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 régime 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 régime, 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 régime? 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.
Dina Weinstein is a Richmond, Virginia-based writer.