Wilm Hosenfeld - a man of courage

by www.hosenfeld.de

A Man of Courage – rescuer of the pianist

The Holocaust is a history of enduring horror and sorrow. It seems as though there is no spark of human concern, no act of humanity, to lighten that dark history.

Yet there were acts of courage and kindness during the Holocaust - this is the story of Wilm Hosenfeld, a German Wehrmacht officer who believed in helping others, even at the risk of getting himself killed - a man who had the courage to stand against evil.

The Holocaust survivor, the author Elie Wiesel, has dedicated his life to ensuring that none of us forget what happened to the Jews. The Nobel Prize recipient wrote:
"In those times there was darkness everywhere. In heaven and on earth, all the gates of compassion seemed to have been closed. The killer killed and the Jews died and the outside world adopted an attitude either of complicity or of indifference. Only a few had the courage to care."

The Holocaust

One of them was Wilm Hosenfeld. He risked everything to help Jews escape the Nazi genocide and achieved world-wide fame as the rescuer of the Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, when Polanski's film "The Pianist" won the Golden Palm in Cannes and 3 Academy Awards.

Many, many people around the world, including Andrzej Szpilman, the son of the pianist, has been demanding, for years now, that Yad Vashem honor Wilm Hosenfeld as a Righteous Among the Nations: non-Jews who risked their lives in order to rescue Jews.

Today the name of Wilm Hosenfeld is known to millions as a household word for courage ...

In 2002 Wilm Hosenfeld achieved world-wide fame as the rescuer of the Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, when Roman Polanski's film "The Pianist" won the Golden Palm in Cannes and 3 Academy Awards. This incredible story of survival brought tears to the eyes of those all around the world who saw the film. As Benjamin Z. Kedar tells in his article 'Has Satan taken on a human form?' in www.Haaretz.com August 6, 2004:

"Anyone who has seen Roman Polanski's film "The Pianist" remembers the scene in which a German officer listens to Polish-Jewish musician Wladislaw Szpilman playing, hides him in an attic in Warsaw and sees to his needs.

Anyone who has read Szpilman's book remembers that when the musician asks his savior whether he is a German, the latter replies emotionally: "Yes! And I am ashamed of this, after everything that has happened." Szpilman, who was afraid that if he fell into the hands of the Germans he would break down and reveal his rescuer, preferred not to know his name.

Thus it happened that only in the epilogue that Wolf Biermann added in 1998 to the new edition of Szpilman's memoirs, was it revealed for the first time that the German officer was called Wilm Hosenfeld, and some details about his life story were given."

Wilm Hosenfeld was a kind and gentle Wehrmacht officer who believed in helping others, even at the risk of getting himself killed - a man who had the courage to stand against evil. Once, when riding a bicycle near the Polish town of Pabiance, Hosenfeld had encountered a young Jewish woman running desperately down the road. When he asked her where she was going, she was so frightened she stammered out the truth and told Hosenfeld that she was pregnant and that her husband was a prisoner in the concentration camp. She was going to the camp to beg for his release.

Hosenfeld wrote down the husband’s name and said to the wife, "Your husband will be home again in three days." And he was ...

On another occasion, Wilm Hosenfeld had learned that the Gestapo had rounded up a number of men, including the brother-in-law of a priest who had labored sacrificially in the underground. They were being taken by truck to a labor camp, and the brother-in-law was to be executed.

Hosenfeld spotted the truck moving through town, waved it down, and told the S.S. officer, "I need a man" for labor detail. He picked out the priest’s brother-in-law, as if by random selection, and the man was saved.

A woman in Australia has later testified that Wilm Hosenfeld saved her brother, Leon Warm, after he escaped from a train bound for the death camp Treblinka. Hosenfeld sheltered him and procured him false papers.

Wilm Hosenfeld saved the pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, too. During the late fall of 1944 he discovered Szpilman's hiding place at the Aleja Niepodleglosci 223 in Warsaw and found Szpilman lurking in the ruined house, in rags, dirty, unshaven, with long hair. Hosenfeld decided to protect the Jewish pianist, brought him food and clothes and helped him stay hidden.

Wladyslaw Szpilman was believed to be one of only about 20 Jews alive in Warsaw when the Polish capital was liberated in 1945.

According to Andrzej Szpilman, the son of the pianist, "Hosenfeld first saved Jews in September 1939, and he continued to do it throughout the war. To my knowledge, he helped at least four people and I think there were probably many more. I know that we owe a lot to Mr Hosenfeld. Without him, my father would not have survived and this film could not be made."

On December 14, 1940, Wilm Hosenfeld wrote in his diary:"I want to comfort all these poor souls and ask for their forgiveness, because the Germans treat them so badly ..."

The comprehensive edition of Wilm Hosenfeld's letters and diary notes - edited by the Office for the Research of Military History at Potsdam - provides insight into the life and thought of a German patriot who joined the Nazis out of idealism, but turned away from them in horror when he recognized the dreadful consequences. In November 1939 he wrote to his wife that he was sometimes ashamed to be a German soldier after having been an eye witness to the execution of members of the Polish leadership and the expulsion of Polish and Jewish citizens.

On September 1, 1942, he asked: "Why did this war have to happen at all?" This was his answer:

"Because humanity had to be shown where its godlessness was taking it ... This denial of God's commandments leads us to all the other immoral manifestations of greed - unjust selfenrichment, hatred, deceit, sexual license resulting in infertility and the downfall of the German people. God allows all this to happen ... to show mankind that without him we are only animals in conflict, who believe we have to destroy each other. We will not listen to the divine commandment: "Love one another" ... and must die, guilty and innocent alike."

When he got knowledge of the mass murder of the Soviet Jews, the beginning of the gassing at Auschwitz and the extermination of the Warsaw Jews at Treblinka, he realized the magnitude of the crimes:

A diary entry of Wilm Hosenfeld June 16, 1943: "Innumerable Jews have been killed like that, for no reason, senselessly. It is beyond understanding. Now the last remnants of the Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto are being exterminated. An SS Sturmführer boasted of the way they shot the Jews down as they ran out of the burning buildings. The entire ghetto has been razed by fire.

These brutes think we shall win the war that way. But we have lost the war with this appalling mass murder of the Jews. We have brought shame upon ourselves that cannot be wiped out; it is a curse that cannot be lifted. We deserve no mercy; we are all guilty ..."

A diary entry from August 13, 1943:  "It is impossible to believe all these things, even though they are true. Yesterday I saw two of these beasts in the tram. They were holding whips in their hands when they came out of the ghetto. I would like to throw those dogs under the tram. What cowards we are, wanting to be better and allowing all this to happen. For this, we too will be punished, and our innocent children after us, because in allowing these evil deeds to occur, we are partners to the guilt."

A diary note from December 5, 1943:  "Our entire nation will have to pay for all these wrongs and this unhappiness, all the crimes we have committed. Many innocent people must be sacrificed before the blood-guilt we have incurred can be wiped out ..."

Benjamin Z. Kedar tells in his article how Hosenfeld tried to aid persecuted Poles and Jews, and also to help a communist German soldier, who had been in the concentration camps. He employed some of them in the sports stadium that was under his command. In his interrogation in Russian captivity, he later gave the names of four Jews he had saved - among them "Wladislaw Szpilman, a pianist in the Polish Radio orchestra."

Wilm Hosenfeld was taken captive by the Soviets on January 17, 1945. Despite many people pleading his case and Szpilman’s efforts to help him, the Soviets refused to believe that he was not involved in war crimes.

According to Benjamin Z. Kedar Hosenfeld suffered his first stroke in 1947 and thereafter spent long periods in the infirmaries of the prison camps. He continued to hope that he would be released, but in 1950 a military court in Minsk sentenced him to 25 years' imprisonment.

Wilm Hosenfeld died in a prisoner camp near Stalingrad on August 13, 1952, at the age of 57, due to hard conditions in prison and brutal interrogations.

Wolf Biermann added to Szpilman's memoirs: "He had been tortured in captivity because the Soviet officers thought his claim to have saved a Jew a particularly lie. He then suffered several cerebral strokes. By the end he was in a confused state of mind, a beaten child who does not understand the blows. He died with his spirit utterly broken."  Wladyslaw Szpilman lived in Warsaw until his death July 6, 2000, a few months before the filming of The Pianist began. He was 88.

Many, many people around the world, including Andrzej Szpilman, has been demanding, for years now, that Yad Vashem honor Wilm Hosenfeld as a Righteous Among the Nations: non-Jews who risked their lives in order to rescue Jews. To date, more than 20,000 men and women, including family members who shared in the rescue of Jews, have been recognized.

The Holocaust was the systematic annihilation of six million Jews by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis during World War 2. In 1933 approximately nine million Jews lived in the 21 countries of Europe that would be military occupied by Germany during the war. By 1945 two out of every three European Jews had been killed by the Nazis.

But Jews were not the only group singled out for persecution by Hitler’s Nazi regime. As many as one-half million Gypsies, at least 250,000 mentally or physically disabled persons, and more than three million Soviet prisoners-of-war also fell victim to Nazi genocide. Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Social Democrats, Communists, partisans, trade unionists, Polish intelligentsia and other undesirables were also victims of the hate and aggression carried out by the Nazis.

The number of children killed during the Holocaust is not fathomable and full statistics for the tragic fate of children who died will never be known. Some estimates range as high as 1.5 million murdered children. This figure includes more than 1.2 million Jewish children, tens of thousands of Gypsy children and thousands of institutionalized handicapped children who were murdered under Nazi rule in Germany and occupied Europe.

Holocaust Deaths

Country/Region - Estimate
Germany (1938 Borders)   -  130,000
Austria - 65,000
Belgium & Luxembourg - 29,000
Bulgaria - 7,000
Czechoslovakia - 277,000
France - 83,000
Greece - 65,000
Hungary & Ukraine - 402,000
Italy - 8,000
Netherlands - 106,000
Norway - 760
Poland & USSR - 4,565,000
Romania - 220,000
Yugoslavia - 60,000
TOTAL - 6,017,760

Source: Nizkor Project statistics derived from Yad Vashem and Fleming, Hitler and the Final Solution.

The world outside Nazi Europe received numerous press reports in the 1930s about the persecution of Jews. By 1942 the governments of the United States and Great Britain had confirmed reports about the Final Solution - Germany's intent to kill all the Jews of Europe. However, influenced by antisemitism and fear of a massive influx of refugees, neither country modified their refugee politics. No specific attempts to stop or slow the genocide were made until mounting pressure eventually forced the United States to undertake limited rescue efforts in 1944.

In Europe, rampant antisemitism incited citizens of many German-occupied countries to collaborate with the Nazis in their genocidal policies. There were, however, individuals and groups in every occupied nation who, at great personal risk, helped hide those targeted by the Nazis.

One nation, Denmark, saved most of its Jews in a nighttime rescue operation in 1943 in which Jews were ferried in fishing boats to safety in neutral Sweden.