Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 20, 2009

The Pianist, by Wladyslaw Szpilman (1946), read by Stephen Greif, translated by Anthea Bell

The Pianist DVD

I did not realise when I borrowed this audio-book from the library that it was the book on which the Oscar-winning film was made, but it turned out to be rivetting.  The Pianist: the Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw: 1939-1945  is the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman who survived the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto through extraordinary luck.

Luck seems to be an inappropriate word to use in this context, and yet I have seen so many writers documenting the Holocaust, from Primo Levi to local Makor Project authors,  who comment that survival was, more often than not, merely a matter of luck.  There was a systematic and efficient extermination program, and evading what was otherwise inevitable was so often a matter of a German whim, of fortuitous location, or of momentary lapses in the efficiency of the murderous regime.  So it is in this memoir, written not long after liberation.  Szpilman survives against all odds not because he is quick-witted, or determined, brave or strategic.   The-PianistIt was just luck.  He survived only because a policemen who loved music recognised him and so let him step aside from the deportation to the death camp at Treblinka; because of a series of lucky escapes as he fled from one risky refuge to another; and because in the last days of the German retreat he met an atypical German officer who brought him food and clothing.

What makes this account so vivid is that Szpilman wrote it not long after liberation, in 1946.  His memories of fear, hunger and emotional deprivation are palpable.  It is as if he is still in shock, still in disbelief at the enormity of the Holocaust.  During the war he had no way of knowing that what was happening to Warsaw Jews was happening all over Europe; and he still must have had some vestige of hope that some of his family had survived.  When in the film he steps out of his refuge to the devastated streets full of rubble, he is dwarfed by the destruction he sees, but this is as nothing compared to the loss of his family, his home and his culture.

The Soviets suppressed this work but it was translated at the end of the Cold War.   The 2003 film, The Pianist was directed by Roman Polanski and starred Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, and Emilia Fox.

There were 3,500,000 Jews in Poland before the Nazi occupation;  there were just 240,000 after the war.  Many of those few who returned were repulsed with violence by Poles who had taken over their homes and remaining belongings.  It is profoundly shocking to see that YouTube videos about the Holocaust are accompanied by hate mail comments…

Author: Wladyslaw Szpilman
Title: The Pianist
Publisher: ISIS Audio Books (2006)
ISBN: 9780753126332
Source: Kingston Library

Fishpond (book, the audio book seems unavailable): The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45


  1. Did you see the film. It was rivetting. I have often thought I would like to read the book…and it sounds as though it would be worthwhile.


    • Yes, we did. I’ve never forgotten that concluding shot. I don’t often recommend an audio book over the text, but Greif is a superb narrator, and it was very powerful. Lisa


  2. Yes, it was powerful wasn’t it? I really don’t listen to audiobooks BUT I do have Gould’s book of fish ready to take to Central Australia next month. Last time I listened to audiobooks was, I think, during our last trip to the Centre. Many hours of driving there…LOL


    • Well your iPod would be the thing to take in the car…load it up with audio books!

      I’m going to miss chatting with you – how long will you be away? Lisa


  3. Yes, I probably will load it onto the iPod along with some podcasts I think. Not for 5 weeks yet (last week of July)…and just for 10 days. Last time we drove, but this time we are flying. Will let you know – I enjoy our chatting too. Anyhow, good night for now…off to bed…


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