Władysław Szpilman was a Polish-Jewish pianist, composer, and memoirist. Szpilman is widely known as the protagonist of the Roman Polanski film The Pianist, which is based on his memoir of the same name recounting how he survived the Holocaust. In November 1998 Władysław Szpilman was honoured by the president of Poland with a Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta.
Władysław Szpilman began his study of the piano at the Chopin School of Music in Warsaw, Poland then later went to the Academy of Arts in Berlin, Germany in 1931. After Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany in 1933, he returned to Warsaw, where he quickly became a celebrated pianist and composer of both classical and popular music. Szpilman composed many pieces and soundtracks while touring Poland with his accompanying violinist, Bronislav Gimpel.
On April 1, 1935 Władysław Szpilman joined Polish Radio, where he worked as a pianist performing classical and jazz music, until the German invasion of Poland reached Warsaw on September 1, 1939, and Polskie Radio was forced off the air. The Nazi-led General Government established ghettos in many Polish cities, including Warsaw. However, Szpilman and his family did not need to find a new residence since their flat was already in the ghetto area. He continued to work as a pianist in restaurants in the ghetto. Through his piano playing, he was able to earn barely enough to support the family of six (his father, his mother, his two sisters, one brother and himself).
Wladyslaw Szpilman and his family, along with all other Jews living in Warsaw, were forced to move into a "Jewish District" known as the Warsaw Ghetto on October 31, 1940. Once all the Jews were confined within the ghetto, a wall was constructed to separate them from the rest of the city. Within the ghetto Szpilman had to work in order to support his family which included his mother, father, brother Henryk, and two sisters Regina and Halina. He found work playing piano first in the Nowoczesna cafe where the attendants did not pay his playing any attention. He later played in a cafe on Sienna Street and also the Sztuka Cafe on Leszno Street. In these last two cafes he met many new friends and performed with other musicians as well. Life in the ghetto was straining on everyone, but especially the poor. People were already dying from starvation and lack of shelter, but there was also the threat of disease due to the unsanitary conditions. Lice were prevalent and served as vectors for Rickettsia prowazekii, the bacterium responsible for epidemic typhus.
Everyone in his family was deported in 1942 to Treblinka, an extermination camp in the East. Władysław Szpilman managed to flee from the transport loading site (Umschlagplatz) with the help of a family acquaintance who grabbed him from the crowd and shooed him away from the waiting train. His name was Itzchak Heller and he worked as a Jewish policeman in the ghetto. None of Szpilman's family members survived the war. Szpilman was left in the ghetto as a laborer and helped smuggle in weapons for the coming Jewish resistance uprising. He avoided capture and death by the Germans several times. Szpilman remained in the Warsaw Ghetto until it was abolished after the deportation of most of its inhabitants and went into hiding.
As set out in his memoir, Władysław Szpilman found places to hide in Warsaw and survived with the help of his friends from Polish Radio and fellow musicians. In November 1944, Szpilman was hiding out in an abandoned building when he was found by a German officer. Surprisingly, the officer did not kill Szpilman, but instead after finding out that he was a pianist, asked Szpilman to play for him on a piano they had found. After that, the officer showed Szpilman a better place to hide and brought him bread and jam on numerous occasions. He also offered Szpilman one of his coats to keep warm in the freezing temperatures. Szpilman did not identify the German officer until 1950. His name was Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. Despite the efforts of Szpilman and the Poles to rescue Hosenfeld, he died in a Soviet Prisoner of War camp in 1952.
Wladyslaw Szpilman started playing for Polish Radio in 1935 as their house pianist. In 1939, he was in the middle of broadcasting when German fire was opened on the studio and he was forced to stop playing. This was the last live music broadcast that was heard until the war's end. When Szpilman resumed his job at Polish Radio in 1945, he did so by carrying on where he left off six years before: poignantly, he opened the first transmission by playing Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor (Lento con gran espressione), the same piece he was playing as the German bombs hit the studios of Polish Radio, interrupting its broadcast on 23 September 1939.
From 1945 to 1963 Władysław Szpilman was director of the Music Department at Polish Radio. During this period he composed several symphonic works and about 500 songs, still popular in Poland today, as well as music for radio plays and films.
Władysław Szpilman's compositions include Pianosuite Life of the Machines 1932, Violin Concerto 1933, Waltzer in the Olden Style 1937, Soundtracks Swit, dzien i noc Palestyny (1934) Wrzos (1937) and Dr. Murek (1939), Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1940), Paraphrase on Own Themes (1948) Ouverture for Symphonic Orchestra (1968) and more. In the 1950’s he wrote about 40 songs for children, for which he received an award from the Polish Composers Union in 1955. From 1935 to 1972 he wrote about 500 popular songs. More than 100 of these are very well-known as hits and evergreens in Poland. In 1961 he initiated and organized Sopot International Song Festival in Poland and founded the Polish Union of Authors of Popular Music.
Władysław Szpilman also performed as a soloist and with violinists Bronislav Gimpel, Roman Totenberg, Ida Haendel and Henryk Szeryng. In 1963, Szpilman and Gimpel founded the Warsaw Piano Quintet, with which Szpilman performed worldwide until 1986.
In 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, Władysław Szpilman n wrote a memoir about his survival in Warsaw. He published the book, Śmierć Miasta (Death of a City), soon suppressed by the Stalinist Polish authorities. Following the de-Stalinization period of the 1950’s, the book was published and printed to a greater extent. Few copies of the book were printed initially, and the nationality of Wilm Hosenfeld was changed to Austrian. In 1998, Szpilman’s son Andrzej republished his father’s work, first in German as Das wunderbare Überleben (The miraculous survival) by the Ullstein Verlag, a major German publishing house, and then in English as The Pianist. In March 1999 Władysław Szpilman visited London for Jewish Book Week, where he met English readers to mark the publication of his bestselling book in England. It was later published in more than 30 languages. Szpilman died in Warsaw on July 6, 2000 at the age of 88. In 2002, Roman Polanski directed a screen version, also called The Pianist, but Szpilman died before the film was completed. The movie won three Academy Awards, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Best Film Award, and the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Szpilman's son Andrzej compiled and released a CD with the most popular songs Władysław Szpilman had composed under the title Wendy Lands Sings the Songs of the Pianist (Universal Music). Other CD’s with the works of Szpilman include “Works for Piano and Orchestra by Władysław Szpilman” with Ewa Kupiec (piano), John Axelrod (director), and the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester-Berlin (2004) (Sony BMG) and the Original recordings of The Pianist and “Władysław Szpilman - Legendary recordings” (Sony classical).