Music in a War-ravaged Polish Ghetto: The Heart-wrenching True Story of ‘The Pianist’

October 22, 2019 Updated: October 31, 2019

On Sept. 23, 1939, the famous Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman was broadcasting live on Warsaw radio when the studio was blown to pieces by invading Nazi troops. Amid dust and rubble, Szpilman and his family were herded into the Warsaw ghetto but were later separated.

Szpilman, alone in the devastated city of Warsaw, engaged in a years-long, torturous game of cat and mouse with the German soldiers. Hidden among the detritus, Szpilman managed to preserve his life; the price he paid was ill-health, starvation, loneliness, and the absence of his beloved piano.

Portrait of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (©Wikimedia Commons)

That was until one day, when a patrolling German soldier discovered the starving Jew and instructed him to reveal his profession. Under a heavy veil of uncertainty inside a dilapidated building in war-torn Warsaw, the next few moments would turn out to be the most profound of Szpilman’s remarkable life.

In his heart-wrenching memoir, Szpilman later documented the moment that his life as a fugitive in his very own city took an extraordinary turn at the hand of the enemy.

A raid on the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw; Jews line up on the streets with their hands above their heads waiting to be searched, September 1942 (©Getty Images | Keystone)

The starving pianist was attempting to cook scraps of foraged food in the ruins of a bombed residence when the German soldier sidled up behind him. Szpilman dropped to the floor, defeated, but when the young soldier asked Szpilman to reveal his profession, the pianist obliged.

There was a piano in the building, miraculously unharmed; at the soldier’s request, Szpilman sat down to play.

“I played Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor,” Szpilman wrote in his memoir. “The glassy, tinkling sound of the untuned strings rang through the empty flat and the stairway, floated through the ruins of the villa on the other side of the street and returned as a muted, melancholy echo.”

Construction of the Warsaw ghetto wall during the German occupation of Poland (©Wikimedia Commons)

“When I had finished,” Szpilman continued, “the silence seemed even gloomier and even 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 looked at me in silence. After a while he sighed, and muttered, ‘All the same, you shouldn’t stay here. I’ll take you out of the city, to a village. You’ll be safer there.’

“I shook my head. ‘I can’t leave this place,’ I said firmly. Only now did he seem to understand my real reason for hiding among the ruins,” Szpilman wrote. The young pianist had revealed his talent but in doing so had also confessed his Jewish heritage.

Jews awaiting deportation at the Umschlagplatz holding area (©Wikimedia Commons)

Szpilman’s fame had spared him the horrors of Auschwitz. After the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, Szpilman had been bound for a train to Treblinka extermination camp among thousands of fellow Warsaw city dwellers. However, the young pianist was recognized in line for the train, dragged to one side, and allowed back into the ruined city to fend for himself.

Szpilman’s family did not survive the war. They eventually met the same fate as the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people killed in the Treblinka gas chambers.

Warsaw, the capital of Poland, destroyed after the war by German Nazis in January 1945 (©Wikimedia Commons | M.Świerczyński)

The young German officer, having heard Szpilman play, reeled with the realization that Szpilman was Jewish. “He started nervously. ‘You’re Jewish?’ he asked. ‘Yes.’ He had been standing with his arms crossed over his chest,” Szpilman wrote in his memoir. “He now unfolded them and sat down in the armchair by the piano, as if this discovery called for lengthy reflection.”

“‘Yes, well,’ he murmured, ‘in that case I see you really can’t leave.’”

Yet rather than exterminating the tormented young pianist on the spot, the German soldier was deeply moved by the magic that emanated from Szpilman’s fingertips. It was a momentary triumph of art over violence, and ultimately, a triumph that would save Szpilman’s life.

Poster advertising events in the Café Nowoczesna in the Warsaw ghetto, 1941; one of the entertainers is Władysław Szpilman (©Wikimedia Commons)

As conditions in the Warsaw ghetto worsened, the German guards ruled with an iron fist, inflicting unimaginable cruelty on the Jewish community. Formerly statuesque buildings crumbled into rubble, and starving children were left to die on the streets.

But the German soldier, who was later identified as Wilm Hosenfeld, brought packages of food to the starving pianist until the day the German troops left Warsaw in January of 1945. Hosenfeld met Szpilman one last time, promised he would listen to him on Polish Radio after the war, and gifted him his warm, heavy coat.

Sadly, the two men were never to meet again; Hosenfeld died in 1952 in Soviet captivity.

Adrien Brody, who acted the role of Wladyslaw Szpilman, arrives at the gala screening of Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” at the Cannes film festival on May 24, 2002 (©Getty Images | ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP)

Szpilman survived until the end of the war by entertaining the Jewish gentry in the Warsaw ghetto until its eventual dissolution. The pianist’s story was later turned into an Academy Award-winning movie by French-Polish director Roman Polanski. A gaunt Adrien Brody played Wladyslaw Szpilman, and the film achieved widespread critical acclaim.

The film’s most horrifying scenes contrasted powerfully with the brief moment of resolution between Szpilman and Hosenfeld. Their climactic confrontation over a piano and an impromptu rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor touched hearts and souls around the world.

French-Polish-born director Roman Polanski poses for photographers after being awarded with the Golden Palm for his film “The pianist” during the closing ceremony of the 55th Cannes film festival May 26, 2002. (©Getty Images | ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP)

Szpilman’s account of the extraordinary encounter is testament to the brave minority who chose to uphold kindness in the face of hatred. It is testament to people like Hosenfeld, who dared to risk their lives and disregard their orders for the sake of finding beauty in the midst of horror.

The revered pianist himself went on to become the head of Polish Radio’s music department. In 1963 he retired from the role in order to devote more time to composing and touring. He became a full-time composer in 1986.

Illustration – Shutterstock | Nomad_Soul

Szpilman died in Warsaw, remaining faithful to the city he loved until the bitter end, on July 6, 2000. He was 88 years old.

In October of 2007, Hosenfeld was posthumously honored by the president of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, with a Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta for his humanitarian conduct.

A starving man, a piano, and a simple command from an enemy soldier demonstrated that even in the darkest depths of despair there is beauty to be found.