In the second part of the interview with Halina Szpilman, talks about her husband’s, Władysław Szpilman, time in hiding during the war and his success as both a writer of classical and pop music after the war. Click here to read the first part of this interview.
Filip Mazurczak: We are marking the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. Over the past seven decades, Poles have been debating whether or not the insurrection was warranted, or whether it just led to the wanton spilling of human blood. Your husband, Władysław Szpilman, was in hiding in Warsaw when the city was razed to the ground. Did he ever have a position on whether the Uprising was necessary or not?
Halina Szpilman: He certainly had no reason to formulate an opinion about whether the Warsaw Uprising was necessary or not. The drama was when he went into the streets and looked at the ruined city, as he knew it before the war, when it was completely different. I don’t think he would ever dare to ask if it was necessary or not.
There were debates about whether or not the Uprising was justified, and they last to this day, but in my opinion, while tens of thousands died and according to some they didn’t have to, this was a reaction of people who were defending themselves against this whole nightmarish occupation. Their decision wasn’t easy, and they probably felt they were necessary at the moment. There were time that were victorious.
Especially at the beginning of the uprising…
Yes. The house where my husband was hiding on Independence Avenue was locked. He had to be silent so that the other inhabitants wouldn’t notice someone is there. It was surprising to him when someone opened the door. We do not know who did it, but thanks to this the whole house was on fire and he had the chance to escape. Nonetheless, he didn’t do so because that equally threatened his life. He decided to commit suicide, but for some reason the pills didn’t work. We don’t know if they had expired or what, but he awoke without any food or sources to survive, but alive nonetheless.
During this time of shock he looked for another hiding place. In front of this house people were being shot, which was dramatic. From that time on that part of Warsaw found itself in German hands, and in the part of the house that wasn’t destroyed the German commandos had stationed. Władysław lived in the same house as Germans without even knowing this fact. It was there that he met this German Hosenfeld, which turned out positively for my husband. We later found out that this noble man since 1939 had helped many Poles.
Immediately after the war, your husband’s work was published under the title The Death of a City. When it was republished at the end of the 1990s, it was given the title The Pianist. Why the change?
Yes it was a good title, but my husband and son made such a decision. The authors changed the title in some sense because in Germany the book was republished forty years after the war under a title other than The Death of a City, but later the publisher decided that because The Pianist directly deals with my husband’s occupation it would be most appropriate. Later, it turned out that Roman Polański’s film was made under the same title.
Your husband played an important role in post-war Polish cultural life. Two important Polish writers, Czesław Miłosz and Jerzy Andrzejewski, wrote a screenplay based on your husband’s wartime memoirs. Were they friends of Władysław Szpilman?
They weren’t friends. They became interested in writing the screenplay, which had to be changed and Miłosz eventually withdrew his name from the project. A film titled Warsaw Robinson premiered in 1950. The screenplay was changed several times, and ultimately it turned out that it had nothing in common with my husband’s history. Władysław Szpilman’s character was played by the actor Jan Kurnakowicz, who was a Pole walking around Warsaw as if nothing were happening and who cooked meals and went on strolls, so the history had nothing in common with my husband’s experiences. Andrzejewski never withdrew his name.
I remember watching this film with my husband in the 1950s, and more recently, a couple years ago I attended a showing of the film at the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. I was surprised because there were scenes that showed the Red Army fighting alongside Warsaw’s insurgents, so this had nothing in common with reality. I later commented to one of the organizers of the showing at the museum that if they are showing such a film they should explain that this had nothing in common with the historical truth, as there were no comments that the film had nothing in common with the truth. The film was completely wrong.
In his preface to the book The Pianist, your son Andrzej Szpilman writes that for many years he wasn’t at all aware of his father’s wartime experiences. Was it many years into your marriage when you found out about what he went through in Warsaw?
Actually, my case was different. Around 1947 my mother received The Death of a City as a gift, and later I read it. When I met husband, I couldn’t believe that he was reborn in such a way from the trauma of the war, and that he was able to return to normal life. Of course, he told me what happened to him, although I was already aware of it after reading his book. I think that he didn’t speak about his experiences not because he wanted to avoid going back to the trauma but because he became so immersed in music that simply looked forward.
I think that talking to Władysław, the biggest trauma was the loss of his family. He didn’t speak to our sons not because he wanted to avoid coming back to the pain, but because he was so busy with music he never thought about exorcising his past demons. By accident, our older son either came across fragments of The Death of a City that were published in the weekly Przekrój, or he stumbled upon the book itself, but he did not tell me, his father or his brother. After about four years our younger son also came across the book, but there was no discussion of it. There were no discussions with us about this.
One day I even asked them if they didn’t ever wonder how it was possible that they had grandparents on my side, but not on their father’s side. They answered that there were many other children after the war who didn’t have grandparents or even parents, so this wasn’t strange to them. Discussions about my husband’s wartime experiences took place only when they were adults, mostly since 1985 when he played fewer concerts and worked. By then he could talk about this.
Your husband was a pianist who above all played classical music, but also played many pop songs. At that time, was it unusual for classical musicians to do this, and did many of them look at popular music with disdain?
My husband already before the war played above all classical music, but before the war he also composed the scores to two films, Wrzos and Dr. Murek. The former produced two songs that became very popular, including one titled “Nie ma szczęścia bez miłości” (“You Cannot Be Happy without Love”). After the war, writing classical and popular music simultaneously wasn’t by any means common or easy. I think that this requires special capabilities. It happened that my husband was always full of ideas for songs.
For two years in Berlin, he studied at the Academy of Music, and of course he finished piano training in Poland. In Berlin he studied piano and composition. This was the beginning of what he did later. He knew how to write and how to arrange, which not everyone could do, including not all composers of popular music. There are songs that were composed by my husband and arranged for an orchestra. Indeed, he did this skillfully and quickly. This popular music he wrote took up his time, but these were songs that until now have survived. Some are so-called evergreens and remain popular today.
The pop songs that your husband wrote after the war, such as “Pójdę na stare miasto” (“I Will Go to the Old Town”) are light regarding their subject matter. After a hellish occupation, did writing these popular songs become a sort of catharsis for your husband? And, more broadly, did Polish society need such music after the trauma of the war?
I think that he wrote pop songs whose lyrics dealt with the rebuilding of Warsaw; this was not any sort of purging himself of trauma, but these were instead current songs. The Old Town was being rebuilt, so he wrote “I Will Go to the Old Town”; there was “Walczyk murarski” (“The Little Bricklayers’ Waltz”). As far as his music was concerned, of course there were many lyrics. There were more and less publicity-based ones and more and less leisure ones; everything depended on the type of lyric, but usually my husband wrote music, rather than writing words to music.
He wrote a song called “Czerwony autobus” (“The Red Bus”). This one was very popular for years until the outbreak of Solidarity, when there was a strike of bus drivers, who came to the conclusion that its lyrics do not match the moment, as red buses stopped in Warsaw. I remember they were doing an audition on the radio and proposed writing a song titled “Niebieski autobus” (“The Blue Bus”). I think that my husband didn’t write neither to cure his trauma or that of the Poles, but to describe our everyday life in Warsaw.
Do you think the film The Pianist was popular in Poland because it showed not only the Jewish experience of the occupation but also the Polish experience?
In Poland, the book was received in a typically Polish way, so some things were obvious to Polish readers. I have different international contacts. About half a year ago a Swedish politician told me he saw The Pianist and is fascinated by the film. It turns out that he is fascinated by the film, but he never spoke about my husband’s wartime experiences during his visit, as he was unaware of them at the time.
Recently, a journalist from Finland came here to talk to me to bring closer to the Finns a situation that was completely absurd to them. There are some countries, like in France, where the book was on the bestsellers list. There, the magazine Elle organized a plebiscite, where it received first place among readers. From what I see, the film even abroad brings closer to viewers the history of Poland. It shows the Warsaw Uprising, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the bombing of the city in 1939. For this reason, I think that Polański did much to show the world Poland’s wartime fate.
Filip Mazurczak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.