Defy­ing the Nazis: The Life of Ger­man Offi­cer Wilm Hosen­feld, Young Read­ers Edition

  • Review
By – July 15, 2019

Defy­ing the Nazis: The Life of Ger­man Offi­cer Wilm Hosen­feld is the com­pli­cat­ed sto­ry of the man who res­cued Wla­dys­law Szpil­man (the sub­ject of the film, The Pianist) and dozens of oth­ers. This Young Read­ers Edi­tion is heavy on facts and illus­trat­ed with his­tor­i­cal images from Hosenfeld’s per­son­al fam­i­ly col­lec­tion, as well as archival images that recount World War II through the life of a Ger­man offi­cer who is trapped in a dif­fi­cult posi­tion as he wit­ness­es and clear­ly dis­agrees with Nazi aggres­sion and violence.

The first half of the book details the life of Hosen­feld, depict­ing his rigid Ger­man ear­ly life and devel­op­ing him as a sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter, an inde­pen­dent but com­mu­ni­ty-mind­ed thinker. He trained and worked as a teacher, was involved in a back-to-nature youth group, start­ed a fam­i­ly, and was ini­tial­ly an ardent admir­er of Adolf Hitler. Hosenfeld’s pho­tos, diary entries, and let­ters are used to tell his life sto­ry and show his skep­ti­cism about the Nazi sys­tem, even as he was a part of it. With a focus on chronol­o­gy and facts, the book does not overt­ly state the irony that a Nazi could defy the Nazis when the whole sys­tem was focused on aggre­sion and hate. He watched as those around him ele­vat­ed Aryan Ger­mans while elim­i­nat­ing and putting down minori­ties, in par­tic­u­lar Jews, and invad­ed sur­round­ing coun­tries, steal­ing from, ter­ror­iz­ing, and ulti­mate­ly mur­der­ing Jews, gay peo­ple, the hand­i­capped, and dis­senters, among many others.

This book devel­ops the inner con­flict for Hosen­feld, grap­pling with the idea of being a part of that bru­tal regime while suf­fer­ing in many small ways — liv­ing far from his fam­i­ly and hav­ing lim­it­ed leave. As a read­er, that com­plaint seems odd­ly insignif­i­cant as oth­ers are suf­fer­ing arrests, depor­ta­tion, star­va­tion, and mur­der. Hosenfeld’s hard­ships are rel­a­tive. It’s fair to say that Hosen­feld was com­plic­it with the crimes and bru­tal­i­ty waged by the Nazis, but rais­es the ques­tion: can there be good bad guys?

The Jew­ish con­tent fea­tures promi­nent­ly in the sec­ond half of the book, includ­ing descrip­tions in Hosenfeld’s own words of vio­lent acts and events he wit­nessed, includ­ing watch­ing a police offi­cer beat a starv­ing Jew­ish boy who crawled out of the War­saw Ghet­to to steal food. He also doc­u­ment­ed the bru­tal tar­get­ing Jews forced to live in the Lublin Ghet­to expe­ri­enced. In 1943 he wrote his wife that he knew Jews were being killed. I don’t want to be here any­more,” he wrote. Can a Ger­man still show him­self any­where in the world? This is an abom­inable nation­al guilt. Has the dev­il tak­en on human form?” Read­ing his sto­ry is stom­ach-turn­ing and makes one ask why Hosen­feld didn’t just stop, run away, or defect. Did he have free will? Or was he just fol­low­ing orders?”

Hosen­feld ate hearti­ly while oth­ers starved, although he expe­ri­enced fear dur­ing bomb­ings; all the while, he orga­nized adult edu­ca­tion and ath­let­ic com­pe­ti­tions for Nazi sol­diers. This bru­tal­ly hon­est sto­ry depicts a man who real­izes he is com­plic­it in the hor­rors of the Nazi regime, and is dis­gust­ed with him­self and his peo­ple. He describes the tor­ture car­ried out by Nazis, his queasi­ness regard­ing pro­pa­gan­da, and his belief in the cul­pa­bil­i­ty of those in the top posi­tions. Hosen­feld wrote that he did not feel tri­umphant in Germany’s vic­to­ries but rather depressed.

The read­er gets a sense of a ruined world as the book brings in the life and amaz­ing sur­vival of Wla­dys­law Szpil­man, the 33-year-old Pol­ish Jew and pop­u­lar musi­cian, who hid from the Ger­mans after he man­aged to escape from the War­saw Ghet­to dur­ing the upris­ing in 1943. When their paths cross, Hosenfeld’s small acts of kind­ness save Szpilman’s life. Does that act of defi­ance make Hosen­feld a Right­eous Gen­tile? If he was a Nazi, was he defy­ing the Nazis? It was not enough evi­dence ini­tial­ly to deem him a Right­eous Gen­tile accord­ing to the offi­cials at the Yad VaShem Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al in Jerusalem. But advo­ca­cy by Szpilman’s son lat­er and posthu­mous­ly, shone a light on Hosenfeld’s kind acts.

Hosen­feld remained a Sovi­et pris­on­er of war and nev­er saw his fam­i­ly again. His impris­on­ment rais­es sev­er­al ques­tions. Was he just­ly pun­ished? Can we feel sad for the fam­i­ly of a Nazi offi­cer who were also com­plic­it in the crimes of the regime? Under­stand­ing Hosenfeld’s life may inspire present-day read­ers to act on con­vic­tion, main­tain humane val­ues, and act sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly toward the oppressed.

The book’s resources are help­ful in giv­ing the read­er a sense of the his­to­ry of the era. They include a glos­sary, a list of char­ac­ters, a time­line of events, sug­ges­tions for fur­ther read­ing, maps, and pho­to credits.

Discussion Questions