Wladyslaw Szpilman And The Incredible True Story Of “The Pianist”

Published February 22, 2018
Updated July 20, 2018

Wladyslaw Szpilman was a Jewish pianist living in Warsaw, Poland during World War II. He didn't know that his musical abilities would save his own life.

Wladyslaw Szpilman and Officer Wilm Hosenfeld

Wikimedia Commons/GettyWladyslaw Szpilman and Officer Wilm Hosenfeld.

You may have heard the expression music saves. Well for Wladyslaw Szpilman, the expression took a literal meaning.

Born in Poland on Dec. 5, 1911, Wladyslaw Szpilman took his first piano lesson with his mother. He couldn’t have known at the time that this would be the first step in saving his life.

He went on to study at the Higher School of Music in Warsaw from 1926 to 1930 and continued his studies in Berlin until 1933 before returning to Warsaw once again to take lessons until 1935.

In 1935, Wladyslaw Szpilman became the house pianist for Polish State Radio in Warsaw, playing classical works and jazz. He played for the radio until Sep. 1, 1939 – the day Germany invaded Poland during World War II.

The Germans forced the Polish State Radio to shut down. The last live broadcast the people heard before the German occupation was Szpilman’s performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor.

Wladyslaw Szpilman’s Life Under Nazi Rule

Wladyslaw Szpilman and his family were placed in the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of all the Jewish Ghettos established by the Nazis during World War II.

The extremely cramped ghetto imprisoned over 400,000 Jews and only provided minimal food rations. In fact, a majority of the food was smuggled in illegally. Periodically, deportations would occur, forcing some to transfer to concentration camps.

Dead Man In Warsaw Ghetto

Imagno/Getty ImagesA dead man in the street surrounded by a crowd in the Warsaw Ghetto.

There were still a few recreational facilities in the ghetto and while he was confined, Szpilman continued to play. In order to support his family, he worked as a pianist at a Café called Café Nowaczesna.

The summer of 1942 was the start of large-scale deportations to the concentration and death camps. Though able to keep safe for a little while, eventually Szpilman and his family were ordered for deportation to Treblinka, an extermination camp in Poland. Built specifically for death, Treblinka was only second to Auschwitz in casualties.

By some strange chance, a member of the Jewish Ghetto Police recognized Szpilman from one of his concerts and pulled him away before he boarded the train. Though he had been rescued, Szpilman watched as his parents, brother, and two sisters were shipped off to Treblinka. None of them would survive the war.

Wladyslaw remained in the Ghetto, helping smuggle in weapons for the Jewish resistance uprising. Then, on Feb. 13, 1943, he managed to escape.

He hid in abandoned building around Warsaw until August of 1944, when he found an attic to hide in at 223 Niepoldleglosci, Warsaw, Poland. That was the address Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, a World War I veteran decorated with the iron cross first class for gallantry and member of the Armed Forces of Nazi Germany, found Szpilman.

His Fortuitous Discovery By A Sympathetic Nazi

Szpilman recounted his encounter with Hosenfeld in his memoir, The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw. “I sat there groaning and gazing dully at the officer,” he said.

Hosenfeld asked Szpilman what he did for a living, to which he replied that he was a pianist. Hosenfeld then brought Wladyslaw Szpilman into the dining room of the house he was hiding in where there was a piano. He demanded Szpilman play something.

Wladyslaw Szpilman In Warsaw Uprising

Wikimedia CommonsWładysław Szpilman’s picture at the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

His fingers were stiff and covered with dirt. He was rusty from lack of practice. His nails were uncut. Nervously, Wladyslaw Szpilman brought his hands to the keys and began to play.

It was then that Hosenfeld said, after a moment of silence, “All the same, you shouldn’t stay here. I’ll take you out of the city, to a village. You’ll be safer there.”

“I can’t leave this place,” was Szpilman’s reply.

“You’re Jewish?” the officer asked.

“Yes.”

Though this clearly changed things for Hosenfeld, who previously thought Szpilman was a non-Jewish Pole hiding after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, he still didn’t report him.

Instead, Hosenfeld asked Szpilman to show him the attic he had been hiding in. On their way up, Hosenfeld was able to see something Szpilman hadn’t: a board that created a loft right above the attic’s entrance. The dim light made it very hard to see, but, having an expert eye, Hosenfeld was able to. It was a better hiding place.

After that, Hosenfeld continued to keep Szpilan hidden. He brought him bread and jam periodically and left him a German military overcoat to keep from freezing.

The Germans were defeated in 1945. Wladyslaw Szpilman had survived the war. He didn’t learn the name of the officer who helped him until 1950.

Wilm Hosenfeld was later convicted of alleged war crimes and sentenced to 25 years of hard labor. Hosenfeld reportedly saved other Jews during the war and while on trial he wrote a letter to his wife asking her to contact them to help with his release, including Szpilman.

Wladyslaw Szpilman Headstone

Wikimedia CommonsWladyslaw Szpilman’s gravestone in Warsaw, Poland.

In 1950, with the attempted assistance of the Polish secret police, Szpilman tried to help Hosenfeld but was unable to so. Hosenfeld died in a Soviet prison camp in 1952.

Life After The War

With the war finally over, Wladyslaw Szpilman picked up where he left off and continued to do what he knew best.

From 1945 through 1963, Szpilman played the keys and acted as the director of the music department for Polish Radio.

In addition to Hosenfeld, many others, including Irena Sendler, contributed to Szpilman’s survival during the Holocaust.

After his death in 2000 at the age of 88, his legacy and music were immortalized in the 2002 Oscar-award winning film, The Pianist, featuring Adrien Brody who won an Oscar for Best Actor for playing Szpilman.

However, the most fitting tribute came in 2011 when Polish Radio’s Studio 1 was renamed for Wladyslaw Szpilman.


Now read about how Nocholas Winton saved hundreds from the Holocaust. Then take a look at the horrific photos captured inside the Jewish Ghettos.

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City.
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