Powerful ‘thriller’ documentary reveals extraordinary life story of ‘The Pianist’ cousin Leo Spellman
Riding a wave of international acclaim, a film that was ten-years in the making has cast a spotlight on the extraordinary life of Leo Spellman, the cousin of ‘The Pianist’, Władysław Szpilman.
Born Leon Szpilman in Ostrowiec nad Kamienna (now known as Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski) in 1913, he was surrounded by music from an early age. Hailing from a family of musicians, by the age of nine he was playing professionally with his piano music found accompanying the silent films of the era. By the 1930s, he had become a fixture on the domestic cabaret circuit.
Germany’s invasion of Poland swept away the foundations on which his early happiness was built upon. Confined to the Ostrowiec Ghetto, Spellman (who later adopted the Anglicised version of his name) used his wits to survive; having taught a guard how to play the accordion, he was given a warning to run away right ahead of the Ghetto’s liquidation.
Thereafter, he sheltered in the forests with gun-smuggling local partisans before returning to Ostrowiec to hide inside an apartment with his wife and brother-in-law.
Surviving the war following a series of cat-and-mouse encounters, post-war anti-Semitism caused Spellman to leave Poland and he found himself in a Bavarian camp for people displaced by the war.
It was there that he wrote ‘Rhapsody 1939-1945’, a musical piece that was performed just once by a camp orchestra called The Happy Boys.
Emigrating to Canada with his wife and young son in 1948, for decades after ‘Rhapsody 1939-1945’ was kept locked away and only resurfaced after a musicologist from the United States Holocaust Museum tracked him down based on a tip from Henry Baigelman of The Happy Boys. Thanks to this intervention, the piece was performed for the first time in over fifty years.
There the story might well have ended. Instead, in 2011 – and on the urging of his family – Spellman contacted the composer Paul Hoffert to help him re-work the piece. At a stroke, a series of events were set in motion that would ultimately lead to a documentary directed, produced, animated and written by Hoffert’s son, the filmmaker David Hoffert.
Speaking to TFN, David Hoffert said: “Although I’m Jewish myself, this was never intended to be a film about the Holocaust, rather a documentary about an artist from an extraordinary musical dynasty.”
Meeting Paul Hoffert regularly for six months, Spellman set about expanding the original piece he had written, both lengthening it and tweaking it to make it more suitable for a larger orchestra. Inspired by what he had heard, David Hoffert filmed the ensuing interactions.
“In essence,” Hoffert says, “Leo, then 98-years-old, had cold-called my father on the pressing of his family. They wanted him to lay down his legacy. At the time though, it was, for want of a better word, simply viewed as a so-called ‘vanity recording’ that would only be made available to friends and family.”
Climaxing with a triumphant concert performance at Toronto’s globally-renowned Ashkenaz Festival, Hoffert assumed that he had recorded enough material for his documentary.
“I had a beginning, a middle and an end,” he says. “But then, two months after the concert, and just shy of what would have been his 100th birthday, Leo passed away.”
Sensing an opportunity to perhaps discover a little more about the subject of his documentary, the Hoffert family visited Leo’s home.
“Basically,” says David Hoffert, “we hoped to find some old posters from back when Leo was playing Bar Mitzvahs and other such events around Toronto with the Leo Spellman Orchestra.”
The story, however, was to take another unexpected twist.
“My mother, Brenda Hoffert, was working as one of the producers of the documentary and she happened to be checking some boxes of belongings that were almost certainly destined to be thrown away – that’s when she came across a 180-page notebook filled with Polish writing.”
Suspecting it to be a secret diary, the family took a page to a translator who confirmed their suspicions.
“All of a sudden,” says David Hoffert, “the documentary that I had thought was nearly finished took a significant new turn.”
Whilst it had been common knowledge that Spellman was a Holocaust survivor, the extent of his experiences had been previously unknown.
“The Leo I knew was a vivacious, funny and life-loving person,” says Hoffert. “He rarely talked about the Holocaust, even to his own family, though it was obvious to see when he was reworking ‘Rhapsody 1939-1945’ that his memories still haunted him.”
Translated in different stages over the course of 18-months, what followed were a string of revelations and staggering stories of human endurance. First committing pen to paper in 1943, the diary charted Spellman’s life hiding in an empty apartment owned by a young Polish student called Henryk Wronski.
“If ever Spellman had been discovered, there can be no doubt that Wronski would have been executed,” says Hoffert. “Possibly even his entire family.”
With translations delivered back to Hoffert in incremental stages, the manuscript presented a series of cliffhanging moments.
“For the most part it simply retold how Leo would stay silent all day before emerging at night to scavenge for food or look for the money he had buried,” says Hoffert. “But then you would have episodes filled with moments of pure terror.”
At one point, Spellman found himself chased on foot through the back alleys of Ostrowiec by a sentry that had spotted him. Caught after he had stumbled, the two foes found themselves face-to-face.
“The sentry threatened to shoot Leo,” says Hoffert. “Leo threatened to shoot back – this, though, was a bluff as the pistol he had on him was jammed.”
Gradually, the two inched away from each other before turning and running into the night.
“Later that evening,” continues Hoffert, “Leo wrote in his diary that he was, in a way, glad that his gun had jammed. ‘I never wanted to be a murderer,’ he explained.”
As liberation approached, Spellman again glimpsed certain death.
“Leo, his wife and his brother-in-law were hiding behind a false wall in Wronski’s apartment,” says Hoffert. “With the end of the war in sight, a group of retreating German soldiers entered the apartment and stayed there for three nights.”
From the other side of the wall, Spellman listened to these troops drinking, making merry and playing cards whilst he himself starved. Driven by hunger, at night he crept out and stole a hunk of bread from under the nose of a sleeping German.
Baffled as to its disappearance, an argument broke out between the soldiers the following day with each blaming the other for Spellman’s daring theft.
“At that point,” says Hoffert, “one of Leo’s group accidentally made a noise.”
Searching the apartment, one of the Germans approached the false wall and began prodding and pushing it whilst Spellman summoned all his remaining strength to keep it from prying open.
“Right then, with Leo convinced this was the end, a bugle call sounded rallying the German troops to gather their belongings and move out,” says Hoffert. “Leo told me himself, he felt like it was a miracle from God.”
Staggered by the diary, Hoffert knew it was crucial to somehow include it in his documentary.
“Barring his determination, the Leo in the diary was totally different to the Leo that I knew,” says Hoffert. “In the diary, there was only one mention of music and that referred to a time when Wronski visited with a gramophone.
“Aside from that, you got the impression of a man focused solely on one thing and one thing alone: how to survive the following day.”
Since cited as one of the most valuable diaries written during the time of the Holocaust, Hoffert opted to include its most powerful episodes in the form of animations that he sketched himself. Adding gravitas, Stephen Fry, the legendary English comedian, author and thespian, was recruited to narrate the excerpts.
Taking ten-years to complete, neither does the documentary – fittingly titled The Rhapsody – lack uplifting moments.
“In 2016 we visited Ostrowiec with Leo’s daughter and grandson,” says Hoffert. “We found his former hiding places, and were greeted by the Mayor who declared a day dedicated to Leo. Then, later, our trip concluded with a performance of ‘Rhapsody 1939-1945’ by a 70-person orchestra in Rzeszów.”
Tying all the loose ends together, even Henryk Wronski’s son was traced to France and brought out to Poland to be a part of the film. “It was all just incredibly emotional,” recalls Hoffert.
Debuting to a sold-out audience at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival last summer, the film has since racked up rave reviews with one critic calling it “absolutely the best documentary I’ve seen all year.”
Winning the ‘audience award’ in the documentary category of the Hong Kong Film Festival, in the last couple of weeks alone it has gained yet more fans after being screened at the Miami Jewish Film Festival.
Now, clamour is growing for the film to have its Polish premier with the cultural centre in Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski and others expressing a strong interest in hosting such an event.
Given the film’s worldwide reception, this would appear to be a matter of time.