In 1950, the famous Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman received a letter from a Jewish man.
“I am writing to you in my name and on behalf of the family of the Wehrmacht Captain, Wilhelm Hosenfeld, whom you apparently knew well during the occupation. I assume that as with me and other Jews and Poles, Mr. Hosenfeld contributed much to your survival.”
Wilhelm Hosenfeld, a German officer in World War II, was the subject of the 2002 film The Pianist. The movie detailed the story of how Hosenfeld helped Szpilman, who was in hiding, by giving him food and warm clothing as the war came to an end.
In the film we see Hosenfeld only at the very end and are told very little of his backstory. At the end of the film are the words: “All that is known is that he died in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp in 1952.”
But, almost 17 years later, what more do we know of this secret and complex rescuer?
Hosenfeld became a member of the Nazi Party before the war. As terrible as that seems, most people in Germany did this due to the constant pressure put on them by the Nazis. There were also financial and work-related benefits they could receive by joining.
Once Germany invaded Poland and the war began, Hosenfeld was given the task of running a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp in Pabianice. It was here that a pregnant Polish woman, whose husband was imprisoned in the camp, begged Hosenfeld to release her husband.
Hosenfeld did so, and then after hearing that the woman’s brother-in-law, Reverend Antoni Cieciora, was about to be deported, Hosenfeld also saved him by giving Cieciora a job teaching Polish to German officers.
After a year, Hosenfeld was sent to Warsaw where he gained a fondness for Polish patriotism and Catholicism. It didn’t take him long to separate himself from Nazi politics.
By 1942, the deportations of Jews from the ghetto in Warsaw to the Treblinka death camp had started. On July 23, Hosenfeld wrote home to his wife:
“I don’t like being here any longer. What is being done here, how they kill the Jews…now the ghetto with half a million people is to be emptied…can a German at all show his face to the world? Is this what our soldiers are dying for at the front? There are probably no precedents in history.”
It is clear that the Nazi cause he was involved in grated on his conscience. After years of political rhetoric and the patriotic rebuilding of his country, Hosenfeld realized the ugly truth behind it all.
He wrote in his diary that “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.”
To his wife, he said, “This is a bloody guilt that makes one want to collapse on the ground. The question is whether the responsible people are at all normal. Did the devil take on human shape? I have no doubt.”
It was during this time that Hosenfeld saved a Jewish man’s life. In 1942, the man escaped from a train destined for Treblinka and made it back in Warsaw. Hosenfeld employed him at the local athletic center and provided him with false identity papers.
Employing local Poles, Jewish or otherwise, in one of his many athletic centers was a method Hosenfeld often used to save the lives of others.
This particular Jewish man’s name was Leon Warm-Warczynski, and he would later write the previously mentioned letter to pianist Wladislaw Szpilman, appealing for help in repaying Hosenfeld the favor.
“The fact is that villains and perpetrators are free, while a man deserving recognition is suffering,” Leon Warm stated in his letter.
By the time Hosenfeld appears in Szpilman’s story in The Pianist, the Germany army was preparing for the Red Army offensive that would ultimately force them out of Warsaw for good. Hosenfeld was taken prisoner by the Soviets and taken back to the USSR to stand trial.
On May 7, 1950, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison by the Soviet Union for interrogating prisoners of the Warsaw Uprising and sending them to detention camps. The trial was, according to the written verdict, “held in the absence of the defense.”
In the POW camp, a Polish priest met Hosenfeld and passed on the information of his whereabouts and situation to Leon Warm.
Six months after the trial, Warm visited Hosenfeld’s wife in Germany where he began to hatch a plan to save his rescuer. But time was not on his side. In his letter to Szpilman, he wrote that “I will be leaving Germany in one week, and I don’t have any forwarding address.”
What followed was a period of difficulties and broken promises for Hosenfeld and his family. It was difficult to gather detailed information on his whereabouts, and his family often had to rely on hearsay and third-hand information.
In his letter, Warm wrote that the last he’d heard of Hosenfeld was from the French city of Brest. “It was said that he was to be released, but then he was accused of alleged crimes against humanity. Is this at all possible? He supposedly asked: ‘hand me over to the Poles, it was there that I lived for the entire time. I had never been in Russia.’”
It seemed to prove too difficult for anything to be done. Wilhelm Hosenfeld died in a Soviet camp in 1952.
In 1998, Szpilman contacted Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, to ask for Wilhelm Hosenfeld’s deeds to be recognized.
After studying his letters and diaries, and receiving confirmation from the Polish Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes that his conduct was untarnished, Yad Vashem recognized Hosenfeld as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
The Spzilman and Hosenfeld families became friends after the war, and remain so to this day.
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