'The Pianist' Accused Of Working With Nazis

Andrej Szpilman, whose father's story was told in the Oscar-winning movie The Pianist.

Andrej Szpilman, whose father's story was told in the Oscar-winning movie The Pianist, says he will sue to get accusations of his father collaborating with the Nazis withdrawn from a new book. Markus Schreiber/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Markus Schreiber/AP

The story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish musician and composer who struggled to survive the Warsaw ghetto, was made into the Oscar-winning 2002 movie The Pianist.

Now a new book in Poland about a cabaret singer with whom Szpilman worked alleges that the pianist collaborated with the Gestapo to survive. The Szpilman family calls the accusation outrageous, and his son is taking legal action to try to stop the book.

About the only thing that Szpilman's family and the biographer of cabaret singer Wiera Gran agree on is that the two Jewish musicians were once colleagues and played together at a cafe in the Warsaw ghetto in German-occupied Poland.

The cafe was an important meeting place, an oasis of elegance in brutal times. The two played together until the cafe was closed by the Nazis after the first Warsaw uprising in 1942. After the war, they had a major falling out when Szpilman accused Gran of collaborating with the Nazis. Gran worked for the rest of her life — with only limited success — to try to clear her name. There was never any hard evidence she collaborated. They were mostly rumors.

Now a new biography of the cabaret singer titled Accused: Vera Gran by Polish journalist Agata Tuszynska says Gran long believed it was Szpilman, in fact, who worked with the occupiers. In the book, Gran calls Szpilman "a Gestapo man" and makes other charges including that he once worked for the Nazi-controlled Jewish police rounding up Jews.

"Wiera Gran described a particular scene she remembered from the ghetto," Tuszynska told Warsaw's Talk FM radio. "She said it was the morning of the last day of July or the first day of August 1942. She was supposed to leave the ghetto that day.

"She described how, looking out a window, she saw Wladyslaw Szpilman wearing a Jewish policeman's cap and loading women and children into a car."

In the book, Tuszynska presents all this as an accusation, not fact. She doesn't render a verdict. The author goes on to say there were different reasons Jews in the ghetto might have worn the cap of the collaborator policemen, including to get bread for starving family members, to save lives or just to survive.

"This book is not the opinion of a judge or prosecutor or lawyer," she said. "I try to understand my protagonist Wiera Gran and all those who were in her life. That also means Wladyslaw Szpilman."

But Szpilman's son Andrzej doesn't see it that way. He calls the material in the new book outrageous and libelous, an attempt to tarnish a man who became a symbol of Jewish survival.

"The problem for me is that they are libeling the name of my father and later I have to try to clean up my name," he said. "This is criminal! Ms. Tuszynska found out that this is a way to make a good business on it, to promote her book, which is based on false accusations. It is just a libel, a terrible story."

The accusations against Szpilman are only one small part of a larger biography, and Gran made some of the same accusations in her autobiography. Now neither the pianist not the singer are alive to defend themselves.

Nonetheless Andrzej Szpilman tells NPR he will sue the author and publisher in Poland and France — and wherever else — to get the accusations withdrawn or the book recalled.

"In every one of these places, I will take a lawyer to stop this book," he said. "There is no evidence, and my father is lynched!"

It may be a tough legal hurdle, however, for Szpilman to successfully sue for libel over what a dead cabaret singer once said to a biographer.

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