THE PIANIST: A SYNOPSIS OF THE STORY
On September 23, 1939, Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw "Wladek" Szpilman plays Chopin’s Nocturne in C‑sharp minor live on Polskie Radio when a German bomb blast destroys the station. The explosion spares Szpilman, but Warsaw, his city, soon falls under Nazi occupation.
By November of 1940, the Nazis have stripped all Polish Jews of their rights and humanity. Wladek and his family are forced from their home, and into the overcrowded Warsaw Ghetto. The ghetto is rife with disease, starvation, and brutalization. Corpses crowd the streets, and the Szpilmans witness the SS murder an entire family before their eyes. In 1942, the Nazis round up the Szpilmans for deportation to Treblinka, but a member of the Jewish Police recognizes Wladek as a talented musician from playing in cafes. He separates Wladek from his family, sparing the pianist; but while Wladek remains in the ruins of Warsaw as a slave laborer, his mother, father, brother, and sisters are all exterminated in Treblinka.
Szpilman helps the resistance by smuggling weapons into the ghetto, and eventually goes into hiding with the help of his non-Jewish friend, Andrzej. In April of 1943, Wladek watches from a window as the Warsaw Uprising fails below him. When a neighbor discovers Wladek's hideout, he must flee to another vacant flat, where he finds an abandoned piano. But Wladek cannot play, for fear of being discovered, and conditions worsen as Wladek suffers from malnutrition and jaundice. In August of 1944, tank shells force Szpilman out of hiding, and he desperately seeks new shelter and supplies among the ruins, alone. While searching for food in an abandoned house, Wladek meets Wehrmacht officer Wilm Hosenfeld. Instead of killing him, Hosenfeld asks Szpilman to play something on the grand piano in the house. Szpilman plays Chopin's Nocturne in C# Minor, and Hosenfeld lets Wladek hide in the empty attic, and supplies him with food and his coat.
The Nazis retreat from the Red Army in January of 1945, and Hosenfeld meets Szpilman for the last time, promising he will listen to him on Polskie Radio after the war. That spring, the Poles liberate Warsaw, and Wladek is free. Faced with building a new life out of nothing but loss, Wladek is visited by the memory of his family, and is compelled to write down his story so that he (and we) will never forget.
Young Andreas with his parents
WHEN HE WAS THIRTEEN YEARS OLD Andreas Szpilman discovered the unimaginable about his father from a book tucked away on a shelf. The book was Death of a City: Memoirs of Władysław Szpilman 1939–1945, his father's memoir recounting his survival in the Warsaw Ghetto after the complete annihilation of his family during the Holocaust. At first, Andreas did not accept that this was his father's story, or that it could be his. But he still needed answers to the question: why is the whole family of my father dead?
Like many other Holocaust survivors, Wladyslaw Szpilman did not discuss the events of the war, or his trauma directly with his son. But Andreas soon become devoted to sharing his father’s astonishing memoir with the world.
Published immediately after the war in 1946, The Pianist was quickly withdrawn by censors in Poland. The novel was not reprinted until over half a century later when Szpilman’s son prepared the memoir's 1998 publication.
Owing to Andreas’ continued dedication, The Pianist has since become an international best-seller with 42 translations, as well as an Academy Award-winning film by Roman Polanski, a survivor of the Krakow Ghetto himself.
And now, Andreas Szpilman believes that Emily Mann’s play is the next “stage” in sharing his father’s story with the world. Watch him discuss it in this short video.