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.

Helping the Jews

Hosenfeld was made an officer, rising to the level of Hauptmann or captain after several years in Poland, and was the officer in charge of the German sports programs for its troops. He had charge over a large sports complex with a number of Polish civilians working for him to maintain the place.

Wilm Hosenfeld began trying to save the Polish Jews by hiring men to work at the stadium. He would also slip release papers to the others to escape the jails. In 1942, Leon Warm escaped by leaping off a train headed to the Treblinka extermination camp. Hosenfeld helped him by providing him with false papers and a job.

Hosenfeld in the town of Wegrow, Poland, in February 1940, with a Jew who worked for the army (Yad Vashem. The World Holocaust Remembrance Center)

In 1944, he discovered a nearly starved man in one of the bombed Warsaw buildings. It was the pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman who was well-known in Poland. Like Warm, he escaped the train that was supposed to bring him and his family to a concentration camp. His family did not manage to escape, but he was able to hide in an abandoned building. Hosenfeld led the starving, cold, and scared Szpilman to a piano in the deserted manor and asked that he play something for him. The pianist played Chopin.

He would bring food to the pianist back and forth, along with a warm coat, helping the pianist survive the rest of the cruel war while hidden in that building. Szpilman vowed to repay the officer after the war and told him his name. However, when Szpilman asked the officer’s name, he refused as he was embarrassed that he was associated with the Nazis.

Perished In Prison

The tides of war had begun to turn against the Nazis, the Soviet army advanced and reached Warsaw by January 1945. Wilm Hosenfeld was captured, along with the other members of the German army. He was charged with spying and was detained in a military prison. There, he asked his wife to find Warm and Szpilman to help him be freed. Finally, he went before the tribunal after five years of being imprisoned. There, he was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in a prison camp. In 1950, Leon Warm wrote a letter to Szpilman, hoping that he could do something to help Hosenfeld. Warm would visit Hosenfeld in prison, although he couldn’t do anything to help him.

Szpilman would soon learn that Hosenfeld helped him, but his savior was dead by that time, probably from torture. Warm had already died, but Szpilman still pushed through for Hosenfeld to be recognized. He applied to Yad Vashem in 1998, and after the letters and diaries were reviewed and confirmed that Hosenfeld had not been involved in war crimes, he was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations on November 25, 2008.