(photo credit: AP)
German officer Wilhelm "Wilm" Hosenfeld saved two Jews from the Holocaust, including Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose story was the basis of the Oscar-winning film "The Pianist." But he died in obscurity in a Soviet prison after World War II.
More than 60 years later, Yad Vashem honored him Friday with the "Righteous Among the Nations" distinction - presenting members of his family with a medal in tribute for the actions he took in Warsaw.
"He exercised a very, very human kind of behavior and he had to hide this from the unit he was part of, and do it on his own - it was quite dangerous," Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev said by telephone before the ceremony, which he was unable to attend due to other commitments.
"He really is the kind of person who should be honored and decorated as a unique human being."
Hosenfeld's son Detlev welcomed the recognition for his father. "It is so important to me today to make clear to young people, who have a totally different perspective on life, that the Holocaust for us Germans is a moment in time that must not be forgotten," he said during the ceremony at Berlin's Jewish Museum.
Hosenfeld was an officer in the Wehrmacht stationed in Warsaw for most of the war. Though he had joined the Nazi party in 1935, he grew disillusioned with Hitler and the war crimes being committed - keeping diaries documenting the abuse of Jews and others.
The first Jew he is known to have helped was Leon Warm, who escaped from a train to the Treblinka death camp during the 1942 deportations from Warsaw. Warm made it back to the city, where Hosenfeld provided him with a false identity and gave him a job in a sports stadium, according to Yad Vashem.
Hosenfeld encountered Szpilman in 1944, when the musician was looking for somewhere to hide after the city was razed in the brutal Nazi suppression of the Warsaw Uprising.
"He was left helpless, he didn't have any shelter ... when he was moving among the ruins of the buildings he was found by this officer, Wilhelm Hosenfeld," Shalev said. "He was sure that he had caught him and that he would shoot him down on the spot, but this German officer gave him some food, gave him a blanket and told him to stay in a place, and then provided him with more food and supplies."
Szpilman's experiences became the basis for Roman Polanski's 2002 film "The Pianist," for which Polanski won the best director Oscar and Adrien Brody took the best actor prize for his portrayal of Szpilman.
Hosenfeld was taken prisoner in 1945 by the Soviets and sentenced five years later to 25 years in prison on charges that he interrogated prisoners during the Warsaw Uprising and sent them to detention, "thereby strengthening fascism in the struggle against the Soviet Union," according to Yad Vashem.
He died in a Soviet prison in 1952.
Szpilman had applied to Yad Vashem in 1998 to have his rescuer recognized. But the awards commission wanted to first make sure there was nothing to the Soviet allegations, Shalev said.
"All the facts are here: He saved two Jews and he risked his life himself by doing it, and didn't get any reward for it," Shalev said. "He was not involved in executions or performing any crimes against humanity as a soldier - he interrogated Polish citizens, but we couldn't find any sign he did anything against the basic code of human behavior."
Szpilman's son, who helped lobby for the award after his father's death in 2000, said it was long overdue.
"From the beginning of the war, Wilhelm Hosenfeld gave help to many people regardless of religion or race, but after the war he experienced injustice," Andrej Szpilman said. "What is happening here today is the least that can be done for the people who distinguished themselves by defying orders."