Władysław “Władek” Szpilman (5 December 1911 – 6 July 2000) was a Polish pianist, composer, and memoirist. Szpilman is widely known as the protagonist of the Roman Polański film The Pianist, which is based on his autobiographical book recounting how he survived the Holocaust. In November 1998 Władysław Szpilman was honoured by the president of Poland with a Kommandor Order with a Star of Polonia Restituta.
On 1 April 1935 he joined Polish Radio, where he worked as a pianist performing classical and jazz music, until the German invasion of Poland reached Warsaw in autumn 1939, and Polskie Radio was forced off the air. The Nazi-led General Government established ghettos in many Polish cities, including Warsaw, and Szpilman was forced to move to the Warsaw Ghetto with his family. He continued to work as a pianist in restaurants in the ghetto.
Szpilman remained in the Warsaw Ghetto until it was abolished after the deportation of most of its inhabitants. Szpilman was left as a labourer and helped smuggle weapons. He avoided capture and death by the Germans several times. When the rest of his family was deported to Treblinka, an extermination camp in the east, Szpilman managed to flee from the transport loading site with the help of a friend who grabbed him from the crowd and shooed him away from the waiting train. None of his family members survived the war.
As set out in his memoir, Szpilman found places to hide in Warsaw and survived with the help of his friends from Polish Radio and in part by a German army officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, whose real name Szpilman discovered in the early 1950s, when Hosenfeld’s wife wrote him a letter. Despite the efforts of Szpilman and the Poles to rescue Hosenfeld, he died in Soviet captivity in 1952.
From 1945 to 1963 Szpilman was director of the Music Department at Polish Radio. During this period he composed several symphonic works and about 500 songs, still popular in Poland today, as well as music for radio plays and film.
In the 1950s he wrote about 40 songs for children, for which he received an award from the Polish Composers Union in 1955.
1935-1972 He wrote about 500 popular songs (more than 100 very well known as a hits and evergreens in Poland).
In 1961 he initiated and organized Sopot International Song Festival in Poland and founded the Polish Union of Authors of Popular Music.
Szpilman also performed as a soloist and with violinists Bronislav Gimpel, Roman Totenberg, Ida Haendel and Henryk Szeryng. In 1963, Szpilman and Gimpel founded the Warsaw Piano Quintet, with which Szpilman performed worldwide until 1986.
In 1998, Szpilman’s son Andrzej republished his father’s work, first in German as Das wunderbare Überleben (The miraculous survival) by the Ullstein Verlag, a major German publishing house, and then in English as The Pianist. In March 1999 Władysław Szpilman visited London for Jewish Book Week, where he met English readers to mark the publication of his bestselling book in England. It was later published in more than 30 languages. In 2002, Roman Polański directed a screen version, also called The Pianist, but Szpilman died before the film was completed. The movie won three Academy Awards, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Best Film Award, and the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
His son Andrzej compiled and released a CD with the most popular songs Szpilman had composed under the title Wendy Lands Sings the Songs of the Pianist (Universal Music). Other CDs with the works of Szpilman include Works for Piano and Orchestra by Władysław Szpilman with Ewa Kupiec (piano), John Axelrod (director), and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (2004) (Sony BMG) and the Original recordings of the Pianist and Władysław Szpilman—Legendary recordings (Sony classical).