Wladyslaw Szpilman (1999) The Pianist.

I don’t usually read books twice. But I was browsing and picked Władysław Szpilman’s autobiography again. He was born in 1911. He had two sisters and a brother. They were taken with his mother and father, East, for resettlement. They were killed by the Nazis.

Wladyslaw survived the Warsaw ghetto. The Warsaw uprising. He was almost killed by his Russian saviours. He was one of the few Jews to survive. He needed not just one miracle but many miracles.

The child rapist Roman Polanski directed a film, also called The Pianist, based on Szpilman’s memoirs. Of course, it builds towards the denouement, when a Nazi officer catches Szpilman. A cultured man who asks him what he was doing there? But also what was he?

Szpilman was a Jew. But he was also a Pianist. It may have been that which saved him. If there is a God, He may know. He did seem fated to survive. Gut instinct worked in his favour.

Much has changed since my first reading. Russians lost around 20 million citizens. They paid in blood for their victory against the Nazis. Stalin’s pact in The Great Patriotic War with Hitler forgotten. The murder of the Polish intelligentsia and 22 000 officers at Katyn forgotten. Szpilman reminds the reader of state propaganda that Poland would win their war against Nazi Germany because Luftwaffe planes were constructed from cardboard and ran on ersatz fuel. Their pilots had paper uniforms and paper shoes.

What is trying to be forgotten is the role ordinary Polish people took in mass murder. An offence in Poland to suggest Poles were involved in the genocide of the Jews and other groups. Lies if they are repeated enough become convenient truths.

‘German’ troops that contained Ukrainians and Lithuanians committed mass murder with impunity and it was state sanctioned. Their speciality was grabbing a child by the feet and dashing his or her brains out in front of their mother. More murders were committed outside the mass killing centres than inside German concentration camps.

Szpilman was lucky his family home was already inside the Jewish ghetto. He worked playing the piano to rich Jewish clients who came to restaurants where they ate and drank and danced as if the war was over. They were all about to die, of course. Rich and poor, it made little difference to the Nazis.

The most heart rendering tales were of children starving to death, begging for scraps. Ironically, Israeli troops are playing out this human genocide as they starve Palestinian children to death. A different ghetto, but the same story of state brutality, bombings targeted by algorithms. Mass murder with impunity. Withholding food and turning off the water supplies. The Nazis did the same. We cannot call Jews Nazis.

Szpilman would understand how that feels. For five years, every day seemed to have been his last. His survival needs to be celebrated, but not with propaganda and lies and more lies. Truth is closer to home than I’d like with the rise of the right-wing hate battalions gaining public offices. We are back in the 1930s with some stark choices. Read on.