An interview with Halina Szpilman, widow of Władysław Szpilman
Roman Polański’s 2002 film “The Pianist” received a plethora of well-deserved awards, including three Oscars and the coveted Palm d’Or at Cannes, and has since become a staple of historical cinema. It shows the Nazi occupation of Warsaw – the first bombs falling on the city in 1939; the herding of the city’s Jewish population into a ghetto, its liquidation and brave but tragic uprising; the city-wide Warsaw Uprising, when Varsovians stood up against the occupying Germans while the Red Army sat on the other side of the Vistula, urging them to fight while consciously failing to aid them; and the subsequent destruction that bruised Poland’s capital more than any city during the Second World War – through the eyes of Władysław Szpilman, a Polish pianist of Jewish ancestry, who survived due to good luck, a strong will to live, and the help of brave and selfless people.
Polański himself was a guest at the Szpilmans’ house when he was in Warsaw for the Polish premiere of his 1999 horror The Ninth Gate starring Johnny Depp, with music written by compatriot Wojciech Kilar, a friend of the Szpilman family. Ms. Szpilman recalls Polański and her husband chatting and joking for hours, yet the latter never thought about making a film about him. In fact, he wasn’t even aware of Szpilman’s wartime experiences.
Since the collapse of Communism and fading of censorship in Poland in 1989, Polański had long wanted to make a film in Poland for the first time since 1962, when he left the country after his Knife in the Water propelled the young filmmaker to the cover of Time magazine and had him leave for the West. He was particularly in making a film dealing with the country’s experiences under Communism or Nazi and Soviet occupation.
Polański himself survived the Krakow Ghetto and the rest of the war hiding among Polish Gentile peasants who took him in, so Szpilman’s experiences were close to the director. Sometime after the visit to the Szpilman home, Polański received a call from a friend who had stumbled across The Pianist at a London airport bookstore. He said he had the perfect material for his next film.
Indeed, while non-Polish viewers know of Władysław Szpilman mostly for The Pianist, he was a true star of post-war Polish cultural life. Polański’s film ends with Szpilman (played by Adrian Brody, but the hands playing the piano were those of Polish musician Janusz Olejniczak) playing Chopin’s Grand Polonaise Brillante Op. 22 in front of a large audience. The credits inform the viewer that “Władysław Szpilman continued to live in Warsaw until his death on July 6th 2000. He was 88 years old.” However, most non-Poles are not aware of how big a name he was in post-war Poland.
From 1945 to 1963, Władysław Szpilman was the popular music director of Polish Radio, and afterwards headed the Warsaw Quintet, consisting of him and four alternating string musicians, that toured the world. At an age before CNN and the BBC, the Poles had to go to the cinemas to watch the Polish Film Chronicle, which showed the world’s latest events. Szpilman composed the signal to it. In addition to composing much classical music, Władysław Szpilman wrote over 500 pop songs, many of which have become staples of Polish music and were performed by such chart-topping artists as Violetta Villas, Ewa Bem and Irena Santor.
If Władysław Szpilman were alive today, he would be 102 years old. However, in 1950 he married a much younger woman, Halina Grzecznarowska, who is presently 86, a retired rheumatologist. Her father Józef was the mayor of Radom, a mid-sized Polish city, before the outbreak of the war, and survived the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. The Szpilmans have two sons, a dentist named Andrzej who lives in Germany, and a Japanese literature expert named Krzysztof, who lives in Japan.
The former has two children, Alina and Daniel. Although they were born and raised in Germany, their father made sure that they speak Polish fluently. A law student in Switzerland (who was an extra in Roman Polański’s film about his grandfather), Daniel Szpilman is very interested in Poland. He interviewed Władysław Bartoszewski, a hero of the Warsaw Uprising who helped Jews in occupied Warsaw, a friend of his grandparents, for the Swiss press.
Ms. Szpilman invited me to interview her in her house. She lives in Mokotów, a leafy district of Warsaw. On my way there, I stopped to photograph the building where her husband hid at the end of the war and was helped by Hosenfeld. Halina Szpilman is an elegant, intelligent and very cultured woman, reminiscent of the intelligentsia of interwar Poland. She served me apple cake (Polish szarlotka) and juice, and we spoke for several hours, about her husband and other things. I sat next to the famous piano where her husband wrote much famous music over the course of several decades.
On the piano there is a photo signed by Arthur Rubinstein, another virtuoso Polish pianist of Jewish origin famous for his interpretations of Chopin and attachment to Poland (offended that no Polish delegation or red-and-white flag was present at the inauguration of the United Nations, Rubinstein proceeded to play “Dąbrowski’s Mazurka”, Poland’s national anthem). Other photographs on the famous instrument include those of Władysław Szpilman’s parents.
While his parents and siblings died at Treblinka and their property was destroyed during the war, during a South American tour with the Warsaw Quintet he remembered that his aunt had immigrated to Argentina with her husband Markus, an electrical engineer before the war (although he had forgotten his surname). Spending hours in front of the Buenos Aires phone book, Szpilman found an electrical engineer named Marcos. Sure enough, those were his relatives, and they game him pictures of his murdered loved ones.
There also hangs a pre-war picture of the child Halina Grzecznarowska in a kimono waving a Japanese fan. Halina Szpilman jokes that this was an omen foreshadowing her son’s career as a noted expert on Japanese culture. A copy of Chopin’s death mask hangs above the piano. Behind it are books, including copies of The Pianist in languages as diverse as Japanese and Catalan.
In the first of a two-part interview, Filip Mazurczak talks to Halina Szpilman
Filip Mazurczak: In interviews, your husband said that he doesn’t particularly identify with his ethnic background, that he considers himself to be more of a Pole of Jewish descent than a Polish Jew. Was his family assimilated? Did they speak Polish or Yiddish?
Halina Szpilman: Of course, I didn’t know Władysław’s parents but judging on my conversations with him, his mother was a pianist who worked for the theatre in Sosnowiec; his father played the violin for the opera in Katowice. My husband didn’t know Yiddish, and at home he instead spoke Polish with his parents. He didn’t even know any Jewish holidays. His father had to work on Fridays because he was a violinist, and so in such situations the housekeeper supposedly took the violin away to not unsettle people that he worked on Friday. It was difficult for a violinist to not work that day of the week just because of his ethnicity. When he was in Sosnowiec in 1921, just after the First World War when Silesia became Polish again there were elections to the musicians’ labor union. My husband’s father became a member. He was a very active violinist who worked a lot.
Your husband frequently underlined his attachment to Poland. In his last interview, he said that he could live anywhere, but that he wants to die in the country of his birth. Did he consider himself a Polish patriot?
It is difficult to speak of such sublime ideas as patriotism, but he was very attached to Poland and could not imagine life elsewhere. My husband always sat on the chair where you are sitting right now and got very upset when a guest sat there, because he believed that was his place. This was his place, and Władysław believed that he lived there and he was born there. He spent his whole life in Poland, including the worst period, that of German occupation. Some people found it strange that he could have lived in the same place where he lost his family. In any case, he was very strongly connected to his fatherland.
During the interwar period in Poland, there were many political disputes regarding ethnic relations. The Polish Socialist Party fought for a pluralistic Poland that is a home for all ethnicities and religions, while Roman Dmowski’s National Democrats were chauvinistic and anti-Semitic. Polish Jews at the time were also divided, with the Bundists, allies of the Socialists, who stressed assimilation and wanted Jewry to adopt Poland as its future home, while the Zionists instead urged immigration to Palestine. How did Władysław Szpilman react during these times of political conflict?
He was not politically engaged. Music was exclusively his politics. My husband joined Polish Radio during the Sanation Period (after the death of Poland’s philo-Semitic ruler Marshal Józef Piłsudski the country came under the rule of right-wing nationalists hostile to ethnic and religious minorities – author’s note) in 1935. This was not the time of the tolerant Socialists, but of the Sanation regime, which was not beneficial towards Poles of Jewish ancestry.
My husband was a very gifted musician and utilized his talents by playing live piano recitals on Polish Radio. If a piece was being played by different composers, a so-called intermezzo was used for transition to the new one. He knew how to connect by playing the piano. Furthermore, he played as a soloist. In 1937, there was a tournée of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Paris for an exhibition, where my husband played fragments Karol Szymanowski’s piano symphony. According to Władysław, there was a period when there were attempts to replace him with someone with a “better” ethnic background, but nobody won this contest but my husband. From 1935 until the outbreak of the Second World War, Polish Radio employed him.
According to the last interview with your husband, he approximated that during the Nazi occupation about thirty Gentiles helped him. This is an enormous number. Considering that 28,000 Jews were in hiding in the “Aryan” side of Warsaw, this must mean that many Varsovians were engaged in such activity.
Certainly. These were people who sheltered him in their apartments; gave him financial assistance, because even those who were able to give him shelter could not afford to support him. For a long time, Władysław was on the Polish side of the Warsaw Ghetto walls, and these people risked their lives and those of their families by helping him, as under the occupation helping just one or two people of Jewish ancestry meant the execution of that person and his or her closest relatives. Thus, we must admit that how my husband’s friends helped him was enormous. I always emphasize, and my husband always emphasized, that these people helped him without expecting financial rewards from him aided him out of human solidarity.
These people, fortunately, survived the war, after which they were very closely tied to us. During the last period of the war, when my husband was on the “Aryan” side of the city, he was cut off from Polish assistance. This was difficult because he lacked food and had to nourish himself by what he found in some apartments. He searched in many places for ways to survive. For example, he told me that many Varsovians feared that there would be water shortages, and so they left water in various vessels, which would later freeze. My husband could drink thanks to this. He thawed these vessels by holding them against the heat of his body.
Of course, in Poland before the war, as today, many people believed that bread shouldn’t be thrown away. There were people who didn’t have teeth and had trouble chewing, so they cut the crusts of the bread and left them, which dried and were thrown to pigeons. Thanks to these crusts left in apartments my husband was able to survive and find something to eat. This was a difficult situation, as he found himself there from August 1944 to January the following year. In November, looking for something to eat, he found a German who turned out to be a very decent man. From conversations, it turned out this German officer was devoutly Catholic. He helped my husband by bringing food. A great thing he did to my husband was reassuring him that the war would end in a few weeks, which gave him patience, perseverance and the will to continue living in such dramatic circumstances at a time when the Russians were in Praga (a district of Warsaw – editor’s note), but Władysław was cut off from information and did not know what was happening.
The second part of this interview will be published on Friday 24 October.
Filip Mazurczak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.