Seventy years ago, the inhabitants of Warsaw boldly rose against their Nazi oppressors. The Warsaw Uprising lasted sixty-three days, defying all expectations. Yet at the war’s end, the Polish capital suffered more damage than any other city during World War II, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki: 85 percent its buildings were destroyed, while only 400,000 residents out of a prewar population of 1.3 million (including only 11,500 of 360,000 Jews) survived. In the orgy of cruelty that was the occupation of Warsaw, one German officer—Captain Wilm Hosenfeld—acted heroically.
Most Americans who know of Hosenfeld learned of him because of Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist. In a scene near its end, its protagonist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish musician of Jewish origin hiding in the ruins of Warsaw, meets a German officer who gives him food and reassurance that the war will end soon. He was Wilm Hosenfeld.
Born in 1895 in Hesse, Hosenfeld grew up in a piously Catholic and patriotic family. He served during World War I in Romania, genuinely convinced he was “liberating” the German minority there. After the war, he returned to his rural home, where he became a teacher and married a wealthy Lutheran girl named Annemarie (who later became Catholic) with whom he had five children. He was influenced by the ideas of Catholic Action, a movement that strove to integrate the Church’s social and moral teaching into a political program, and played the organ at his parish, yet as Hitler rose to power Hosenfeld became disillusioned with the Church. Like most Germans, he saw the Versailles Treaty as humiliating and thus the National Socialists’ rhetoric appealed to him. He joined the Nazi Party in 1935, and irritated his wife by becoming engrossed in politics.
Yet the growing persecution of the Church in Germany appalled him, as did the growing militarism of the regime and the persecution of Jews, especially after Kristallnacht in 1938. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Hosenfeld was deployed to the front and was given the task of running a POW camp in Pabianice. A year later he was sent to Warsaw. He quickly gained fondness for the Poles because of their patriotism and devout Catholicism, and became disgusted with the inhumanity of his country’s regime (in letters to his family, Hosenfeld frequently wrote that he was ashamed to be a German officer). It was then that he found refuge in his faith. While Germans were prohibited from attending Polish Mass, Hosenfeld did so regularly.
Moved by his rekindled belief and appalled by the pauperization and terrorization of Poles and Jews, Hosenfeld decided to actively resist the policy of his country. In occupied Warsaw, he ran several athletic centers and saved the lives of many Poles by giving them employment there. Among them was Leon Warm-Warczynski, a Polish Jew who escaped transportation to Treblinka by jumping from a train.
German occupiers treated the Catholic clergy with particular brutality. Half of Poland’s priests were sent to concentration camps (especially Dachau), and a fifth of them perished. In 1939, he met Zofia Cieciora, a pregnant Polish woman, who begged him to free her husband imprisoned in the Pabianice camp, which he did. A couple years later, he learned of her brother-in-law Rev. Antoni Cieciora, a priest awaiting deportation to a camp. Hosenfeld saved him by giving him a job teaching Wehrmacht officers Polish.
As Warsaw lay in ruins after the Uprising in November 1944, Szpilman was cut off from contact with the Polish gentile friends who had fed him and lay dying of starvation in a building. There Hosenfeld found him. The German officer gave him bread and jam and reassured him that the war was ending. By December, Hosenfeld disappeared and Szpilman would never have a chance to thank him.
Hosenfeld spent 1945 until his death in 1952 in a Soviet POW camp. Many Poles, including Szpilman, tried to identify this noble German officer and rescue him without success. In 1950, Warm-Warczynski wrote to Szpilman regarding Hosenfeld that “scoundrels and criminals are free, while one man, who deserves all honors, must suffer.” Until his death, Hosenfeld was inseparable from his rosary and prayer book, which camp authorities did not confiscate.
I know Wladyslaw Szpilman’s widow Halina, and have visited her in her Warsaw home. Her father was a concentration camp survivor. Yet the Szpilmans’ son is a dentist who for years worked in Germany, while his musical quintet often played concerts in the country that made him experience wartime hell. Today, the Szpilman and Hosenfeld families are friends.
War causes people, regardless of nationality, to become both heroes and rogues. Such was the case in Poland’s capital. Many Warsaw Gentiles joined the anti-Nazi resistance and, despite the death penalty for helping Jews, an estimated 70,000–90,000 helped hide their Jewish neighbors. Another 3,000–10,000 behaved less nobly, blackmailing Jews to the Germans. There were also good and bad Germans.
Collective guilt is difficult. People choose not their nationality, but whether or not they will be decent in the face of evil. Individuals, not nations, are canonized as saints. While many Germans obediently followed Hitler, some courageously defied him. Most resisters were devout Christians.
Many have asked where God was amidst the horrors of World War II. While there is no short answer to this question, the forgiveness and the faith of people like Hosenfeld must be taken into account alongside the tragedy.
Filip Mazurczak has an MA in international relations from The George Washington University. He has published in a variety of magazines, including The European Conservative, Visegrad Insight, and Tygodnik Powszechny.