The Magazine

Witnesses to Tyranny

Poland loses two brave souls

Jul 24, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 42 • By ANNE APPLEBAUM
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Earlier this month, on July 4 and July 6, two great men died. Both were survivors. Both lived through some of the worst tragedies of the twentieth century, yet neither lost his humanity in the process. Both bore witness to those catastrophes, using clear, lucid prose, yet neither was prone to hysteria or to blame. Both belatedly received recognition in their native Poland, but neither attained international acclaim. Poland's particular postwar fate, and their own fates, worked against it.


One of them was a writer. In 1940, at the age of twenty-one, Gustav Herling-Grudzinski was already a published journalist and critic. But in that year, Red Army troops captured him on the border, trying to escape from the slice of eastern Poland occupied by the Soviet Union. He was jailed, interrogated, and deported to a concentration camp near Archangel, in the Russian North. He spent two years in the camp, watching some of his compatriots die, watching others survive, sometimes at a terrible price. Finally discharged in 1942 (the Polish-Russian truce of that year mandated the release of all Polish prisoners from Soviet camps), Herling-Grudzinski marched out of Russia with a division of the Polish army. Traveling via Persia and Palestine, he wound up in Italy. Seeing no reason to return to a Soviet-dominated postwar Poland, he eventually settled in Naples, in a tiny apartment crammed with books, through which black-clad women flitted like birds. He made his living as an emigre writer, working for the Paris-based Polish journal Kultura, occasionally writing for the Italian press. He returned to Poland for the first time only in 1991, after the collapse of the Communist regime.


The other man was a musician. In 1940, at the age of twenty-nine, Wladyslaw Szpilman was already a pianist and composer of popular songs, famous enough to be recognized on the street in Warsaw. But in that year, Warsaw's German occupiers closed the gates of the city's Jewish ghetto. Szpilman remained inside, along with his family. None except he survived. Szpilman was saved by his fame and popularity: A well-wisher, one of the Jewish ghetto policemen, pulled him out of the crowd awaiting the train to Treblinka. Later, he was smuggled out of the ghetto by Polish friends, who hid him in a series of attics and cellars. After the failure of the Warsaw uprising, he found himself virtually alone in the city. Living on what food he could scavenge from the ruined buildings, drinking water frozen in abandoned bathtubs, Szpilman was close to starvation when he was discovered by a German officer. Rather than shooting him, the officer, Captain Hosenfeld, listened to Szpilman play Chopin on one of the untuned pianos in the city wreckage. For several weeks thereafter, Hosenfeld brought him food and blankets, enabling him to survive.


After the war, Szpilman remained in Poland, continuing to play and compose, becoming musical director of Polish radio, traveling abroad with a popular quintet, but never emigrating. He lived in a small but sunny Warsaw townhouse, whose mahogany furniture, parquet floors, and silver-framed photographs placed atop the piano gave no hint of the horrors their owner once witnessed.


Both men bore witness to the events they survived. Herling-Grudzinski described his camp experiences in an extraordinary book, translated into English as A World Apart. Anticipating Solzhenitsyn by twenty years, Herling-Grudzinski explored daily life in the Soviet camps and the delicate question of what it took to survive them. He described women selling themselves for scraps of food; a man secretly pouring boiling water on his arm to escape the certain death of winter work in the forests; the wheeling and dealing he himself did in order to stay alive; the effects of Soviet propaganda on the mentality of both Russian guards and Russian prisoners.


All the while he insisted that it was possible to maintain some human morality, even in that wholly immoral world. Published in England in 1951 -- prefaced by Bertrand Russell and praised by Albert Camus -- A World Apart never won wide renown in the West. It was considered too biased and too "anti-Soviet" to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, printed by an underground press, it had an impact in Poland little short of revolutionary. Last week, in the obituary published on the front page of the newspaper he edits, the left-wing Polish dissident Adam Michnik wrote that reading A World Apart at the age of fifteen had been a "shock": "All of the Communists' propaganda was reduced to nothing. I understood that every day, in school, in books, in the newspapers, they were lying to me."