A fountain pen, silver pocket watch and other prized possessions of the late Jewish-Polish composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, the real-life hero of the Oscar-winning film ‘The Pianist’, go under the hammer in Warsaw next week.
“This watch and pen that he bought on a trip to Paris in 1937 survived his whole stay in the Jewish ghetto, then kept him company in the ruins of Warsaw,” said Szpilman’s son Andrzej, who is organising the auction with his brother Krzysztof.
The renowned musician, who died in 2000, came to the world’s attention in Roman Polanski’s film based on Szpilman’s autobiography, which has been translated into some 40 languages.
The black Montblanc Meisterstuck pen, the pocket watch and a tie that is now part of the collection at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews are the only Szpilman possessions to have survived the war.
Like every Jewish resident of the Polish capital, the pianist and his family were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto established by the Nazis in 1940. He made ends meet by playing the piano at whatever cafes remained open.
In 1942, his relatives were sent to their deaths at the Treblinka extermination camp, but Szpilman was spared after a Jewish police officer recognised him from a concert and pulled him from the transport line at the last minute.
Szpilman managed to escape the ghetto the following year, just before the Germans liquidated and abolished the Jewish district.
He survived the rest of the war, thanks to the help of friends, by going from hideout to hideout, until he ended up at an empty apartment, totally cut off from the outside world.
“The watch, an Omega, held special significance for my father,” Andrzej Szpilman told AFP.
“My father wrote that he would wind it up to know what time it was, because he lived in total solitude and had lost all sense of time.
“The watch helped him put up with the passing time,” the son said, before winding the watch and holding it up to his ear to hear it tick.
The item appears in a touching passage of the autobiography.
A German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, comes across Szpilman at his hideout but instead of killing him, he asks him to play the piano – and gets Chopin. Later, he helps Szpilman survive by bringing him food.
“To thank him, near the end, my father wanted to offer him the watch as a token of his gratitude. The German took offence and refused,” Andrzej Szpilman said.
For having saved Szpilman, among others, Hosenfeld was posthumously recognised as Righteous Among Nations, the Israeli title bestowed on those who helped Jews escape the Holocaust.