Who Was Wladyslaw Szpilman and What Did His Historical Letter Tell Us About Nazi-Occupied Poland?


Wladyslaw Szpilman is best known as the inspiration for Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist. This movie was based on the autobiographical tale of his experience in Warsaw during the Holocaust.

As a composer who studied in both Poland and Germany, he was a popular performer on the radio and in concert. When the Germans came to occupy Poland, Szpilman would first live in a concentration camp before going into hiding and then eventually being helped by a German officer who didn’t subscribe to the Nazi way of life. We look at his life and what a famous historical letter tells us about those living during a truly horrific time in our world.

Letter to Yad Vashem

The World Holocaust Remembrance Center is known as Yad Vashem, and it’s the second most visited tourist site in Israel. Szpilman would send one of the most famous historical letters to the organization about his family, his time in hiding, and Wilm Hosenfeld, the man who helped him survive.

As a Jew living in Poland, he was first incarcerated in a concentration camp in 1940 with his family in Warsaw. In 1942, his family, which included his parents and three siblings, were deported and murdered. Wladyslaw Szpilman was able to escape due to (what he describes) as ‘a series of coincidences’. He was then hidden by Poles until the uprising in Warsaw. He names those who helped him, all of whom were recognized by Yad Vashem as righteous people during the struggle.

In 1944, all Poles were ordered to leave the city after the revolt, which made it difficult (if not entirely impossible) to extend help in the same way. Szpilman writes in his historical letter, “Since then I had been living alone in the ruins of destroyed Warsaw, without food, without water and without warmth.” In the fall of that year, a German officer stumbled upon Szpilman hiding in a home.

Known as Capt. Wilm Hosenfeld, the officer found a hiding place for Szpilman in an attic and brought him supplies until he left Warsaw a month later. He would not only give him blankets and food, he was a source of personal comfort for the composer. Hosenfeld may not have agreed with the Nazi’s ethos, but this help went above and beyond. “Any help to Jews at that time was punished with death. Without his help I wouldn’t have survived.”

The Fate of Captain Hosenfeld

Hosenfeld would eventually be placed in captivity after the war. In his historical letter, Wladyslaw Szpilman says that he attempted to get him out of a Russian camp, but his efforts were unsuccessful. Hosenfeld died in Stalingrad in 1952.

Szpilman would learn that he was far from the only person helped by Hosenfeld. In fact, historical letters and tales from the time proved that Hosenfeld provided others with everything from false papers to employment for any number of individuals and families. He was particularly giving to the children during the whole of the war.

Historical letters from people in WWII show us that hope was never completely lost during a sincerely dark time in history. Wladyslaw Szpilman was able to resume his career thanks to this man, which included orchestras, piano pieces, around 500 songs, and concertos. He wrote for all audiences, and many of his pieces were major hits in Poland. He asks that Yad Vashem remember that his life wouldn’t have been possible if not for the help he received from a brave Captain who did what he could to reverse some of the worst effects of the war.


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