Before Germany invaded Poland, more than a million people lived in Warsaw. When the city was liberated in January of 1945 – just four months after the Nazis crushed the city during the Warsaw Uprising – only 153,000 starving citizens had survived. Wladyslaw Szpilman was one of them.
The pianist, whose hands would once more provide his livelihood if he survived the war, was always at risk.
Sometimes he used his hands to cling to a roof, trying to avoid the streams of German bullets. Sometimes the people who helped him stay alive could not safely deliver meager supplies. And he was always completely alone:
“I was alone: alone not just in a single building or even a single part of a city, but alone in a whole city that only two months ago had had a population of a million and a half and was one of the richer cities of Europe”
As Warsaw began its final winter as a German-occupied city, Szpilman had a rare chance to see himself in a makeshift mirror:
“At first I could not believe that the dreadful sight I saw was really myself: my hair had not been cut for months, and I was unshaven and unwashed. The hair on my head was thickly matted, my face was almost covered with a growth of dark beard, quite heavy by now, and where the beard did not cover it my skin was almost black. My eyelids were reddened, and I had a crusted rash on my forehead. “
When German soldiers finally discovered his hiding place, Wladyslaw was forced to look elsewhere again. He thought he had found a safe spot in an unfamiliar building. Intently searching for food, he was shocked to hear a German voice:
“What are you doing here? Don’t you know the staff of the Warsaw fortress commando unit is moving into this building any time now? “
Szpilman had come face to face with a German Wehrmacht officer named Wilm Hosenfeld.But this was a German soldier who had helped other Jews. This was a former teacher who had grown ashamed of what his country was doing.
Wladyslaw had met the man who would save his life.
To Szpilman’s surprise, the officer did not arrest or kill him; after discovering that the emaciated Szpilman was a pianist, Hosenfeld asked him to play something. (A piano was on the ground floor.) Szpilman played Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor.
After that, the officer showed Szpilman a better place to hide and brought him bread and jam on numerous occasions. He also offered Szpilman one of his coats to keep warm in the freezing temperatures. Szpilman did not know the name of the German officer until 1951. Despite the efforts of Szpilman and the Poles to rescue Hosenfeld, he died in a Soviet prisoner of war camp in 1952.
In 1950, Szpilman learned the name of the German officer who had offered him assistance. After much soul searching, Szpilman sought the intercession of a man whom he privately considered “a bastard,” – Jakub Berman, the head of the Polish secret police.
Several days later, Berman paid a visit to the Szpilman’s home and said that there was nothing he could do. He added, If your German were still in Poland, then we could get him out. But our comrades in the Soviet Union won’t let him go. They say your officer belonged to a detachment involved in spying – so there is nothing we can do about it as Poles, and I am powerless.
Szpilman never believed Berman’s claims of powerlessness. In an interview with Wolf Biermann, Szpilman described Berman as “all powerful by the grace of Stalin,” and lamented, “So I approached the worst rogue of the lot, and it did no good.”
Captain Wilm Hosenfeld died in a Soviet concentration camp on 13 August 1952, shortly before 10:00 in the evening, from a rupture of the thoracic aorta, possibly sustained during torture.
(letters Hosenfeld sent to his wife from the soviet camp}
Szpilman’s son, Andrzej Szpilman, had long called for Yad Vashem to recognize Wilm Hosenfeld as a Righteous Among the Nations,non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jew.
In June 2009, Hosenfeld was posthumously recognized in Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to the victims of The Holocaust) as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.