Today, November 8, is World Pianist Day.
The story of Wladyslaw Szpillman is widely known to many of us. He was one of only 20 Jews still alive in Warsaw when he was discovered by a German officer in November of 1944. Szpillman, a well-known composer, was living in a bombed-out building, almost frozen and starving to death. The German officer provided food and supplies, and most importantly, safety. Wladyslaw Szpillman survived the war and composed and performed until his death in 2000, and his miraculous story of survival was the subject of the poignant film, “The Pianist.”
But what of the German officer? His name was Wilm Hosenfeld, a schoolteacher from Hunfeld in Germany and father of five. He was 44 years old in 1939 when he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and sent to Poland. He was a member of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, believing in its vision for Germany, but the brutality that he encountered in Poland changed all of that. He continued to perform his duties as a German officer, but when opportunities arose, he rescued Jews, hid them, helped them. His was a tiny personal crusade, a drop in the ocean, aiding a single person here and there, and one of those people happened to be the famous composer, Szpillman.
One would hope that his efforts were repaid in kind, but such was not the case. He was arrested by the Soviets at war’s end and convicted as a war criminal by virtue of being a German officer. He was sentenced to 25 years hard labor in a Soviet prison camp. Despite the testimony of Szpillman and other Jews that he had saved, the Soviets refused to release him. Wilm Hosenfeld died August 13, 1952, and these heartbreaking words were written of his death – “He had been tortured in captivity… he then suffered several cerebral strokes. By the end he was in a confused state of mind, a beaten child who does not understand the blows. He died with his spirit utterly broken.”
Heroism is a strange thing… a matter of conscience, of opportunity, of bravery, of split-second decision, and heroes are found at times in unexpected guises. After decades of effort by Wladyslaw Szpillman and others, Wilm Hosenfeld was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations 56 years after his death.