Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Pianist -- Wladyslaw Szpilman -- The Short Book Club

When the shells of the invading Nazis forced the closure of Polish Radio on 23 September 1939, the last live music heard was Wladyslaw Szpilman's performance of Chopin's C sharp minor Nocturne. When broadcasting was resumed in 1945, it was again Szpilman who initiated the transmissions, with the same Chopin nocturne.

This quote comes from the website about Wladyslaw Szpilman which you may wish to explore.

The Pianist, was chosen for our meeting of the Short Book Club last week for the simple reason that the father of one of our younger members is teaching it in a course at the university this semester. He agreed to have dinner with us and give us some perspective on the book.

Peter is a faculty member who specializes in modern Germanic literature. However he has also taught courses in Scandinavian literature and added much to our discussion several years ago when we read an Icelandic novel he was teaching.

Most of you know the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman from the award winning movie, made in 2002 by Roman Polanski from this autobiography, but in fact the book was written at the end of the World War II. In 1945 in fact and it was titled Death of a City. Aged 28 at the beginning of the war and a pianist on Polish Radio he survived in Warsaw from 1939 until the end of the war, in 1945. A truly remarkable feat indeed for he survived not only being confined to the ghetto, but also the Jewish uprising there followed by the Polish uprising in Warsaw and its final destruction as a city. At the beginning of the war there were 3 million Jews in Poland and at the end only 5000.

The Pianist is one of eight books set for the course Peter is teaching on the Holocaust. This is the second time he has taught this course and with 50 students enrolled it is the most popular course by far in the department of Central, Eastern and Northern European Studies (CNES) which of course covers all the European languages, other than the romance languages.

All eight books are written by survivors of the Holocaust and the only other two I had heard of were Primo Levi who wrote If this is a Man, amongst other works and Tadeusz Borowski who documented his experiences in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.

The Pianist
is the first book dealt with in the course since Szpilman describes life in Warsaw before the war. It was written very close to the events and has a kind of amateur truthfulness. He uses a very matter of fact style, with a rather detached manner in fact as he baldly gives a description of the period and the events he lived through. In fact, the film portrays them in a much more emotional way than does the book .

Peter talked about the various ways individual Jews used to survive. As we saw in the book many of the Jews became guards of other Jews and mistreated their fellow men in some very horrific ways. Others were useful as workers in factories and still others worked for the brigade of Jews who met the trains as they arrived at the camps. These guards held the job of taking all the jewellery, belongings and food from those arriving and while they could not keep anything of value they could keep the food and in this way survived.

Although there were concentration camps all throughout German occupied territory, all the killing camps were situated in Poland with Auschwitz the most famous and especially built for the purpose. So another task that allowed Jewish workman to survive was the building of these camps in which their brethren were killed.

Szpilman survived by some extraordinary means, narrowly escaping the deportation and subsequent death of his family. Mostly he existed in hiding, helped by various Polish friends at great risk to themselves and of course finally was helped by the German officer whose name he did not know and only discovered much later.

In Warsaw, after the war, Szpilman continued his career as a pianist on Polish Radio and with the Warsaw Quintet. He died in 2000 just two years before the film was released. After the end of the war, he was a survivor who went on, determined not to let these experiences ruin his life.

In contrast Primo Levi survived his incarceration in Auschwitz by knowing some German and because he was a chemist and useful to the Germans. After the war he continued his life as a chemist and finally as a writer, but in 1987, forty years later, he fell from a balcony to his death which was thought to be suicide. While Borowski, a young poet and writer before the war, who survived both slave labour in Auschwitz and a forced march to Dachau, committed suicide at age 28 by gassing himself.

So now you know what I learned from reading this book and listening to someone who teaches it. I hope you can follow this slightly disorganized summary of my notes. It was a very interesting discussion and although I found the book rather tedious for the first 100 pages, I read the next 120 pages in one sitting, compelled by this man's story. Would I recommend it? As an historical account of course but as a literary work I preferred Elie Wiesel's Night which I wrote about previously.

Our German-Canadian hostess cooked Polish food for dinner, the recipes for which she found on the internet. The food was rather heavy with lots of red cabbage, sauerkraut with sausage and a Polish meatloaf with a hardboiled egg inside, along with pumpernickel bread. However we enjoyed the food and the fellowship we shared over dinner before our book discussion.

Next time we revisit the Muslim world of Afghanistan with another non-fiction book, The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad, which has been on my to-be-read pile for some time.


ipanema said...

great book review for the week jmb. i haven't read the book but loved the film!

Liz said...

It is incredible that anyone survived the holocaust. I was about to say it was unblievable that one people could do that to another but then I remembered that it is still going on.

I haven't heard of the book or the film but I have thought about reading The Bookseller so I'll look forward to reading your review.

Carver said...

I have seen the film but not read the book which is unusual for me as I usually read the book and don't see the film. I'll have to read the book now. Your post is very informative as well as interesting. I also haven't read Night so now I have two more books on my to read list. I always like to be reminded of books I've heard mentioned but haven't read.

Both of my sisters have been in various book clubs and I tend to read the books they are reading as they mail them to me when they are done. Nice to be introduced to books another way too and that way if I buy rather than check them out of the library I can pass some on myself. That would be a more equitable arrangement with my sisters than always being on the receiving end.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thast must have been a very interesting talk. I've seen the film but have not read the book, which I ought to do, though I have read the Levi. I'd be intereseted to know what the other books on the course are.

The Seierstadt [can never spell it] book is fascinating.

Eurodog said...

Try and read Elie Wiesel's autobiographyay. It is in two parts and the first part is ²about his childhood and life in the camps and at the liberation of the camps. The second half is about his life in Israel. I used to be on French TV a lot a few years ago and he is a very charismatic man. On one occasion he talked about his little sister who was deported and who never returned. He was crying whilst telling the story. Very moving.
There is a lot of media coverage on the Holocaust here in Belgium as Antwerp has the largest Jewish community outside Israel.

Eurodog said...

I remember watching the movie with my chidren and they were very disturbed by it because they knew that what they saw had really happened and even much worse things which we cannot comprehend.
Thank you, jmb, fascinating stuff as always.

Liz said...

Such a coincidence! On BBC Radio 4 they just previewed their Saturday afternoon play - which is based on The Pianist!

You can probbaly listen online or download it if you wanted. Check out

Liz said...

Ellee said...

I've seen the film, but not read the book, it was so haunting. A good one for you review.

I'm thinking of joining a bookclub, I need to read more.

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

I found warsaw a very interesting city.
A mixture of old Hansel and Gretel type Central europe and Ministry of truth architecture.

Lovely little underground cafes, too.

Josie said...

Wow, what an interesting post. I have always been fascinated with that period in history, and now my Munchkin is interested in it as well. Right now he reading "the Diary of Anne Frank. He reads as much as he can, and he asks me, "How on earth could something like that happen?" The film "The Pianist" was wonderful, but I didn't know it was a book first.

I had a very good friend whose mother escaped from a concentration camp, and she showed me the tattoo on her arm. Her husband didn't escape, and she later remarried and came to Canada. Both her children are quite well-known Vancouver lawyers.

Very interesting post!

jmb said...

Hi ipanema,
I think the film gave a very good version of the book. It is hard to read for it surely is upsetting.

Hi Liz,
You might like to rent the film and skip the book Lee, although it was very riveting on the whole.

Hi Carver,
I did not know it was a book until it was set for book club. Night is a wonderful book, very short but powerful reading.

Peter definitely gave us a lot of information about the period. The three books I mentioned were on the course but when I looked online to see if I could see the others I couldn't find them.

Hi Eurodog,
I read Night as I said but I'll have to find out what the other book is called here. Wiesel is a great writer.

Hi Liz,
That's interesting I'll check it out. Often you can't get those programs if you are outside the UK. I couldn't get the last one you recommended because of this policy they have.

Hi Ellee,
No doubt it's an important book although dry at the beginning. He is no writer but it is full of facts and it was written close to the events. I am in a Book Circulating Club and this one. I was in another but it folded after about 7 or 8 years for various reasons.

Hi Crushed,
Lucky you if you went recently. A friend went 35 years ago to a conference and said it was awful there. The hotels were bad and the food was bad. I'm sure it's better now.

Hi Josie,
As I said Josie, I didn't know either. When it came out in Poland it was suppressed and went out of print but of course reissued much later in English.
Soon all those people will be dead and the only way to remember them will be by these books and movies made from them.

Thank you all for visiting and commenting.

Janice Thomson said...

I have a hard time with books like these though I have read a couple. The slaughter of so many people both then and now is mind-boggling. The fact that we did not learn then and are still slaughtering people today is something this little old brain has a hard time getting a handle on.
People are worried that a nuclear bomb might eliminate the whole world yet don't seem to feel as strongly about the mindless slaughter of men, women and children still going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. The human race does not seem to learn from its past. I wonder what it will take before it does.

Lee said...

A great post, jmb. :)

jmb said...

Hi Janice,
Books of this type are not easy to read but I do think they are important for they are our history and we must never forget.
I think we do learn, just not all of us and maybe the lessons are not as entrenched as we would like.

Hi Lee,
Thank you.
regards to you both.

Jeremy Jacobs said...

Interesting Post.

Sen. Peter Higham Paul said...

I often try to imagine myself into those situations as I think we're going to be there again sooner or later. I just can't conceptualize it.