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'The Pianist' Accused Of Working With Nazis

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'The Pianist' Accused Of Working With Nazis

'The Pianist' Accused Of Working With Nazis

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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We turn now to another World War II story, that of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish musician and composer who struggled to survive in the Warsaw ghetto. His story became the Oscar-winning 2002 movie "The Pianist."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Pianist")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) There's half a million of us here. We can break out of the ghetto. At least we could die honorably. Not as a stain on the face of history.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) Why are you so sure they're sending us to our death?

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) I'm not sure. You know why I'm not sure? Because they didn't tell me. I'm telling you. They're going to wipe us all out.

SIMON: A new book in Poland about a cabaret singer who collaborated with Szpilman alleges that the pianist collaborated with the Gestapo in order to survive. Szpilman's family calls the accusation outrageous. His son is taking legal action to try to stop the book.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

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

(Soundbite of a song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

WESTERVELT: The caf� was an important meeting place - an oasis of elegance in brutal times. The two played together until the caf� was closed by the Nazis after the first Warsaw uprising. 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 entitled "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 in the ghetto rounding up Jews.

Ms. Tuszynska spoke to Warsaw's Talk FM Radio.

Ms. AGATA TUSZYNSKA (Author, "Accused: Vera Gran"): (Through translator) Wiera Gran described a scene she remembered from the ghetto. She said it was the morning of the last day of July or the first day of August in 1942 and 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.

WESTERVELT: In the book, Tuszynska presents all this as an accusation, not fact. She doesn't render a verdict. The author goes on to say in the book 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.

Ms. TUSZYNSKA: (Through translator) This book is not the opinion of a judge, or a prosecutor, or a lawyer. I try to understand my protagonist, Wiera Grant, and all those who were in her life. That also means Wladyslaw Szpilman.

WESTERVELT: 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 the reputation of a man who became a symbol of Jewish survival.

Mr. ANDRZEJ SZPILMAN: 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. It is criminal. Miss 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.

WESTERVELT: 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.

Mr. SZPILMAN: In every of these places, I will take a lawyer to stop this book. There is no evidence and my father is lynched.

WESTERVELT: It may be a tough legal hurdle, however, for Szpilman to successfully sue for libel on behalf of his dead father, for what a dead cabaret singer once said to a biographer.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

(Soundbite of piano music)

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