The Story of the German who Saved Szpilman

Cudotwórca (The Wonder- Worker)

Wawrzyniec Smoczyński

Przekrój 38, September 22, 2002

Translated into English in FORUM - Znak Christian Culture Foundation

A German officer Wilm Hosenfeld saved Wladyslaw Szpilman from death in the ruins of Warsaw. Wilm's son Helmut, 81 years old, a retired child therapist, started to collect the testimony related to his father. Next year he is planning to publish all letters and memoirs from the times of the war. Four years ago one of Helmut's sisters in the attic of the family house found a crate containing a large family archive.

Wilm Hosenfeld was no pacifist. At the end of 1939, when he received orders to go to Poland, he was a Nazi. Hosenfeld belonged to the NSDAP and trusted Hitler; for him the war was a historical mission. He believed that the German Drang nach Osten would save the world from bolshevism. In addition he was a devout Catholic. In the occupied Poland he soon found out how difficult it was to be both a soldier and a good Christian; until the very end he tried to reconcile the two callings.

In October 1939 he became the commanding officer of the prisoner camp in Pabianice; there he helped a Polish family for the first time. The pregnant Zofia Cieciora asked him to free her husband, who was imprisoned in the camp. Cieciora assured him that he was a Volksdeutsch. Within three days Cieciora was free. This was also the first time Hosenfeld shared his doubts about the legitimacy of the war. By December 1939 he listened not only to Hitler's speeches, but to the British news as well. In winter he was moved to the railway guard. In Wegrow, where his unit was located, Hosenfeld experienced a shock as he witnessed the death of a child. He tried to save it, but the SS officer threatened to kill him. Also in December Hosenfeld saw the drama of the displaced persons at the Sokolow train station. On December 14th he wrote in his diary: I want to comfort all these poor souls and ask for their forgiveness, because the Germans treat them so badly. On the next day Hosenfeld returned to the Sokolow station with bread, cheese and sausage. He distributes all the food among the children.

Hosenfeld returned to Warsaw in June 1940 and started working at the Warsaw Wehrmacht headquarters. In his diary he noticed that the Grave of Unknown Soldier was for Poles a holy place. In November 1941 Hosenfeld, in the name of the Wehrmacht, took command of the sport center at the Lazienkowska Street (the present-day Legia Stadium). As a sport officer of the Warsaw garrison Hosenfeld was responsible for organizing exercises and competitions for German soldiers. At the same time he started to learn Polish. He also took care of matters his superiors were unaware of; by using his position he saved people's life, supplied them with false identity papers and employed as stadium personnel. In this way he saved from the hands of the Gestapo the rev. Antoni Cieciora, the brother-in-law of Zofia Cieciora. Rev Cieciora, using the name "Cichocki", survived until the end of the war while teaching Polish to the Wehrmacht soldiers.

In 1943 Wilm saved a Koszela, the brother-in-law of rev. Antoni. Hosenfeld also saved Jews. Leon Warm saved himself from the Holocaust by jumping out of a train to Treblinka. Thanks to Hosenfeld he survived the occupation working at the sport center as "Mr. Warczynski". The correspondence proves that Hosenfeld saved more people. While witnessing the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto he wrote: we put an eternal curse upon ourselves; I am ashamed to walk the streets.

In May 1944 Hosenfeld visited his family in Germany for the last time. After he returned to Warsaw, conscious of the upcoming defeat, he packed his memoirs and letters to wife and sends them by field mail to Germany. After the outbreak of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto he received orders to interrogate the insurgents and civilians who took part in the fighting. In his diary he wrote that they were motivated by patriotism while he found himself an inappropriate candidate for an investigating officer.

The most well known person saved by Hosenfeld was Wladyslaw Szpilman. During the late fall of 1944 he accidentally discovered Szpilman's hiding place at the Aleja Niepodleglosci 223. This was a meeting of two human beings. There was not a savior and the saved one - they mutually saved themselves. Hosenfeld kept the Jewish pianist in hiding; Szpilman saved the German officer from the abyss of damnation and strengthened his humanity.

Wilm Hosenfeld was imprisoned by the Soviets on January 17th, 1945 in Blonie. Initially he was placed in a transitory camp in Poland, later he was transported to Minsk, USSR. The Soviets were convinced he worked for the military intelligence and wanted him to reveal all the secret information. He was tortured during the investigation and placed in an isolated cell. In 1946 he secretly sent a card with a list of people he helped during the war. Szpilman's name was also on that list.

The Soviets accused Hosenfeld of crimes against the civilians during the Warsaw uprising. Hosenfeld appealed and fought for an acquittal. He believed that with the help of people he saved he should be cleared of the charges. However the interventions of the saved were in vain. In 1950 he was found guilty and sentenced to death; the amnesty turned the death sentence into 25 years of labor camp. However the conditions in prison and brutal interrogations lead to a stroke. The second stroke paralyzed half of his body. Hosenfeld died in a prisoner camp near Stalingrad on August 13th, 1952 at the age of 57.

In August 1989 Helmut, the son of Wilm, managed to go to the USSR and with the help of information from the Red Cross, a detailed map and local people he found the place where his father was buried. Today Helmut keeps on collecting testimony from people who had known his father; Wilm's biography shall be published next year.