Wladyslaw Szpilman,
The Pianist
(1945; Picador, 2003)

The Pianist, now an award-winning movie directed by Roman Polanski, is not an easy book to read; all the same it tells a tale that we need to hear. Wladyslaw Szpilman initially wrote this shortly after the end of World War II and in it he tells of his experiences in Warsaw during the war. There are extracts from another journal also included with his writings, but I'll get to that later.

Szpilman spent the entire war in Warsaw, and his writings cover from the German invasion until the Russians drove the Germans out. What makes the book so hard to read is that he does not leave things out. He puts what he saw, what he perceived and felt into words.

His own words show this best, "The wall under which the corpses lay showed clear traces of bloodstains and brain tissue. The children had been murdered by the favourite German method: seized by the legs, their heads swung violently against the wall." That is how he portrays everything. This happened, that happened, this is what we feared, this was our routine and so forth. It is only after he has been smuggled out of the ghetto, shortly before the uprising in the ghetto, that the portrayal of this casual brutality ends. Or comes close to ending, as it still plays a role in the rest of what happens.

There are a couple of other details that he includes that are worth mentionings, such as the Jewish policeman who pulled Szpilman out of the crowd when his family was shipped out to a camp, and the German soldier of whom Szpilman wrote, "perhaps that German -- the one human being wearing the German uniform that I met -- perhaps he got safely home again."

Unfortunately, such was not to be the fate of Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, who would die in a Russian prisoner of war camp. Some of the journals that he wrote during the war are included. While he makes no reference to Szpilman in them, one can clearly see why he chose to act as he did.

The Pianist is a must-read, a reminder of what must not be forgotten. There will likely be times that it will make you want to put the book down and walk away from the story it tells, the details it includes.

Just make sure you pick it up again and read it through.

- Rambles
written by Paul de Bruijn
published 26 June 2004

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