When playing Chopin’s Nocturne 20 on September 23rd, 1939 at Warsaw Radio, Wladyslaw Szpilman did not know that it will be his last performance for a long time. Hours later, a German bombardment destroyed the power supply. The radio was shut down for almost six years.
Last year, while reading The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman, I had no idea that Covid will come. That everyone will be isolated inside, living like the hero of this book during World War II. The book reminded me of a famous journal in Romanian literature, Mihail Sebastian’s Journal. As a consequence, this year, during isolation, I read, again, Sebastian’s journal. This happened after more than twenty years from my first lecture.
These days, when the Covid pandemic affects the whole world, I found these two books inspiring and powerful. Despite the tragedies happening at every step in the books, I found them very human. These are real-life stories. They describe how the authors kept going in difficult circumstances. I hope people reading these testimonies will find help in overcoming the current situation.
These books depict the stories of two men, a pianist, and a writer. Both were highly esteemed before the war for their talents. During World War II they lost everything they had. In both cases, the only reason behind this was their Jewish origin. One lived during the war in Warsaw. The other one in Bucharest. They went on living and fighting for their lives during hard times. They overcome the difficulties in the end.
If you don’t have the time to read the book, you can watch Szpilman’s story in the video below. Or you can watch the famous movie directed by Roman Polanski.
I don’t have a video for Sebastian’s story. But his journal is very well written. He was a talented writer. His family kept his journal private for more than fifty years after his death. It was published in 1996. By then, most of the people mentioned in the book were no longer alive.
Below is a short video of his biography. He was honored with a Doodle on the occasion of his birthday in October 2020.
Both books offer great insight into historical events. And how ordinary people lived them. We can read in history books about what happened during World War II. However, reading about day to day life is like zooming in on a historical moment.
When reading Sebastian’s journal, I realized that possibly before the war, Sebastian listened to Szpilman playing live on Polish Radio. He mentions in the journal a few times listening to classical music at the Warsaw Radio. Once, it was a three piano concerto. Szpilman worked with Polish Radio since 1935.
That happened in a normal world, before the war. A writer passionate about music could listen to a talented musician from another European country. Then the war came. Szpilman was no longer playing the piano. Sebastian was not allowed to write plays or novels. Because he was a jew. However, during the war, in 1942, he wrote his best play. He named it “A star without a name”. Somebody else had to assume writing that play to bypass the law. Sebastian saw the great success of the play. Yet, he took no credit for it until the end of 1944.
Szpilman lived with his parents, his brother, and sisters at the beginning of the war. By 1945 all his family members died in the Treblinka concentration camp. Sebastian lived alone before the war. He had to move back with his parents and his brother during the war. He lacked money. At the end of the war, Szpilman was the only one alive from his family. Sebastian the only one who died.
There were many stories in both books that impressed me. In most cases, it’s about human nature. The books contain mostly sad and sometimes tragic scenes. But in the end, after going through all these difficult experiences, the message is optimistic.
In 1945, when the Polish Radio station broadcasted again, Szpilman played the same Nocturne by Chopin as in 1939. It was a superb way to resume life and overcome the pains suffered during the war.
One day, like him, we’ll have the chance to resume our usual lives.