1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

'The Pianist': Władysław Szpilman mementos to be auctioned

September 22, 2020

The family of Holocaust-surviving composer and hero of the Oscar-winning film "The Pianist" will auction his storied silver pocket watch and Steinway grand piano, among other items.

Wladyslaw Szpilman, Pianist, 1946
Image: Stanislaw Dabrowiecki/PAP/picture-alliance

Władysław Szpilman's story is rare among Polish Jews who were marched into the Warsaw Ghetto. While his entire family were murdered at the Treblinka death camp, his life was spared before he went underground in the Polish capital until the war ended. The composer's unlikely Holocaust survival was chronicled in his autobiography, a story that was later immortalized in the film, The Pianist (2002). He lived until the age of 88, dying in 2000. 

Saved from the death camps

It was Szpilman's son Andrzej who in 1998 published a new edition of his father's memoir that was originally titled The Death of a City, and was translated into English as The Pianist. Andrzej Szpilman is also overseeing the auction of his father's prized possessions at DESA Unicum, the largest and oldest auction house in Poland.

A still from the film
"The Pianist," starring actor Adrien Brody, touchingly tells the incredible story of Szpilman's survivalImage: United Archives/picture-alliance

"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 Andrzej Szpilman, whose brother Krzysztof is co-organizing the auction.

The black Montblanc Meisterstuck pen, the pocket watch and a tie held in the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, were the only possessions of Szpilman's to have survived the war. 

Having studied in Warsaw and Berlin, the composer himself survived thanks to his reputation for playing piano concerts, including for Polish Radio. 

Polen Warschau | Auktion Wladyslaw Szpilman Andrzej plays the piano that will be auctioned.
Andrzej Szpilman, the son of Wladyslaw Szpilman, plays a Steinway grand piano owned by his fatherImage: Janek Skarzynski/AFP

After he and his family were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, and Szpilman continued to play piano at cafes, his clan were about to be transported to Treblinka in 1942 when a Jewish police officer recognized and rescued him. He escaped the ghetto the following year before it was destroyed by the Nazis.

Omega watch's special significance

Szpilman survived the rest of the war in hideouts and finally lived alone in an abandoned apartment. 

During this time, the composer's watch, which will also be sold in Warsaw, played a special role in his isolated life.

Warsaw, Poland | Auction Wladyslaw Szpilman A pen, watch and musical score laid out on a table.
The black Montblanc Meisterstuck pen, a 1934 Omega pocket watch and the original musical score titled "The life of machines," were possessions of the Jewish-Polish composer Wladyslaw SzpilmanImage: Janek Skarzynski/AFP

"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," he added. 

The same watch appears in Szpilman's autobiography when a German officer discovers him in his hideout and asks him to play the piano. After he plays Chopin, the officer helps him 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.

Filmstill Der Pianist, Roman Polanski Szpilman sits at a piano while a German officer stands next to him observing.
The scene from "The Piano" in which Szpilman recites ChopinImage: United Archives/picture-alliance

Andrzej and Krzysztof Szpilman donated many of the 50-odd items of memorabilia to the auction titled "Władysław Szpilman. Composer's cabinet." It will take place at 7pm CET on September 22. 

Also going under the hammer is the circa 1940 Steinway piano on which Szpilman composed some of hundreds of pieces of music before his death. It is expected to fetch up to 60,000 euro ($70,500). 

(with AFP, dpa)

Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Government HQ in Chisinau, Moldova, with large banners of Moldova and the EU
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage