It’s easy to assume that all the Germans who participated in the holocaust were evil and happily obliged to kill all the Jews and the other victims of the atrocious act. However, there was one who proved that assumption wrong when he helped save several Polish Jews from the concentration camps, including the pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman who was portrayed in the 2002 film titled “The Pianist.” Nevertheless, he still died in a Soviet prison. This is Wilhelm “Wilm” Hosenfeld.

Catholic Beginnings

Wilm Hosenfeld was born into a Roman Catholic family of a schoolmaster near Fulda in Germany. His family ensured that he grew up strictly guided by Catholic characters and understood the importance of Christian charitable work. As a result, he had many influences throughout his life— Catholic action and Church-inspired social work, Prussian obedience, German patriotism, and later on, pacifism from his wife, Annemarie. He was also influenced by a German youth political group called the Wandervogel movement. He saw active service from 1914 when World War I broke out, and he received the Iron Cross Second Class after being severely wounded in 1917. His injuries were so severe that he was not sent back to the front in WWI and would not be suitable for a combat assignment in WWII either.

Hating the Nazis

After the war, Wilm Hosenfeld became a teacher, at the same time, a father to five kids. He was a staunch supporter of Hitler. In 1935, Hosenfeld joined the Nazi party with the promise of returning Germany to the top and returning it to dominance over Europe. In contrast to the harsh corporal punishment common in German elementary schools at the time, Hosenfeld was said to be especially kind to the kids in his classroom and did not use physical discipline on them.

During World War II, he was recalled to the army as a sergeant and sent to a unit stationed inside the Warsaw ghetto, the largest area in German-occupied territories.  There, the Nazis had jammed 400,000 Jews into a few square miles, and diseases like cholera and dysentery broke out killing them by the thousands. Again, he would see with his own eyes the horrific treatment they had to endure.

Hosenfeld with a Polish infant on his arm, September 1940 (Yad Vashem. The World Holocaust Remembrance Center)

In April 1943, Jewish insurgents in the ghetto rose, wanting to stop the Nazis from deporting the last remaining Jews for extermination. As a response, the Nazis burned the whole ghetto to ashes and then deported the remaining 42,000 residents. He was horrified and disgusted by the crimes that were being committed everywhere around him. Everything he felt during his military service was kept and written in his diary that he would regularly send home. There, he expressed how he dissented the persecution of the Polish clergy, the abuse of Jews, the beginning of the “Final Solution,” and the overall extermination of the Jews.

He once wrote in his diary,

“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. I am ashamed to walk in the city….”

From there, Hosenfeld made up his mind that he would help these Polish Jews the best that he could, and he devoted himself to that task.