Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
[The Occupied Nations]
Artur Gold and Wladyslaw Szpilman
The Conductor and The Pianist
Artur Gold was born in Warsaw in 1897 he was the son of Michal and Helena. In 1922 he established a jazz band with his cousin Jerzy Petersbuski, which became very popular, and he studied in London, and recorded for “Columbia Records” in Hayes, near London.
From 1929 performed in the famous “Adria” in Warsaw, and during the 1930’s composed popular songs like “Autumn Roses.” Gold lived and worked with his brothers Adam and Henryk, also musicians at 122 Chmielna Street in Warsaw.
In 1940 he was forced to move to the Warsaw ghetto, where he performed in the “Nowoczesna” restaurant. In 1942 he was transported to Treblinka where he was forced to play for the SS, and to form a small orchestra, which played at roll calls and gave special concerts to the SS and prisoners.
Gold was murdered in Treblinka during 1943.
A description of Gold’s arrival at Treblinka as recalled by Samuel Willenberg:
“A new transport from Warsaw provided us the fifty men we needed to round off the prisoner contingent in the camp, which had dwindled greatly as a result of the many on-site executions carried out by the guards.
Among the new men was the famous Warsaw musician Artur Gold. The moment Kuttner ordered fifty young men to be taken out of the transport, the “Reds” who had known Gold back in Warsaw, made sure to include him.
There he stood clutching a violin to his chest. That day after roll-call Kurt Franz shouted, “The conductor out!”
At the sound of this, Gold and two other prisoners stepped out of line and faced us. Even before this we had thought it strange that they had not ordered us to sing “Aren’t you sad mountain man?” as we always did after roll-call, and the camp anthem “Fester Schritt.”
Gold and the other two prisoners added up to a violin trio, though a grotesquely dressed one in the standard prisoner uniform of rags and high-cut boots procured in the sorting-yard. Now they mounted a small wooden platform which was hardly big enough for them.
Behind them was a hut with little grated windows. Besides them on the ground, stood the whipping stool where the Germans punished prisoners.
The trio of musicians began to play popular pre-war tunes, which reminded the prisoners of years gone by, that left us depressed and sore of heart. The Germans were pleased with themselves they had succeeded in organising an orchestra in the death camp.
"As we stood at roll-call, Gold entranced us with old melodies he produced with his violin – amidst the sweet, nauseating stench of decomposing bodies which clung to us as if never wanting to part.
After one of these concerts the Germans reached a conclusion the maestros did not look good, their clothes were too big, held up by all kinds of belts, and their boots were high and heavy.
They ordered our tailors to sew jackets of shiny, loud blue cloth, and to attach giant bow-ties to the collars. Dressed not as prisoners any longer but as clowns, they entertained us after roll call day in, day out. However, spent we might be after a twelve-hour working day, we had to stand in rank and take in a concert.”
Samuel Willenberg continued:
“Lalka (Kurt Franz) went away for a few days at this time. When he returned, he approached Artur Gold and told him that he had brought some of his pre-war gramophone records. To us this was proof that he had been in the Warsaw ghetto. To the artist it was something else.
Gold momentarily forgot where he was, his voice choking with joy, he told me of the recordings of his orchestra which had shown up in Treblinka. Unwilling to jar him back to tragic reality, I let him float in the clouds a little longer.”
Another Treblinka survivor Richard Glazar recalled one of Artur Gold’s concert:
“On a lovely Sunday afternoon we are all herded onto the assembly site in front of the boxing-ring. The greenish black gentlemen sit down on chairs that have been set up in a half circle.
The shorn heads, the bearers and loaders, tailors and shoemakers, carpenters and cabinetmakers, cooks and laundry maids, clerks and accountants, supervisors, medics, gravediggers – we all crowd in behind these gentlemen, surrounded by black mercenaries and riflemen. Treblinka is a world unto itself, isolated from the other world.
Arthur Gold and his boys, all in white jackets with large blue lapels, open the festivities with a march. Captain Stangl is sitting in an easy chair in the middle of his men, tapping his foot and keeping time, gently beating the top of his boot with his riding whip. A flourish:
First Salwe the singer steps up and presents an Italian tarantella. He is followed by Treblinka’s newest acquisition, a cantor, supposedly the best in Warsaw who was taken off one of the last transports. He was trained in religious song but is also familiar with secular music.
A tenor voice sends an aria from Verdi’s Tosca rising high over the barracks, the green fence and the twisted pines. Gold lost his life probably during the uprising at the Treblinka death camp on 2 August 1943."
Wladislaw Szpilman was born on the 5 December 1911 in Sosnowice, Poland, his parents were Szmuel and Estherea Szpilman. He had two sisters Halina and Regina, and a brother Henryk.
From an early age he received piano lessons from his mother and then he studied piano at the Warsaw Conservatory, under A. Michalowski and at the Academy of Arts in Berlin under Artur Schnabel and Leonid Kreutzer, he also studied composition with Franz Schreker.
Wladislaw Szpilman was a talented pianist and composer, and by 1939 he had already composed many scores for films and songs, that became popular, such as Wrzos 1937 and Dr Murek 1939. He also toured Poland accompanying violinist Bronislaw Gimpel.
Szpilman and his family lived in a flat on the third floor on Sliska Street, near to the Radio Broadcast station where he worked as a pianist. The whole family were taken to the Umschlagplatz, from the collection centre where they lived, on 16 August 1942, and deported to Treblinka. Szpilman was saved at the ante- room of death by a Jewish policeman, who probably knew him from his piano playing in the ghetto.
He watched his family board the transport at about 6 in the evening, his father waved at him then boarded the truck, as Wladislaw looked on behind a cordon of Jewish policemen’s backs, and managed to escape from the Umschlagplatz by slipping into a column of Council workers.
He fled to the Aryan part of the city and spent two long and agonising years in hiding, always assisted by loyal and brave Polish friends who kept him supplied with food. After witnessing both the Ghetto uprising in April / May 1943 and the Home Army uprising in 1944 he continued to live in the deserted and ruined city.
Towards the end of the war Wladislaw Szpilman was discovered by a German Army officer Wilm Hosenfeld, who saved his life, after listening to the starving pianist play Chopin’s C Sharp minor Noctune, on the out-of-tune piano in his hiding place.
Hosenfeld did not bretray him and gave him food, and thus Wladislaw survived to see the Germans driven out of Warsaw by the Red Army forces.
He resumed his playing at the Polish Radio in 1945 he opened the first transmission of the station by playing once again Chopin’s C Sharp minor Noctune. From 1945 to 1963 he held the position of Director of Music at Polish Radio.
During these years he composed several symphonic works and about 500 songs, many of which remain popular till this day in Poland, including some songs for children, as well as music for radio, plays and film.
He also performed as a soloist with the violinist Bronislaw Gimpel, Roman Totenberg, Ida Haendel and Henryk Szeryng. In 1963 Gimpel and Szpilman founded the Warsaw Piano Quartet and he retired from playing in 1986.
Szpilman wrote his memoirs originally titled Death of a City in 1945, edited by Polish writer Jerzy Waldorf, the book was re-printed during the 1960’s. Wladislaw Szpilman died in Warsaw on the 6 July 2000, in Warsaw.
In 2002 Roman Polanski directed a screen version of his book called The Pianist. The film was critically acclaimed wining three Oscars, for Best Actor Adrien Brody, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director.
Trap with a Green Fence by Richard Glazar, published by Northwestern University Press Illinois 1999
Surviving Treblinka by Samuel Willenberg, published by Basil Blackwood 1989
Wladislaw Szpilman official website
Copyright Russ Burke H.E.A.R.T 2008