Szpilman’s Warsaw: The History behind The Pianist
The movie The Pianist is set in Holocaust-era Warsaw and tells the remarkable story of Polish-Jewish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman. Hunger and hiding, resistance both spiritual and violent, conscious choices and sheer luck—all of these played a role in the unlikely survival of Szpilman and the fate of hundreds of thousands of other Jews under Nazi control in Warsaw. Collected here are some of the resources available on the Museum’s website about Wladyslaw Szpilman and the history of Warsaw during the Holocaust.
Born 1911 Sosnowiec, Poland
Died 2000 Warsaw, Poland
Descended from a long line of Polish Jewish musicians, Wladyslaw Szpilman first trained as a pianist at the Chopin School of Music in Warsaw. In 1931 he moved to Germany to further his studies at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. After returning to Warsaw in 1933, he earned a growing reputation as a performer and composer of both classical and popular music. In 1935 he became house pianist for Polish State Radio in Warsaw. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and when enemy bombardment forced the closing of Polish State Radio, Szpilman’s performance of Chopin’s C sharp minor Nocturne was the last live music broadcast. Szpilman continued to concertize and write new music after Warsaw’s Jews were resettled in the ghetto in October 1940. He eventually escaped the ghetto and spent the remainder of the war hiding out, under increasingly harrowing conditions, on the “Aryan” side of the city. Szpilman’s account of his survival, Death of a City, appeared in Polish in 1946. Retitled The Pianist, the book has recently been published in English and several other languages.
Pictured above: Zile Szpilman (seated, 3rd from left); Rivn Szpilman, father of Leo Spellman (seated 4th from left); Yisroel Leyb Szpilman, grandfather of Wladyslaw Szpilman and Leo Spellman (standing top row with bass); Szymon Bajgelman, father of Henry Baigelman (standing far left).
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Most of us never experience extreme circumstances of danger and deprivation—we can’t know what we might do. Below are some questions for contemplation.
- What is the role of an artist in times of profound crisis?
- Many characters in the film are morally ambiguous. Are acts of kindness less worthy when motivated even partially by self-interest? Is film an effective medium for communicating the ethical complexity of these acts?
- What did the Warsaw ghetto uprising accomplish?
- Nazis regularly subjected Jews to public humiliation. How did these actions and experiences fit into the larger process of genocide?