In the introduction to Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir of his survival of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, his son begs the reader to take into consideration that Szpilman is not a professional writer. After reading this work, I find that comment surprising, because this account is so well-written that only a gifted author could have written it.
I have read many books, fiction and non-fiction alike about the Holocaust. But Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir has absolutely haunted me and reduced me to tears. He wrote this book shortly following the actual events, and they were still clear in his mind. They were so horrific, so terrible, however, that Szpilman writes with detachment. Perhaps that makes it more readable to us, also, but I could not keep putting it down, shaking my head, thinking “this was real!” and “how could people be so cruel to other human beings?”
Above all, this is a book about survival and being human. At one point, the author has been in hiding, alone for nearly a year. He is starving for food and starving for human companionship. Venturing outside, he comes upon a Polish work crew. He is so happy to talk to someone else and they invite him to join them. But his sixth-sense tells him not to go, although he would very much like to. He ducks back into a different building from his hiding place, and after awhile, sneaks back to his own building where he is safely hidden. Before long, the soldiers come to that first building to arrest him. The leader of the work crew has turned him in, but luckily for Szpilman, he has evaded capture.
Later in the book, he is discovered, and to his surprise he is not turned in. In fact, the man who finds him brings him food and a coat, and prevents the soldiers from finding him. This man was a German officer.
This book is important on so many levels. From a historical and a human point of view, it reminds us that individuals can be pushed to disregard others and to hurt them, but it is our humanity that makes us better than ourselves. I highly recommend this book.
5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1999 (first written in 1946)