Over the Christmas holidays I read a book which really inspired and challenged me. It is “The Pianist”- a memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish concert pianist, telling his story of survival as a Jew in Warsaw during World War 2.
It is an amazing but horrific story. His city and whole way of life were destroyed around him. His entire family as well as many friends and acquaintances were killed. After spending the first few years of the war living in a ghetto in Warsaw, he spent the latter years hiding in various houses and abandoned buildings, surviving in appalling conditions and on the most meager of rations.
Yet there is a sense of hope and endurance that runs through the entire book. As I think about the subject of perseverance, I think there is a lot to learn from Szpilman’s experiences that can be applied in less extreme situations- both in persevering through difficult circumstances and generally in persevering as a Christian.
It is important to face reality.
Szpilman writes: “Subconsciously I had known from the first that the German fairy-tales of camps for Jews where “good working conditions” awaited them on resettlement were lies…yet like the other Jews in the ghetto I had cherished the illusion that it could be different… Dworakowski had destroyed the structure of self-deception I had so arduously maintained. Only much later could I convince myself that he had been right to do so: the certainty of death gave me the energy to save myself at the crucial moment.”
As Christians it is important to face the reality that there will be hard times. Following Jesus does not give us the promise of an easy life- in fact quite the opposite. We all face difficult times in life and Christians are not immune. If we expect to avoid suffering or assume that everything will always go well because God is with us, we will be disappointed and our faith can be shaken, whereas if we accept the reality that hard times are a normal part of life it can be easier to accept. We also have an enemy- an enemy who wants to steal, kill and destroy– and for us, as for Szpilman, being alert to the ruthlessness of the enemy can help equip us for the fight.
We have to choose where to fix our minds.
Szpilman had to spend several days, lying perfectly still for hours at a time in his hiding place. He created a structure for his day and spent time going over all the piano pieces he had ever played, running through them in his mind, as well as revising English vocabulary and recapping literature he had read. Having a structure and a focus helped him to endure those long hours of waiting.
He saw the importance of staying positive and maintaining a sense of hope. One of the people who helped Szpilman encouraged him in this: “If you and I have survived this inferno for five years, it’s obviously God’s will for us to live. Well, we have to believe that anyway.”
As Christians, where we choose to fix our minds is important, especially when we are in difficult circumstances. Are we going to focus on the problems and give in to worry, or are we going to focus on God’s truth, love and power? Isaiah 26:3 promises: “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you.” Hebrews 12:2 tells us we can endure “by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.”
We can’t always see far into the future, but we can focus on taking the next small step or hanging on a moment longer.
Szpilman survived several years in hiding by living one day at a time. His focus was on the moment- finding the next meal and surviving another day. He writes, “I would lie on the roof by day, and climb down to the attic only when night came. The metal chilled me, my arms and legs were stiff and my body numb from my uncomfortable, tense position, but I had already endured so much that it was worth suffering a little more.”
I tend to want to know how everything will play out. I want to see the path ahead, to know where I’m going and what the future holds, but I am realising that God does not usually reveal that to us. In most cases he only shows us one step at a time and he wants us to trust him and keep moving forwards.
Also, he does not usually give us the strength to complete the whole journey all at once. He gives it to us bit by bit so that we will continue to trust and depend on him. Like the manna supplied to the Israelites in the wilderness, or the flour and oil which God provided to feed Elijah and the widow, he gives us enough to sustain us for that day alone, and looks for us to trust him to provide what we need.
We need other people- we can’t do it alone.
While Szpilman spent a lot of time hiding alone, he was also heavily reliant on other people to bring him food, and news of what was happening in the city. Without the help of these people there is no way he would have survived to the end of the war.
Similarly, we will never persevere through difficult times, or in the Christian life, by ourselves. We need others to cheer us on and encourage us, to speak truth to us and to pray for us. God designed us to do it together in community, not in isolation: “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Our ultimate hope is not in our own perseverance, but in God’s grace.
Towards the end of the war, while searching for food, Szpilman was discovered by a German officer- Captain Wilm Hosenfield. By this point he was extremely malnourished and exhausted- at the point of surrender. He had nowhere left to hide and no strength to run anymore, and he assumed he faced certain death. But this was an officer who was struggling with serious doubts about the Nazis’ actions- some extracts from his diary are included as an appendix to the book- and instead of killing Szpilman, he risked his own life to protect him and supply him with food. This is what ultimately enabled Szpilman to survive until the city was liberated. When he was at the end of his own efforts to persevere, he was saved by an act of grace.
I am grateful that as we try to persevere as Christians, or during difficult times, it does not all depend on our ability to endure, but on God’s grace. Paul assures the Philippians that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 1:6) and he corrects the Galatians for drifting away from grace and trying to persevere in their own strength: “How can you be so foolish! You began by God’s Spirit; do you now want to finish by your own power?” (Galatians 3:3) We are not expected to persevere in our own strength, but to rely on God’s grace to help us endure.
Ultimately, Szpilman’s story gives hope that it is possible to persevere and survive even the most horrendous of circumstances. In 1939 he played Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor live on Polish radio. It was the last live broadcast before the Germans bombed Warsaw and the radio station was off-air for 6 years. When service finally resumed, the opening broadcast was Wladyslaw Szpilman playing the same piece of music- a statement of hope to the Polish people as they began to rebuild their lives and look to the future.