In an era when the adventure story has been subsumed into the concept of the Hollywood action thriller, when endless scenes of things blowing up and people chasing one another are considered the height of excitement, it is a relief to read these two books: two real-life adventure stories, packed with genuine danger, near escapes, fantastic coincidences and bizarre twists of fate which save the characters’ lives. Together, they provide proof – and nowadays, proof is needed – that real life is much more exciting than anything any group of film moguls could collectively invent. Read together, they also describe the double tragedy which took place in Poland during the Second World War, and I don’t mean the watered-down, clichéd version of the story that most Westerners know, or even the somewhat different, equally clichéd version that has been absorbed by many Poles.
Wladyslaw Szpilman’s tale starts off appearing to be the more familiar one. When the war began, he was a well-known and popular pianist, employed by Polish radio. He was also Jewish, although one senses that this was a secondary matter: like many Jews in Warsaw in the 1930s, he was well assimilated into the mainstream musical world, with musician friends among Polish Jews and Catholics alike.
The arrival of the Nazis abruptly put an end to this sort of life, however, and Szpilman was consigned to the Warsaw ghetto, along with the rest of his family. In emotionless but evocative prose, he describes the slow deterioration of their society; the loss of their flat, the increasingly desperate hunt for food, the humiliations endured at the hands of SS officers as well as the Jewish ghetto police, the final removal of his family in boxcars headed for Treblinka, a fate which his musical fame enabled him to escape. He describes how, as the cars drew away, he heard the fading cries of those on board, the ‘twittering of caged birds in deadly peril’.
The images drawn are unusually sharp and clear, perhaps because this book was first written immediately after the war. But its moral tone is even more striking: Szpilman refuses to make a hero or a demon out of anyone. In his experience, there were good Jews, who helped one another, and bad Jews, who cooperated with the Germans. There were also good Poles – those who eventually smuggled him out of the ghetto, and kept him hidden for months in occupied Warsaw at great danger to themselves – and bad Poles, who refused to help him or, in one case, cheated him of money and food that his friends had gathered for him.
Unusually, his story also includes a good German along with the bad ones. Towards the end of the war, Szpilman finds himself literally alone in the ruins of Warsaw, long after the ghetto has burned and after the Warsaw uprising itself has failed. On the verge of starving to death, he is discovered by a German officer. Hearing that he is a pianist, the officer commands him to play, and he complies: ‘the glassy, tinkling sound of the unturned strings rang through the empty flat and the stairway.’ The officer offers to feed him until the Russians come. He does. Szpilman lives. The officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, dies in a Russian camp several years later.
On the face of it, Stefan Waydenfeld’s tale wouldn’t seem to have much in common with Szpilman’s story. Szpilman was already a famous musician in 1939; Waydenfeld was a boy of fourteen. Szpilman spent the war in Warsaw, mostly alone; Waydenfeld was deported to a work camp in the northern wastes of Russia, and remained with his parents throughout the war. One man’s fate was to be a Jew in German-occupied Poland; the other’s was to be a Pole in Soviet-occupied Poland. The extremes of horror experienced by Szpilman, and indeed by many Poles sent to Russian concentration camps, were not the fate of Waydenfeld, whose six years in the Soviet Union contained hunger, fear, cold and illness, but not death or mass murder.
But just as Szpilman refuses to make heroes out of one ethnic group at the expense of another, so does Waydenfeld. His account also contains good Russians and bad Russians, good Poles and bad Poles. And, as the story of a survivor, it has just as many twists of fate and surprising coincidences. Waydenfeld’s family, who travelled round and round the Soviet Union for many months after being released from the camp, are finally rescued from their wanderings when, in deepest Central Asia, Stefan recognises a classmate from his school in Otwock sitting in a café – she too had been deported – and finally learns of the existence of the Polish Army headquarters in Russia.
Waydenfeld was lucky in other ways as well. Although he was one of the many hundreds of thousands of Poles deported east after the Soviet Union’s invasion of eastern Poland in 1939, he was not one of the several thousand Polish officers to be shot in the back of the head at Katyn and elsewhere, although his uncle Adam was. Nor did he or his family end up in a concentration camp proper, although he met men who did.
Despite being aware of the terrible tragedies unfolding around him, Waydenfeld refuses to hate his Russian captors. As his group of fellow deportees organise to leave their place of exile (the Poles in the Soviet Union were amnestied in 1941), they are warned to watch out for their belongings, as many will be envious of them. ‘Now we were leaving,’ he realises, ‘and they will be stuck here for the rest of their lives.’ Waydenfeld’s book has the charm of a childhood experience remembered in old age, and successfully conveys the fun and excitement – to a fifteen-year-old – of life as a refugee in Russia, as well as the danger and discomfort: he falls in and out of love, gets lost in a snowstorm, helps his family build a raft and then escape down a river. People don’t have stories like his to tell any more, let alone stories like Wladyslaw Szpilman’s, which is perhaps why Hollywood finds it so difficult to invent them.