Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor
On September 23, 1939, Władysław Szpilman was giving a performance for Polish Radio, where he worked as a pianist. He was playing Fryderyk Chopin's Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor in a live broadcast, when the music was interrupted by an explosion: the German invasion of Warsaw had begun.
Szpilman, a most versatile pianist and composer—he played both classical music and jazz and authored many popular songs in addition to serious orchestra pieces—refused to give up music when the world around him started to crumble. In 1940, he was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto; two years later, his entire family was deported to the Nazi death camp Treblinka; his inability to do anything to help them continued to haunt him for the rest of his life. Szpilman escaped to the "Aryan" part of the city and spent two long years in hiding, assisted by his Polish friends. After the Warsaw Rising of 1944, he continued the life of a recluse, starving in the ghost of a town Warsaw had become. He must have felt like the last man alive among the ruins.
In one of his hiding places, he was found by a German officer of the Wehrmacht, Wilm Hosenfeld. When Szpilman played Chopin's "Nocturne" on an out-of-tune piano, not only did Hosenfeld not denounce the pianist, but he saved his life by helping him find a secure hiding place and providing food.
After the war, Szpilman published his account of what he himself calls his "miraculous survival." Initially his memoirs were issued only in a limited edition and were heavily censored—he was deemed politically incorrect in his description of goodness in varying shades of black, white, and gray. After all, Władysław Szpilman was rescued not only by a German but by a Jewish policeman, and by no less than 20 Poles who risked their lives to help him, and some of them were members of Polish Home Army, the wartime, anti-Communist Polish underground. For the Polish Communist government, his story touched on too many taboo subjects. Szpilman's book, The Pianist, was published in 1988, soon becoming a best seller; in 2002, it was made into an Oscar-winning film by Roman Polański.
After the war, Szpilman resumed his career at the Polish Radio (between 1945 and 1963 he held the title of Music Director). During these years he composed several symphonic works, film music, and hundreds of songs. He performed as a soloist and with the violinists Bronisław Gimpel, Roman Totenberg, Ida Haendel, and Henryk Szeryng. He also co-founded the Warsaw Quintet.
Władysław Szpilman did not see Polański's Oscar-winning movie based on his memoirs. He died on July 6, 2000, in Warsaw, at the age of 88. He left behind an amazing story of goodness in the times of evil. That story has a poignant coda: Szpilman opened the first postwar transmission of the Polish Radio in 1945 by playing, once again, Chopin's Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor.
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