Rising lyricist, poet, composer and translator, who regularly worked alongside his brother Władysław Szpilman. Renowned for his tangos, all written under the pseudonym Henryk Herold, which were sung by acclaimed interwar performers and also featured in films. Wrote in Polish, English and German. Born 1st March 1915 in Sosnowiec, died around 1942 or 1943 in Treblinka.
Henryk Szpilman was born in Sosnowiec to a Jewish musical family, and was the son of Estera Szpilman née Rapaport and Szmuel Szpilman. He spent his childhood in Sosnowiec, living at 18 Targowa Street alongside his parents, brother and two sisters, Regina (born 14 February 1913) and Halina (born 30 November 1917). With his brother, he attended the IV Stanisław Staszic High School in the town, graduating in 1934; his name appears on a memorial plaque outside the school’s new grounds.
His parents and younger sister joined his brother Władysław in Warsaw in 1935, though Regina stayed to study law at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Szpilman stayed in the south of Poland and attended the I Mikołaj Kopernik High School in Będzin in order to acquire the necessary certification to apply to University. His Matura, obtained on 8th June 1936, shows he scored highly in most subjects, with excellent scores in ‘Religion’, ‘Philosophy’, ‘Polish Language’ and ‘German Language’. The reports from his Polish professor suggests he studied Stanisław Wyspiański’s Wesele (The Wedding), whilst reading Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Weavers and Heinrich Heine’s The Silesian Weavers in German studies.
The beginning of success
Moving to 44 Śliska Street in Warsaw to rejoin his family, he began a musical career in 1937, writing and composing the tango Dla Ciebie Pieśń Wyczarowałem [editor's translation: I Conjured a Song for You] performed by Marian Demar.
I conjured a song for you,
I played a violin song for you,
There was great longing in the playing,
My heart was crying in it,
Because I think, dearest,
That I will never see you again.
A song and sad complaint for you,
Fire on my lips for you,
When you left, I was alone,
And just play a song for you.
He also wrote lyrics for the tango Nie Odejdę [I Will Not Go Away] and the slowfox Nie Spodziewałem Się [I Did Not Expect] which were composed by his brother and both performed by Albert Harris on Odeon. The same year, he translated Hugh Williams’s English lyrics for Harbor Lights – a song which would later be performed by Elvis Presley – into the Polish Portowe Światła.
By 1938, his career was growing – he wrote the lyrics for the tango Skrzypeczki w nocy [Violins at Night]; a song which was produced on Syrena-electro and performed by Tadeusz Faliszewski as well as Marian Demar. He also wrote the lyrics for the slowfox Stara miłość nie rdzewieje [Old Love Never Dies], which was composed by acclaimed musician Alfred Schütz.
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The same year, he achieved his largest career break yet, writing lyrics for the song Nie ma szczęścia bez miłości [There is No Happiness Without Love], which was composed by his brother for the film Wrzos directed by Juliusz Gardan.
The song was featured within the first ten minutes of the film, performed by renowned Polish actress Hanna Brzezińska; the picture also starred Franciszek Brodniewicz, who had worked alongside Jadwiga Smosarska and Eugeniusz Bodo. Szpilman’s song would later be sung by Mieczysław Fogg on Syrena-electro, and later by Janusz Popławski.
He also wrote lyrics for Piosenka zapomniana [Old Song], composed by Władysław and sung by Janina Godlewska – who would later play a vital role in ensuring Władysław survived the war in hiding.
In 1938, two of Henryk’s epigrams featured in the satirical magazine Szpilki, both under his pseudonym Henryk Herold. The first came in the 14th edition in April:
Różne ludzie mają zdania,
O życiu i życiowej walce
Na przykład wróżący z ręki,
Na życie patrzy przez palce.
Different people have opinions
About life and life’s struggles
For example, a fortune teller,
Looks at life through his fingers.
The second came later in the year, in the 19th edition:
Wyznanie na Czasie
Choć cię kocham serdecznie
I do stóp świat ci kładę
Zamiast ciebie, najdroższa,
Wolę objąć posadę.
Confession on Time
Although I love you heartily
And I put the world at your feet
Instead of you, dearest,
I prefer to have a job.
His serious and studious attitude towards his work certainly came across in post-war interviews given by his brother, Władysław; and by November 1938 he had matriculated at the Department of Humanities in the University of Warsaw, studying Philosophy. He also wrote lyrics for the waltz Straciłam Serce Twe [I Lost Your Heart], composed by his brother, which was featured in the 1939 film Doktor Murek. The cast for this picture included Nora Ney.
Just before war broke out in September 1939, he had allegedly finished translations of Goethe’s Faust and some Shakespeare, though the material was ultimately lost.
Władysław Szpilman’s book The Pianist gives the most detailed account of his brother’s experiences in the war, beginning with the declaration that Great Britain would be an ally to Poland on the 3rd September – during which their tense relationship was evident:
It is difficult to describe the emotion we felt as we listened to that radio announcement. Mother had tears in her eyes, Father was sobbing unashamedly and my brother Henryk took his chance to aim a punch at me and say, quite crossly, 'There you are! I told you so, didn't I?'
But Władysław’s account also suggests there was another side to his brother, shown most clearly when he, Henryk and their father were caught by Germans on the streets during the curfew:
'Are you Jews?' The question was purely rhetorical, since he did not wait for us to answer. 'Right, then ...' There was a note of triumph in this statement of our racial origin. It conveyed satisfaction at having tracked down such game. Before we knew it we had been seized and turned to face the wall of the building, while the policemen stepped back into the road and began releasing the safety catches of their carbines... At the same time I heard loud weeping and convulsive sobbing. I turned my head, and in the harsh torchlight I saw my father kneeling on the wet tarmac, sobbing and begging the policemen for our lives. How could he demean himself so? Henryk was bending over my father, whispering to him, trying to raise him to his feet. Henryk, my restrained brother Henryk with his eternal sarcastic smile, had something extraordinarily soft and tender about him at that moment. I had never seen him in such a mood before. So there must be another Henryk, one I would understand if I only knew him, instead of being constantly at odds with him…Then suddenly, in the fraction of a second, I instinctively sensed that death no longer threatened us. A few moments passed, and a loud voice came through the wall of light. 'What do you do for a living?' Henryk answered for all three of us. He was amazingly self-controlled, his voice as calm as if nothing had happened. 'We're musicians.' One of the policemen stationed himself in front of me, grabbed my coat collar and shook me in a final fit of temper, not that there was any reason for it now he had decided to let us live. 'Lucky for you I'm a musician too!' He gave me a shove, and I stumbled back against the wall. 'Get out!' We ran off into the dark, anxious to get out of range of their torches as fast as possible, before they could change their minds.
These descriptions match those of one of Henryk’s friend, Henryk Dankowicz, who visited Henryk Szpilman at his family’s flat in the early days of the war. He recalled the occasion in his memoirs Nieprzezroczysta Klepsydra, printed in 1970:
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I remember his words said that day: ‘After all, war is chaos, and here life runs smoothly’… he was a talented poet that printed epigrams and puns in Szpilki and Czarno na Białym under the pseudonym Herold. And I will never forget that he once told me: ‘When I am doing a favor to someone, it gives me pleasure.’
Władysław’s account describes that his brother taught English in 1940, before selling books once the ghetto had been established:
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Henryk's life was a hard one. He had chosen it himself and had no intention of changing it, believing that it would be contemptible to live in any other way. Friends who valued his cultural qualities advised him to join the Jewish police, as most young men from the intelligentsia did; you could be safe there, and if you were resourceful you could earn quite well. Henryk would have nothing to do with this idea. He became quite angry, and took it as an insult. Adopting his usual strictly upright attitude, he said he was not going to work with bandits. Our friends' feelings were hurt, but Henryk began going to Nowolipki Street every morning with a basket full of books. He traded with them, standing there dripping with sweat in summer and shivering in the winter frosts, inflexible, obstinately true to his own ideas: if, as an intellectual, he could have no other contact with books then at least he would have this, and he would not sink any lower.
Henryk’s explicit criticism of the activities of the Jewish police was the likely reason behind his arrest in spring 1942, when he was held for a day. Władysław succeeded in petitioning the Deputy Director of the Labour Bureau building to release his brother and ensure he would be home before dark that evening.
And so he was, although – much to my own surprise – he was furious with me. He thought I ought not to have demeaned myself by petitioning such low specimens of humanity as the police and the labour bureau staff.
'So you'd rather they'd taken you away, would you?'
'That's nothing to do with you!' he growled back. 'It was me they wanted, not you. Why go interfering in other people's business?'
I shrugged my shoulders. What's the point of arguing with a madman?
A video interview with Marek Rudnicki, also in the Warsaw ghetto, recalled a conversation with Henryk in which his difficult relationship with his brother was explained:
Henryk told me, ‘I am fighting against my jealousy of Władek. I love him, even if we argue sometimes. I love him very much. But he is famous now. And I?
On 16th August 1942, the Szpilman family were separated, with Henryk and his younger sister Halina allowed to stay in Warsaw, whilst the rest of the family were picked for deportation to the east. In the afternoon, the pair volunteered to rejoin their family at the Umschlagplatz. Władysław recalled:
I hurried to meet Henryk, certain that his idiotically upright attitude was to blame for bringing him and Halina here. I bombarded him with questions and reproaches before he could get a word of explanation in, but he was not going to deign to answer me anyway. He shrugged his shoulders, took a small Oxford edition of Shakespeare out of his pocket, moved over to one side of us and began to read.
In the early evening, the family were deported to Treblinka, with only Władysław being pulled from the transport by a policeman and surviving the war.
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Though it can never be proven conclusively, one account of the Treblinka I Labour Camp by Polish Irena Jancewicz recalls Henryk working there in 1943. Jancewicz described that he explained he was first working in Treblinka II Extermination Camp, where his family had been killed, and from there was selected as a musician to play in Treblinka I. She described that he would play accordion and encourage others to dance and try to experience some happiness. She also recounted that she once fainted and was helped by the cook and by Henryk, who stole food to nurse her back to health. According to her testimony, he explained that he was surviving because he knew his brother had escaped, and he wanted to find him after the war was over. The camp’s Jewish prisoners were murdered in late 1943-44.
In 2002, Roman Polański’s film The Pianist was released in cinemas, with actor Ed Stoppard playing Henryk’s character. In an interview with Norwegian newspaper Afterposten following the film’s release, Stoppard said:
Henryk was an idealistic young man with ambition who lived in the shadow of his older brother. Had he been born ten years earlier or survived the war, he would have become an important player in Polish history.
Originally written in English by Juliette Bretan, August 2018