught himself Polish. The last thing that Szpilman says to him is to remember his name in case there is anything he can ever do for him. They never met again. In the book Szpilman says that he did not ask for the name of the officer because he was afraid that if he had been captured and tortured he might have given it away.

In the film we see a ragged column of Poles returning to Warsaw. They pass a field enclosed with barbed wire containing captured Germans. They spit on them but a worn, ragged, officer approaches the barbed wire and says that he had helped Szpilman and now needs his help. He tries to shout his name, but he cannot be heard. This is how the film ends except for the final concert.

There are a couple of captions. The first one notes that Szpilman died in Warsaw in the year 2000 at the age of 88.

The second one reveals the name of the officer – Wilm Hosenfeld – and says that he died in a Soviet prison camp in 1952. It adds that nothing more is known about him. This statement is completely wrong. A great deal is known about Hosenfeld. In fact, in the book a section is devoted to Hosenfeld’s diary – a remarkable document – and there is an epilogue by the German writer Wolf Biermann, who was responsible for the new edition of Szpilman’s memoir in Germany.

Biermann tells us a good deal about Hosenfeld and there are numerous German language Web sites with a great deal more. He seems to have become something of a folk hero in Germany. I can offer no explanation as to why Polanski chose to ignore all this. Even if he did not know some of it while he was making the film, this is something he could add.

Wilm Hosenfeld was born on May 2, 1895, in Rhoendorf Mackenzell, the fourth of six children in a very religious Catholic family. His father was a teacher. Hosenfeld himself served in World War I, in which he was wounded three times. Like his father, he became a teacher, and in 1920 he married Annemarie Krummacher, the daughter of a painter. They had five children.

In the film, something that looks like a family photograph is shown on Hosenfeld’s desk. It went by too fast for me to see how many children there were. The remarkable thing is that he joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and became a Storm Trooper. When World War II came he was considered too old for active service but was assigned to Warsaw as an Oberfeldcommndantur in charge of the sports facilities the Germans had seized.

When the extracts from his diary begin, it is 1942, and he is already thoroughly disillusioned by his fellow countrymen (by the way, a photograph taken of him at this time shows a remarkably elegant-looking man). On Jan. 18, 1942, he writes, “Hitler says he is offering the world peace, but at the same time he is arming in a disturbing manner. He tells the world he has no intention of incorporating other nations into the German state and denying them the right to their own sovereignty, but what about the Poles and the Serbs? Especially in Poland. There can be no need to rob a nation of sovereignty in its own self-contained area of settlement.”

By April he informs us that while he is spending peaceful days in the College of Physical Education, he is not happy. He is beginning to see the atrocities that are being carried out by his fellow Germans. He is aware of Auschwitz and the fact that people are being gassed there.

An entry written on Aug. 13, 1942, three days before Szpilman’s family was deported, a few weeks after Hosenfeld had learned that Jews were being systematically exterminated in concentration camps, he writes, “You can’t help wondering again and again how there can be such riffraff among our own people. Have the criminals and lunatics been let out of the prisons and asylums and sent here to act as bloodhounds? No, it’s people of some prominence in the state who have taught their otherwise countrymen to act like this. Evil and brutality lurk in the human heart. If they are allowed to develop freely they flourish, putting out dreadful offshoots, the kind of ideas necessary if the Jews and Poles are to be murdered like this.”

A year later he writes, “These brutes think we shall win the war that way. But we have lost the war with this appalling mass murder of the Jews. We have brought shame upon ourselves that cannot be wiped out; it’s a curse that cannot be lifted. We deserve no mercy; we are all guilty.”

But Hosenfeld was not content with Jeremiah-like lamentations. He began to act. His saving of Szpilman was not an isolated act. It was the last of several. Some are documented in Mr. Biermann’s epilogue.

One of them involved a Polish Jew named Leon Wurm. In 1950, he went to visit the Hosenfelds in West Germany. He learned from Hosenfeld’s wife that, in 1946, she had received a postcard from her husband from a Soviet prison camp with a list of names of people who might help. Szpilman was one of them.

This was the first time that Szpilman learned the name of that German officer. He immediately went to the head of the Polish secret police, a man named Jakub Berman who he despised. He told Berman not only his own story but that of the others. Berman was impressed and tried to help, but the Russians would not let Hosenfeld go. On Aug. 8, 1952, Hosenfeld, now suffering from extreme depression, died in the prison camp where he had been held. He was 57.

Szpilman resumed his career on Polish radio. He continued to compose music and resumed a musical partnership with the Polish violinist Bronislav Gimpel. In 1957, they toured West Germany and took the opportunity to visit Hosenfeld’s widow. She gave him a picture of her husband.

When Biermann was preparing the new edition of Szpilman’s book, he spoke to Szpilman about Hosenfeld. Szpilman said he had never discussed it with anyone, including his wife and two sons. “Why not, you ask? Because I was ashamed,” ashamed that he had not succeeded in saving the life of the man who had saved his.

Jeremy Bernstein is a theoretical physicist, film buff and writer who splits his time between Aspen and New York.


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