The Pianist survives alone in burnt out Warsaw

Burnt out tram amongst the ruins of Marszałkowska Street (looking south) in Warsaw after the Uprising's surrender. The building in the right foreground was Cinema Capitol on 125 Marszałkowska Street. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.

Burnt out tram amongst the ruins of Marszałkowska Street (looking south) in Warsaw after the Uprising’s surrender. The building in the right foreground was Cinema Capitol on 125 Marszałkowska Street. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.

Ruins of Szpitalna Street in Warsaw after the Uprising's surrender. Note the ruins of the Prudential skyscraper in the background. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.

Ruins of Szpitalna Street in Warsaw after the Uprising’s surrender. Note the ruins of the Prudential skyscraper in the background. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.

Ruins of an unidentified street in Warsaw after the Uprising's surrender. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.

Ruins of an unidentified street in Warsaw after the Uprising’s surrender. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.

After the Germans finally ended the Warsaw Uprising they deported the entire remaining population and set about razing the city to the ground. A few hundred Poles managed to escape the deportations, choosing to live on in hiding places in the city. Many were Jews who had been hiding from the Nazis since before the end of the Jewish ghetto.

Wladyslaw Szpilman was one such survivor. He had had many narrow escapes since he had played Chopin on Polish Radio as the Nazis invaded Poland and bombed Warsaw in 1939. Until 1942 he had lived with his family in the ghetto – until they were all sent to be murdered in Treblinka. On that occasion he had been plucked from the lines waiting to board the cattle wagons on a whim of a Jewish policeman.

His survival since then had similarly been dependant on luck and a few brave Poles prepared to help him. In despair during the Uprising he had attempted suicide, but the pills he took were too weak.

Wladyslaw Szpilman believed himself to be alone, he had no contact with anyone else in the city:

I was alone: alone not just in a single building or even a single part of a city, but alone in a whole city that only two months ago had had a population of a million and a half and was one of the richer cities of Europe.

It now consisted of the chimneys of burnt-out buildings pointing to the sky, and whatever walls the bombing had spared: a city of rubble and ashes under which the centuries-old culture of my people and the bodies of hundreds of thousands of murdered victims lay buried, rotting in the warmth of these late autumn days and filling the air with a dreadful stench.

People visited the ruins only by day, riff-raff from outside the city furtively slinking about with shovels over their shoulders, scattering through the cellars in search of loot. One of them chose my own ruined home. He mustn’t find me here; no one was to know of my presence. When he came up the stairs and was only two floors below me, I roared in a savage, threatening voice, ‘What’s going on? Get out! Rrraus!’ He shot away like a startled rat: the last of the wretched, a man scared off by the voice of the last poor devil left alive here.

Towards the end of October I was looking down from my attic and saw the Germans picking up one of these packs of hyenas. The thieves tried to talk their way out of trouble. I heard them repeating again and again, ‘From Pruszkow, from Pruszkow,’ and pointing to the west. The soldiers stood four of the men up against the nearest wall and shot them with their revolvers, despite their whimpering pleas for their lives.

They ordered the rest to dig a grave in the garden of one of the villas, bury the bodies and get out. After that even the thieves kept away from this part of the city. I was the only living soul here now.

The first day of November was approaching, and it was beginning to get cold, particularly at night. To keep myself from going mad in my isolation, I decided to lead as disciplined a life as possible. I still had my watch, the pre-war Omega I treasured as the apple of my eye, along with my fountain pen. They were my sole personal possessions. I conscientiously kept the watch wound and drew up a time-table by it.

I lay motionless all day long to conserve what little strength I had left, putting out my hand only once, around midday, to fortify myself with a rusk and a mug of water sparingly portioned out. From early in the morning until I took this meal, as I lay there with my eyes closed, I went over in my mind all the compositions I had ever played, bar by bar.

Later, this mental refresher course turned out to have been useful: when I went back to work I still knew my repertory and had almost all of it in my head, as if I had been practising all through the war.

Then, from my midday meal until dusk, I systematically ran through the contents of all the books I had read, mentally repeating my English vocabulary. I gave myself English lessons, asking myself questions and trying to answer them correctly and at length.

When darkness came I fell asleep. I would wake around one in the morning and go in search of food by the light of matches — I had found a supply of them in the building, in a flat that had not been entirely burnt out.

I looked in cellars and the charred ruins of the flats, finding a little oatmeal here, a few pieces of bread there, some dank flour, water in tubs, buckets and jugs.

I don’t know how many times I passed the charred body on the stairs during these expeditions. He was the sole companion whose presence I need not fear. Once I found an unexpected treasure in a cellar: half a litre of spirits. I decided to save it until the end of the war came.

See Wladyslaw Szpilman: The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945

Graves in the ruins of an unidentified street in Warsaw. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.

Graves in the ruins of an unidentified street in Warsaw. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.

Ruins of Szpitalna Street in Warsaw after the Uprising's surrender. Note the ruins of the Prudential skyscraper in the background. The building in the right foreground is the Wedel House on 8 Szpitalna Street. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.

Ruins of Szpitalna Street in Warsaw after the Uprising’s surrender. Note the ruins of the Prudential skyscraper in the background. The building in the right foreground is the Wedel House on 8 Szpitalna Street. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.

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