Wilm Hosenfeld

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. 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."

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 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.

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.

Please visit The Hosenfeld Website created by Wilm Hosenfeld's grandson Friedel Hosenfeld

Wilm Hosenfeld hat über tausend Seiten Tagebücher und Briefe hinterlassen. Die Deutsche Verlagsanstalt bringt sie heraus. Die Aufzeichnungen umfassen die Jahre 1938 bis 1952 und dokumentieren eindrucksvoll Wilm Hosenfeld als vehementen Gegner des NS-Regimes - Zeugnis von der inneren Zerrissenheit dieses deutschen Offiziers, der immer wieder Menschlichkeit und Gerechtigkeit über Eid und Befehle stellt:

Wilm Hosenfeld, «Ich versuche jeden zu retten», Das Leben eines deutschen Offiziers in Briefen und Tagebüchern, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt 2004

Foto: Privatarchiv Familie Hosenfeld