Wladyslaw Szpilman in Warsaw
February 13-27, 1943 (Noakowskiego 10)
As far back in history as February 13, 1943, Wladyslaw Szpilman disregarded the vital necessity to put a yellow-star armband on his shoulder for the first time since December 1939 to one’s own surprise and fear. It hardly needs comments, that by no means was the shabby laborer, previously forced to dismantle the walls of the Warsaw ghetto, on building up the SS quarters and a villa for the SS and Police Leader of Warsaw, now to be recognized as a brilliant pianist. Following the dangerous walking across the streets of South Warsaw, Szpilman finally found his way to the first among his upcoming hiding places as a now free, yet sheltered Polish Jew, bordering on being hunted by the Germans.
‘Politechnika Warszawska’ (Warsaw University of Technology), an educational institution that had been opened again (renamed) within the last months of the previous (1942) year, now dominated the street across Noakowskiego 10, a residential house in and a point of destination for an exhausted escapee. As far back as the threshold of the XIX and XX centuries, the area to the North of Polna street was in the ownership of a wealthy Jewish family of Oppenheim, whose patriarch divided the terrain into land parcels for a residential quarter as late as 1905. New-built dwelling houses mounted the area before the outbreak of the Great War (WWI), including a residential house at Noakowskiego 10, ready to welcome his guests already in 1913.
A dwelling-house with one address was by nature no less than a complex of erections, built-in around three spacious court-yards. The ‘main’ part of the building facing Noakowskiego street, perfected in the manner of Art Nouveau (Modern), was to accommodate the most luxurious apartments, including the ones of the owners. The living space of every deluxe accommodation totaled 130 square meters with a ceiling height of 4 meters and included up to six rooms and a premise for servants. Apart from the ‘boss’ apartment of the Oppenheim family and deluxe residences, this new dwelling-house at NOAKOWSKIEGO 10 was home to dozens of middle-class families with apartments of more moderate size. One of the three courtyards was chosen to locate a small chapel.
Wladyslaw Szpilman was now very much indebted to his first hiding place within the ‘Aryan’ part of Warsaw to his friend Andrzej Bogucki and his wife, a singer Janina Godlewska. The spacious studio apartment was in the ownership of Piotr Perkowski (who survived the war), the famous Polish composer, director of a conservatory, and a member of the Resistance movement. Franciszek Strynkiewicz (who survived the war), a sculptor was the previous roomer of the flat and had transformed it into no less than an artistic workshop. In contrast to the bed of boards for the forced laborers, Szpilman was now in a position to enjoy uninterrupted sleep, yet he self-tortured himself with constant anxiety. The owner of the apartment was in due to find registered residents for the living space and the refuged pianist had to hide inside a small bedroom without windows upon their encounters. As soon as February 26, 1943, Wladyslaw Szpilman was accommodated in a flat of Marek Gębczyński, an engineer at the Polish radio, at the wing studio of the same dwelling. It was in this apartment the former pianist had an opportunity to touch the piano keys for the first time since the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto back in the summer of 1942. The next day witnessed a visit from Czesław Lewicki, a band director on the radio, who now agreed to accommodate the escapee within his unused one-room apartment.
The residential house on Noakowskiego 10, a two-week serene haven for Wladyslaw Szpilman in February 1943, survived the war and occupation as well as its most famous refugee. After the end of the Second World War, the dwelling was destined to be nationalized and turned into a kind of sadly remembered residential commune. The former deluxe apartments were now divided into small dwellings with areas of common use such as toilets and kitchens. The form of shared accommodations was a kind of solution for the loss of a major part of the pre-war housing in Warsaw. Along with that, the communes were to reflect the residential politics of the Communist world, which, in fact, deprived people of the right to private life. As soon as July 1, 1965, the former residential house of the Oppenheim family was put into the register of heritage-listed buildings.
27.02-12.08.1943 (Puławska 83)
Afterward the first two weeks as a free (yet escapee) man, Wladyslaw Szpilman was now to trust in a former associate from the Polish radio and to reach a new hiding place at PULAWSKA 83, two and a half kilometers away. The two men made their way to ‘Plac unii’ square and made use of the services of a rickshaw. Regardless of the late hours, the streets of the occupied Warsaw were a dangerous place, especially for a refuged Jew. The dwelling with the number 83, their destination point, was at Pulawska street, the second-longest transport arteria of the Polish capital at that time. Its history goes in history as far back as the 1820s when a warsaw street was destined to become a part of the road to the South to the city of Pulawy. Almost a century would pass (1917) until the street within Southern Warsaw would be named after a city, located 120 kilometers away within a Lublin Province. As the Germans came into instant occupational power, Pulawska street was renamed ‘Feldherrnallee’ (The avenue of the commanders). In wider means, Wladyslaw Szpilman was now to hide inside a building on one of the largest streets in Warsaw with the nomination to glory the power of the German armed forces.
In those late hours of February 27, 1943, the lobby of the dwelling-house was empty (even without a caretaker) and the two men (Szpilman and Lewicki) ran up the fifth floor to get into an empty apartment. Accommodation of a moderate size turned out to be cozy and inviting, with a big sofa, a commodious wardrobe, a couple of back chairs, a bookshelf, and a gas stove. The residential house was erected as far back as the 1930s on the spot of the previous one-story erection and a wooden gate, once an entrance to a courtyard plot of ground. The north part of the front side of a new building was inscribed with ‘WSK’ letters (preserved until today, thus underlining the initials of Władysław Kamiński, the owner of the estate. A member of the pre-war Polish senate (parliament), he would later lose his life in the Battle of Monte-Cassino in Italy in 1944 at the rank of Lieutenant colonel. ‘INSTYTUT HIGIENY PSYCHICZNEJ’ (Institute of Mental Hygiene, survived the war) was a neighbor estate to the residential erection on Pulawska.
In the grand scheme of things, Wladyslaw Szpilman was fated to spend almost half a year in a cozy apartment at Pulawska. Czesław Lewicki, the owner of the flat, was a constant visitor, if nothing else happened, two times a week, from time to time being accompanied by a friend, the wife of the warsaw doctor. Szpilman used to take advantage of their conversations as well as reading, cooking the simplest dishes, and moving across the studio on the tips. The dwelling had thin walls and the refugee was now to hear the bad-mouthings of a young neighboring couple next door. As soon as in April 1943 his caregivers brought news of the ‘Jewish uprising’ within the walls of the former Warsaw ghetto and Szpilman had a chance to notice glimpses of a blaze far to the North while leaning out of the window. The well-known scene from the iconic ‘The Pianist’ movie by Roman Polanski shortened the distance from a few kilometers to no more than a hundred meters for the cinematic version of Szpilman (Adrien Brody) to watch the uprising first-hand.
As June 1943 came, Czesław Lewicki brought the bad news and appealed to a refugee to leave the apartment as soon as possible, yet Szpilman refused at that moment. In the upcoming weeks, the surviving routine at Pulawska 83 turned into a constant nightmare as the Germans conducted several raids and round-ups within the area, including this very residential building. In virtue of the raids, Czesław Lewicki was in no position to visit his person under care with supplies and news. Stricken by a famine, Szpilman mustered the courage to go outside to buy bread nearby. This only loaf of bread, the remains of cereals, and beans were now the means of survival that was to be elongated for the next ten days. Once close to the edge of life, Szpilman was finally visited by Marek Gębczyński, a man, who sheltered him back in February. Both men now relied on another individual, who would indeed hide money, collected for the resistance and Szpilman. In the issue, the refugee Szpilman was saved (either from yellow sickness or starvation death) by the wife of doctor Malczewski, one of the caregivers in the past. As late as August 12, 1943, the preserving rap on the door necessitated Wladyslaw to pack one’s belongings and face the aggressive female neighbors, who tried to entrap the outlaw without a registration. Szpilman had no way except to leave this hiding place once and for all.
In dramatic contrast with almost every erection nearby, the dwelling house at Pulawska 83 survived the German occupation. The Mokotow district in Southern Warsaw maintained the status of a desirable place for living and was later subjected to a few waves of reconstruction and expansion, as well as the repair works of the previously semi-demolished buildings. As soon as the 1970s, Pulawska street was built just in front of the former hiding place of Wladyslaw Szpilman. As to the residential house itself, the total living space of 2300 meters still accommodates the lodgings and the first floor is being used for commercial purposes. The pre-war ‘WSK’ initials could be still easily noticed within the northern part of the front side and the year 2017 witnessed the reconstruction of the attic space.
Bołdok FAMILY APARTMENT (Narbutta 17)
On August 12, 1943, Wladyslaw escaped the fate of being entrapped and delegated to the Germans, yet found oneself beyond his six-month refuge and now in the middle of a Warsawian street. He had dirty tumbled cloth on and unbarbered hair and multi-day scrub only underlined his ‘non-Aryan’ appearance. Along with that, his hunted and frustrated behavior had not much in common with a pedestrian, who has registration. A way back to Noakowskiego street was now too dangerous and Szpilman recalled another college from the Polish radio, an engineer named Boldok. The shortest pedestrian route from Pulawska 83 and Narbutta 17 demanded 10 minutes of walking at the most, yet the disoriented escapee spent nearly an hour getting to the place. Scrambling between the desire to live and averseness to put these people in mortal danger (for hiding Jews), Szpilman finally rang the doorbell of the Boldok family with the pretext of using their phones. The calls had no effect and the escapee could be sheltered no sooner than the next day. The Boldok family let Szpilman spend a night in an apartment one floor down as they were previously left with keys from the Volksdeutsche.
The Mokotow city district, previously well-known to Szpilman by his own account, was made a part of Warsaw as far back as April 8, 1916. At the time of the merge (absorption by Warsaw), the area was to be characterized mostly as the former farm grounds with one-story erections. As far back as 1897, Georg von Narbut purchased a spacious plot of land in the city of Mokotow, and the street, what would be named after him, had become a transport arteria of the area. Heedless of the fact, that Mokotow was absorbed by Warsaw at the height of the Great War (1916), for years to come its streets were regarded as private cooperative ownership. As soon as 1928 the city officials decided to rename the street to NARBUTTA (thus, adding an additional ‘T’) to shift the mane of the former landlord into a Polish revolutioner Ludwik Narbutt, who had died back in 1863. It is worth mentioning, that a street lamp with the authentic ‘Narbuta’ (with one ‘T’) inscription could be still found between building 9 and 10.
All while Narbutta street was appreciated as a wished place of residence among the citizens of Warsaw, dwelling-house number 17 had always been a deluxe point of living in the years prior to the Second World War. The five-story residential house was laid by a local female landowner and later finished by the members of the ‘CONCORDIA’ household cooperative in 1930. The presence of white collars during the consecration of the building was not out of ordinary as the major part of the 24 apartments were now in the ownership of the officials of two banks: ‘The polish bank’ and ‘Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego’. The owners had a right to take part in the interior decor and furnishing of the flats with living space of up to 200 square meters. The kitchens were equipped with a garbage disposer, an indeed innovation of the period, and the total value of the lodgings was equal to an amount of money, enough to build up a villa with its garden.
The dramatic history of the building at Narbutta 17 during the occupation turned over the first tragic pages long before the one-night sheltering of Wladyslaw Szpilman. As far back as the winter of 1939-1940, the Germans had plans to expel every resident of the house, not fulfilled by the virtue of one of the owners, who had cracked the heating system and thus ‘putting a wet blanket’ on the ambitions of the occupational authorities. In the long run, only a few longings were emptied in favor of Volksdeutsche, in one of which Szpilman spent one night in August 1943. For several years during the occupation, the residents of the ‘CONCORDIA’ cooperative put themselves in the position of outlaws by hiding people without registration, producing soup, and even running underground printing. Unfortunately, at least nine of the former owners lost their lives in concentration and labor camps and three were killed during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. In 2004 the names of these twelve people were finally immortalized on the front side.
On August 17, 1944, in the midstream of the Warsaw Uprising, the Germans forcibly dislodged the remaining residents of the ‘Concordia’ house and set the building at Narbutta 17 alight. While the majority of the apartments burned away, the massive architecture dissuaded the erection from collapsing and the residential harbor of the pre-war cooperative held the fire up. It will take decades for the surviving owners and their descendants to restore ownership over their lodgings after nationalization and later accommodated troubled residents. The former spacious apartments were cut to dozens of small lodgings each and it will take other decades to turn back the tide. In our generation, some descents of the ‘authentic’ owners of the pre-war apartments still live under the roof of Narbutta 17. As the Mokotow district was fortunate enough to be broadly preserved amid the devastated Warsaw city center, the area around one of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s hiding places could be easily recognized.
AUGUST 1943 (2 Fałata)
Upon a heart-pounding night at the accommodation of Volksdeutsche at Narbutta 17, Szpilman had nothing else to do but to wait for salvation from another former colleague from the Polish radio, Zbigniew Jaworski (who was killed in 1944), the specialist of radio auditions. The man took the mortal risk to shelter the escapee pianist for some time unless finding a more continuous hiding place. The two covered one kilometer to the West across Narbutta, on the sidelines of the infamous Mokotow prison, and swerved to Juliana Falata street, once named after a prominent Polish artist and aquarellist, famous for his wintry landscapes and rural scenes. At Fałata 2, just across the street from the ‘WYŻSZA SZKOŁA BUDOWY MASZYN I ELEKTROTECHNIKI’ (College of Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering), they reached the grandiose residential complex, a new shelter for Wladyslaw Szpilman.
The Falata street, used to connect the neighboring Narbutta and Rakowiecka, was a home for two pre-war housing cooperatives, known as ‘Spółdzielni różowej’ (The pink cooperative) and ‘Szare Domy’ (The Grey houses). The second one at Falata 2 was erected as far back as 1928-1932 under the patronage of the Ministry of Interior Affairs, once strained lengthwise Falata with two rows of buildings and an extensive courtyard. ‘The grey houses’ nomination could be attributed to the color of the front sides, covered with concrete (a typical approach in construction at the times of pre-war Warsaw. Szpilman was granted shower time and alcohol (he, in fact, suffered liver pain afterward). The hosts reasoned Wladyslaw to stay on here, yet he didn’t want to abuse the hostility and bring danger to the house (by one’s presence). Within an inch from despair, Szpilman got another good deal of luck in the person of Helena Lewicka, a young daughter-in-law of the current hosts, who challenged herself to shelter the pianist within an empty flat nearby. The Falata 2 residential complex survived the war undamaged and was expanded in the 1990s. The entrance to the building now gives notice of a plate with the name of an architect, Jan Stefanowicz.
21.08.1943 – 12.08.1944 / 30.08-19.11 (al. Niepodległości 227/233)
As soon as August 21, 1943, Wladyslaw Szpilman had to change his hiding area for the last time over the next one and half a year, limited to three buildings, in front of each other, at Aleja Niepodległości (Avenue of Independence). The avenue of 5 kilometers in length, was put on the city plan of Warsaw as far back as the 1930s as Wlodarzewska at that time. Helena Lewicka, a woman, who took Szpilman’s story to heart, accommodated the escapee in her flat at Aleja Niepodległości 227/233. The dwelling-house was put in use in 1929 and the area was now characterized as the heart of the ‘German’ Warsaw, the notion which had been adopted back in 1939 with the seizure of Warsaw.
Water Filter Station (rebuilt after the war) to the West used to supply Warsaw with drinking water since the 1880s. The whole military quarter, ‘WOJSKOWA SZKOŁA INŻYNIERII’ (Military School of engineering, most of the erections survived the war), was just across the street to the North and included dwellings, educational buildings, and offices. ‘POLITECHNIKA WARSZAWSKA’ (Warsaw University of Technology, next to Szpilman’s first shelter at Noakowskiego 10) was visible across the street in the North-East direction. In wider geographic terms, after half a year of hiding in the southern part of Warsaw, the refugee pianist completed a kind of circle.
Wladyslaw Szpilman was fated to spend almost a year in a row in a spacious room on the fourth floor of the tenement house at Aleja Niepodległości 227/233. He had a survival minimum in his possession, including a gas stove and electricity, yet without a water tap inside the premise, which forced the refugee to conduct short outings to the hall. The window faced Aleja Niepodległości and the unfinished building of ‘SZPITAL OKRĘGOWY IM. MARSZAŁKA JÓZEFA PIŁSUDSKIEGO’ (District Hospital named after Josef Pilsudski) across the avenue. In great contrast to the aggressive population at Pulawska 83, the new neighbors were mostly from the intelligentsia, including the members of the Resistant movement, who were rarely at home. The long days and months of 1943-1944 used to come and go and Wladyslaw was now fully indebted to a host, who used to visit the flat once a week with news and basic supplies. The other day she took a doctor, who diagnosed Szpilman with cystitis. The secret roomer was now on diet and used to spend his time reading and learning English.
Helena Lewicka had become Szpilman’s window to the world, with the news of the Fall of Mussolini (Summer 1943) and later on the opening of the second front in Europe (June 1944). More than that, as soon as in July 1944 the sheltered pianist used to have the sense of hearing the distant roars of the Soviet advance to the East of Warsaw. The Germans launched leaving their permanent places, lofty perch since 1939, and the gigantic building of the hospital across the street was now also abandoned. On August 1, on the very first day of the Warsaw Uprising, Helena Lewicka persuaded Szpilman to leave the place, yet he once again refused and would spend the next two weeks in breathless expectation. During the days of August, Aleja Niepodległości witnessed the dramatic sceneries as the surrounding area was steadily put on fire, block after block. Finally, Wladyslaw had no other option than to leave his hiding place after the Germans dishoused all the residents and set the low floors on fire. Once Frightened by the perspective of being caught or burned alive, Szpilman took a handful of sleeping pills, which failed to kill him and he finally left the building. Subsequent to the two next weeks hiding within an abandoned hospital building, the refugee would once again accommodate Aleja Niepodległości 227/233 as soon as August 30, 1944. Szpilman would spend another three months hiding inside some abandoned apartment and later the attic.
HIDING THE HOSPITAL (al.Niepodległości 218)
Anxiety by a fear to burn alive inside the lodging, Wladyslaw Szpilman took a desperate decision to cross Aleja Niepodległości avenue and find shelter inside a gigantic erection of the unfinished hospital, which now seemed to be abandoned by the Germans. On his way across the road, the refugee would have to play dead (another memorable scene from the ‘Pianist’ movie) next to the bodies of people, who had been lying there for days. Wladyslaw would spend another two days without water and food, hiding in the garbage at the far end of the complex. Once succeeded to avoid the Germans (who were seeking the valuables), he managed to find dirty water and a handful of orzo, a transient means to sustain living until the decision to come back to Aleja Niepodległości 227/233 across the road.
The giant-like complex of the military hospital was put into construction as far back as 1936 with the ambition to erect one of the largest institutions of that kind in Poland. The construction agenda implicated the erection of a large medical center to replace the overcrowded or closed hospitals in the area. The architects chode a spacious spot of land, sandwiched between Aleja Niepodległości to the West, Nowowiejska to the North, Filtrowa to the South, and Topolowas (modern Lekarska) to the East. The new complex was conventionally divided into four Gargantua wings with a monument to Marshal Pilsudski at the main entrance, the name giver of the place. The building was damaged and partially devastated (mostly from fires) during the Warsaw Uprising, yet stood up to the end of the war and was later repaired, among others, by the hands of the German prisoners of war.
SZPILMAN AND WILHELM HOSENFELD (ALEJA NIEPODLEGLOSCI 217-225)
As soon as November 1944, Szpilman was impelled to leave the residential house, his hiding place, and home for the last fifteen-month (with one August interval of absence). Across the narrow Sedziowska street, next to a dwelling-house, he now could observe dozens of abandoned or burned-out cottages within the ‘Staszic Colony’ area, once named after Stanisław Staszic, a polish scientist, philosopher, and public figure of the early XIX century. Back in August (already in the height of the Uprising) the pianist was frustrated with the residents of one of the cottages, who were spending their admeasured time as if nothing had ever happened. Now that balcony was as empty and obscure as the others. After sizing these abandoned cottages, Szpilman decided to find a lodgement inside another large residential house, located just steps from his last shelter, on the opposite corner of Aleja Niepodległości to the South. The experienced refugee set up a new home at the attic premise, which was a little warmer in contrast to the previous attic. The central part of the building was set afire during the Uprising soon after the residents were forcibly evacuated and some of them even killed.
It was this very Aleja Niepodległości 217-225 building to witness the well-known fated encounter between Wladyslaw Szpilman and Wilhelm Hosenfeld. Inside a four-story residential house, the remaining wing of which was now accommodated by a German headquarters. The refugee could hear the measured walking of the watch guards around the building and notice the German soldiers, performing their routine without knowing the former polish pianist above their heads. On December 12, 1944, the two (Szpilman and Hosenfeld) got encountered for the last time and the refugee had to spend the next weeks in a wide-open waiting for the liberation of Warsaw. As soon as January 17, 1945, more than five years after the outbreak of the war, the survival within fear and hardships, Wladyslaw Szpilman was finally free and was granted a chance to take a shower inside the soviet barrack.
In the post-war years, the middle part of the building was restored and the year 2011 witnessed a commemoration of a plate next to the ‘223’ tab (the building is long and includes addresses from 217 to 225), which eternalized the names of Wladyslaw Szpilman and Wilhelm Hosenfeld. The inauguration ceremony was attended by Halina Szpilman (the wife of the pianist), his son Andrzej and by the daughter of Wilhelm Hosenfeld, Jorinde Hosenfeld-Krejci. It is worth mentioning that the tab also internalizes the merits (three Oskars in particular) of Roman Polanski’s movie, based on the real story of Szpilman.
THE GRAVE OF WLADYSLAW SZPILMAN – CMENTARZ WOJSKOWY
Wladyslaw Szpilman was happy enough to live an eventful and joyful life after the end of the Second World War. He shared the world with his wife Halina and two sons and passed away on the year of the golden (50-year) anniversary of their marriage. The famous Polish composer and Holocaust survivor left this life on July 6, 2000, in the same city of Warsaw, where he had lived and survived the hardships of war. Szpilman was buried at ‘Powązki Military Cemetery’ in the North-West of the city center, in the presence of his family, friends, colleagues, and the Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski. The grave of Szpilman is easy to be found not far from the entrance of Powazkowska street, within the A3 sector.
Initially, Cmentarz Wojskowy was not a place final resting place for the Polish soldiers. Inaugurated back in 1912, the cemetery served as a burial place for the Russian soldiers, who had been quartered in Warsaw. At the height of the First World War, the Germans turned an empty plot to the North into a huge war cemetery for those, who had lost their lives on the Eastern front, with an amount totaling 20 000 graves. During the interwar period, the cemetery was expanded, and as soon as the Autumn of 1939 thousands of Polish soldiers and civilians were buried there. During the years of occupation, the Germans once again used the place to bury their own soldiers and the after-war period witnessed the burials of the victims of the Warsaw uprising.
I am very grateful to war archives, museums, libraries, private collections, and writers for the historical photos in this article. To the extent that some author or a copyright owner may not want some of the above black-and-white photos to be used for educational purposes here, please contact me for adding credits or deleting the pictures from the article.