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.
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Filip Mazurczak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.