Born in 1911, in Sosnowiec, south Poland, Wladyslaw Szpilman studied the piano in Berlin, before embarking on a successful career as a composer and concert pianist for Polish national radio. By the time German bombs fell on Warsaw, he had carved a reputation for himself as something of a musical celebrity.
Living on ul. Śliska when the Nazis invaded Poland, he and his family were imprisoned inside what was to become the biggest ghetto in Europe. Continuing to scrape a living as a musician in the many ghetto cafés, he paints a vivid picture of epidemics, infestations, starvation and overcrowding. Having survived ‘selection’ for so long, Szpilman and his family were finally rounded up on August 16, 1942. Taken to Unmschlagplatz, Szpilman managed to escape the transportations to Treblinka death camp when he was hauled out of a cattle truck by a policeman who had recognized him. The rest of his family were not so lucky.
The remainder of his war days were spent working in a slave-labour unit, building a German barracks on ul. Narbutta 8 (now rundown flats), before escaping and hiding in locations around the city (including ul. Noakowski 10 and ul. Pulawska 83 to mention a few). To this day, all the addresses mentioned remain standing.The dying days of the war saw Szpilman living in increasing despair, weakened by starvation and ill health. He was only saved from certain death when a Nazi officer discovered him scavenging in the ruins and fed and watered him. In a surreal twist of irony, whereas Szpilman resumed his career as a successful composer after the war, his German guardian angel died in the captivity of a Soviet labour camp.
His book was published shortly after the war, originally titled ‘Death of a city’. Censored by the communists Szpilman’s story was soon forgotten, and he continued to ply his trade as a pianist - even founding the Sopot Song Festival in 1961. It was only when his son, Andrzej, discovered his fathers dusty manuscripts that the book was re-published in 1998. Szpilman himself passed away in Warsaw on July 6, 2000.