The Pianist’s Rescuer
The Fellowship | August 7, 2019
Wilhelm Hosenfeld (May 2, 1895 – August 13, 1952). Perhaps you saw the Hollywood film a few years ago, The Pianist, which not only earned an Oscar for Adrien Brody’s portrayal of Polish pianist and Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman, but told the story of Szpilman and so many other Polish Jews’ suffering during the Holocaust. The movie also told the story of how German army officer Wilhelm Hosenfeld saved Szpilman’s life.
Born in Hessen, Germany, Wilhelm was raised in a conservative Christian family. He served in World War I, then became a teacher, working at a local school. Between the two wars, Wilhelm also married and had five children. But when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Wilhelm was drafted back into the German army. Stationed in Warsaw, he would stay there for the entirety of the war.
He had joined the Nazi party early on in 1935. But Wilhelm soon became disgusted by the Nazis’ heinous crimes against the Jewish people of Poland, keeping a diary of his disgust throughout the war. After the Nazis brutally suppressed the Warsaw Ghetto revolt in 1943 (an action seen in The Pianist), Wilhelm wrote:
…these animals. With horrible mass murder of the Jews we have lost this war. We have brought an eternal curse on ourselves and will be forever covered with shame. We have no right for compassion or mercy; we all have a share in the guilt.
But Wilhelm didn’t just simmer in his own guilt. He acted to do good.
One Jewish man, Leon Warm, escaped from a train headed for the Treblinka extermination camp. When Warm made it back to Warsaw, Hosenfeld gave him false papers and a job at the city’s sports stadium.
It was Hosenfeld’s rescue of another Jew that would make him famous. Wladyslaw Szpilman was a pianist of some renown in Warsaw. After his whole family was murdered by the Nazis, Szpilman was able to escape the ghetto and find refuge on the “Aryan” side of the city with some help from his Gentile friends. After the Polish Uprising in 1944, Poles were kicked out of the city, as well, so Szpilman remained there alone, hiding in the ruins of devastated Warsaw, starving and freezing and alone. In November of 1944, Wilhelm Hosenfeld found the dying pianist and helped him survive until the city was liberated from the Nazis. But Wilhelm’s story would not end happily.
In January 1945, the Russians took Wilhelm and many other Germans prisoner. It took five years, but Wilhelm at last had his day in court, and was sentenced by a Soviet tribunal to 25 years in prison. Despite attempts by both Leon Warm and Wladyslaw Szpilman to help this German who had saved their lives, Wilhelm died in a Russian prison two years later.
But Hosenfeld’s actions would not be forgotten. Thanks to both Wladyslaw Szpilman and the sister of Leon Warm, Wilhelm Hosenfeld was at last recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in 2008.