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The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945 [Hardcover]

Wladyslaw Szpilman
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 11 2001

Named one of the Best Books of 1999 by the Los Angeles Times, The Pianist is now a major motion picture directed by Roman Polanski and starring Adrien Brody (Son of Sam). The Pianistwon the Cannes Film Festival’s most prestigious prize—the Palme d’Or.

On September 23, 1939, Wladyslaw Szpilman played Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor live on the radio as shells exploded outside—so loudly that he couldn’t hear his piano. It was the last live music broadcast from Warsaw: That day, a German bomb hit the station, and Polish Radio went off the air.

Though he lost his entire family, Szpilman survived in hiding. In the end, his life was saved by a German officer who heard him play the same Chopin Nocturne on a piano found among the rubble. Written immediately after the war and suppressed for decades, The Pianist is a stunning testament to human endurance and the redemptive power of fellow feeling.


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Written immediately after the end of World War II, this morally complex Holocaust memoir is notable for its exact depiction of the grim details of life in Warsaw under the Nazi occupation. "Things you hardly noticed before took on enormous significance: a comfortable, solid armchair, the soothing look of a white-tiled stove," writes Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist for Polish radio when the Germans invaded. His mother's insistence on laying the table with clean linen for their midday meal, even as conditions for Jews worsened daily, makes palpable the Holocaust's abstract horror. Arbitrarily removed from the transport that took his family to certain death, Szpilman does not deny the "animal fear" that led him to seize this chance for escape, nor does he cheapen his emotions by belaboring them. Yet his cool prose contains plenty of biting rage, mostly buried in scathing asides (a Jewish doctor spared consignment to "the most wonderful of all gas chambers," for example). Szpilman found compassion in unlikely people, including a German officer who brought food and warm clothing to his hiding place during the war's last days. Extracts from the officer's wartime diary (added to this new edition), with their expressions of outrage at his fellow soldiers' behavior, remind us to be wary of general condemnation of any group. --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Originally published in Poland in 1945 but then suppressed by the Communist authorities, this memoir of survival in the Warsaw Ghetto joins the ranks of Holocaust memoirs notable as much for their literary value as for their historical significance. Szpilman, a Jewish classical pianist, played the last live music broadcast from Warsaw before Polish Radio went off the air in September 1939 because of the German invasion. In a tone that is at once dispassionate and immediate, Szpilman relates the horrors of life inside the ghetto. But his book is distinguished by the dazzling clarity he brings to the banalities of ghetto life, especially the eerie normalcy of some social relations amid catastrophic upheaval. He shows how Jewish residents of the Polish capital adjusted to life under the occupation: "The armbands branding us as Jews did not bother us, because we were all wearing them, and after some time living in the ghetto I realized that I had become thoroughly used to them." Using a reporter's powers of description, Szpilman, who is still alive at the age of 88, records the chilling conversations that took place as Jews waited to be transported to their deaths. "We're not heroes!" he recalls his father saying. "We're perfectly ordinary people, which is why we prefer to risk hoping for that 10 per cent chance of living." In a twist that exemplifies how this book will make readers look again at a history they thought they knew, he details how a German captain saved his life. Employing language that has more in common with the understatement of Primo Levi than with the moral urgency of Elie Wiesel, Szpilman is a remarkably lucid observer and chronicler of how, while his family perished, he survived thanks to a combination of resourcefulness and chance. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
4.9 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Pianist Aug. 16 2008
By Pauline
Format:Paperback
A man is playing Chopin's Nocturne in C# Minor on the piano on September 23, 1939 in a Polish Radio broadcasting building. The Germans have invaded Warsaw and the broadcast is interrupted and the lives of people in Warsaw are changed forever.

The man playing the piano was Jewish and his name was Wladyslaw Szpilman. He turns out to be one of the few Jewish survivors of the war. To say his music saved him is true, while his family, with him included are about to be shipped off to Treblinka and exterminated, a music loving policeman grabs Wladyslaw from the crowd and thus saves his life, but it is excruciating to Wladyslaw to lose his family. The work to learn how to play the piano to the degree that Wladyslaw did is an extremely long and patience filled road, which I am sure molded Wladyslaw's character and made it possible for him to survive the war. Wladyslaw often retreated into his mind to survive the long hours and days without end, he went over measure by measure music scores in his head. While he starved and lost touch with humanity (if it still existed where he was) he still used his mind and his music training was a blessing. He often contemplated suicide, but never committed the act.

When Warsaw's Jewish ghetto is demolished and Wladyslaw is barely hanging on in hiding a German officer named Wilm Hosenfeld finds him and feeds him and brings him eiderdown and encourages him to hang on. Wladyslaw survives and lives on to write his memoirs for us to read and to study and to learn from.

The diary of Wilm Hosenfeld at the end of Wladyslaw's memoir is intriguing. It is a relief to see a hope in humanity, to read his words and how he felt about his country being at war and what they were doing to the Jews.

The book ends six years later with Wladyslaw playing Chopin's Nocturne in C# Minor. Of 3.5 million Jews at the beginning of the war in Poland only 240,000 remained at the end, Wladyslaw was one of the survivors.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible May 29 2013
By TG TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is one of those WW2 books that should be read by everyone to gain an appreciation for the lives that we all live today. It is a sad, gripping, and completely unbelievable true story written about the Jews living in a Polish ghetto. How the main character in the book managed to survive these happenings is amazing. A must-read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent July 29 2009
Format:Paperback
This book was absolutely amazing, well written, and beatifully described. The scenes and the book were so vivid, you felt as if you were actually there and felt those moments. This is a sad story, but the fight and survival of this one man was truly something.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful Account of One Life Feb. 1 2004
Format:Paperback
We saw the movie "The Pianist" on tv, which was excellent and left us wanting to know more about this man Szpilman. We bought his book and it is truly a horror story as well as a story of courage and survival. Lest we ever forget what happened to six million people simply because of their 'mere biological fact of being a jew' (as quoted from Szpilman in his book). This man brings it all down to the personal level, one man against all the odds of survival in such a cruel and murderous occupation. My wife went to bed some nights (while reading this book) unable to sleep, trying to put herself into the position of these people who were starved, treated worse than animals, humiliated, separated from their families, murdered and discarded. It will always beg the question: How can one human being be so cruel to another human being? We both highly recommend this book to hear this man's powerful story.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book For All July 11 2004
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I was thirteen when The Pianist movie was made. I begged my parents to let me see it, and I finally watched it at age fourteen. That night, I could not sleep. I had heard of the Holocaust before and we had studied it in 8th grade and I had seen movies about it, but there was something so gripping about this man's story that it seemed to be in another league of any Holocaust story I had ever heard about or seen.
The movie piqued my intrest in the Holocaust and also in this incredible man who survived all odds. A few months after I had watched the movie, I went out and bought the book. After I started the book, I could hardly put it down. I finished the book in two days, facing another two sleepless nights, haunted by his passages from Dancing on Chlorea Street, and feeling his emotions as he ran into Captain Wilm Hosenfeld for the first time.
I would recommend this book to anyone, no matter the age. The book is truly haunting and Wladyslaw Szpilman's words and memories are bound to stay with you.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Seen through the eyes of the truth June 8 2004
Format:Paperback
I am a student at Hunterdon Central Regional Highschool in Flemington New Jersey. My Critical Issues in Literature was coerced into picking books to read, or else we would be severly "failed" if you will. But let me start off by saying. Books are written in 1st or third person. The perspective given in this peice of devine literature is of its own class. One can describe a detail or event, but for one to emmerse its reader into the horrid scenes of death and violence is simply amazing. This book captures the falling artillery punding the ground and the crumbling of the buildings, falling around Wladyslaw. It captures the beautiful exqusite elegance of his jittering fingers as they unleash the melody held within the Piano. The historical signifigance this book witholds is of biblical proportion. Only can one truly feel the situation of Wladyslaw through reading this book. I do also recomend renting the movie. For the visuals are simply dark and gloomy and bring the book to life through a different dimension if you will.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars The Pianist- An Inspirational story of survival
The Pianist is a true and inspirational story of one mans survival in Warsaw during the German Occupation in WWII. Read more
Published on June 1 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars a great story and a brave man
This book is about a real survival story in World War II. Although the author himself was not a professional writer, this cruel and dramatic history really doesn't need any kind of... Read more
Published on April 30 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic!
Its been years since I have read such a lovely and complete book. A story albeit very poignant and gripping offers so much more. Read more
Published on March 12 2004 by m
5.0 out of 5 stars Graphic depiction of personal survival during the Holocaust.
Anyone who has been moved by the brilliant movie of the same name, will not fail to be overcome by this remarkable, written account of the extraordinary survival of Wladyslaw... Read more
Published on Feb. 28 2004 by M. D Roberts
5.0 out of 5 stars WOW!
That's all one can say about this book. So much tragedy is packed into so little space but what's in those 187 pages will make you rethink about the little things in life we take... Read more
Published on Jan. 19 2004 by Donna Di Giacomo
5.0 out of 5 stars Sad and beautiful story
This is a small and quick read, but an Incredible Story. I couldn't put the book down. The main character is a gifted writer and a beautiful person. Read more
Published on Jan. 18 2004 by "susanlovesmark"
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly profound
The Pianist is, without a doubt, a book that should be required reading for students when learning of horrors of The Holocaust. Read more
Published on Dec 19 2003 by Chris Salzer
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