In my house we have a piano. Well, I say piano. It’s really a keyboard, which, granted, doesn’t have the same feel, or the same touch, or the same sound as a true piano. I often complain about it to my parents; the keys click so you can’t hear the notes, they’re too hard and I can’t play the trills properly. It’s shameful. Because, as I have realised more recently, I am so lucky to have a keyboard, a sudo piano. I am so lucky to be able to read sheet music, to be able to play.
Just over a month ago I visited Poland. I visited Warsaw, Kraków, Tarnów. I visited Łopuchowa, Zbylitowska Góra. I visited Majdanek, Treblinka, Auschwitz I&II. Each and every one of these places affected me, and others besides; these names are just a few of the many. Today, tonight, I want to talk about the first of those places, Warsaw. It was the first place we visited during the trip, and oddly it was the first place that sparked something in me, a flame that was nurtured and grown as the trip continued. And that is because of one man: Władysław Szpilman.
Many of you may know this name from Roman Polanski’s Oscar winning film, The Pianist, and as such will know that the film was adapted from Szpilman’s book of the same name, first published as Death of a City in 1946; it details the miraculous survival of Mr Szpilman during the Holocaust. He was an accomplished and famous pianist who worked for Polish Radio; he survived the Warsaw Ghetto and its uprising, survived the Umshlagplatz, survived in the ruined city of Warsaw after the rebellion. His is a truly remarkable story, with miracle after miracle, the simple yet complex language he uses describing the horrors of the Ghetto, the tormenting feeling of guilt and grief, the unbelievable and unbreakable will to survive. In fact, the word ‘remarkable’ is utterly, utterly inadequate, even wrong. As the poster for the film says, ‘Music was his passion. Survival was his masterpiece’.
In the book Mr Szpilman talks of the many horrors he saw, one of which was waiting in June, in the stifling heat of summer, in the Umshlagplatz, the ‘Goods Yard’ just outside the boundaries of the Ghetto. He sat there with his family, 80,000 Jews being packed into the tiny space around them to meet the quotas set by the Nazis for deportation. The destination was Treblinka, the infamous death camp. As he and his family were about to be crammed into a cattle cart, one of the Jewish Police officers pulled him out of the throng of desperate human beings, separating him from his family, saving his life.
When I was in Poland, as I sat in the very Umshlagplatz where all this occurred, a shiver crawled menacingly down my spine, hot tears stabbing my eyes in the sub-zero temperatures. I suddenly felt a level of emotion I have never felt before. I was sitting in a place where people’s lives had been torn from them, choked out of them, their livelihoods broken before their eyes. Yet, in the wake of hearing about the horrors of the Ghetto, of the ‘Goods Yard’, I felt this immense sensation, this need to scream ‘I am alive, I am alive!’. And I was itching to get to a piano and play, something I would not do until six days later.
Mr Szpilman writes that the way he remembered his musical repertoire, mainly made up of Chopin’s masterpieces, was by closing his eyes whilst he lay still so as not to make a sound, and went over every piece, bar by bar, note by note. Nocturne in C minor, Nocturne in e Minor, Ballade No.1 in G minor. Some of the most beautiful pieces of classical music ever written. These pieces, his passion, saved his life when a Nazi Officer, Wilm Hosenfield found him in the ruins of Warsaw, and asked him to play the grand piano that stood hauntingly and invitingly in the corner of the room.
“I played Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor. The glassy, tinkling sound of the untuned strings rang through the empty flat and the stairway, floated through the ruins of the villa on the other side of the street and returned as a muted, melancholy echo.”
Coming home from Poland, I have started learning a new piece, Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor. I practice everyday, and every time I do I feel so honoured that I am able to. I feel so privileged to be playing such a magnificent and poignant piece. To me, despite its slightly melancholy tune, it represents survival. Survival and a will to live that carries through anything, even the depths of hell. As my fingers touch the notes that grow ever more familiar, I feel alive.