The following passages from Defying the Nazis illustrate German officer Wilm Hosenfeld’s transformation from an enemy occupier in Poland to a humane and brave rescuer. These sections have been edited, with some bracketed text added for clarity. Excerpts from journal entries, notes, and letters appear in italics.
There was a stark difference between Hosenfeld’s personal behavior and his political beliefs about the Nazi regime. At the beginning of the attack on Poland, he compared the starts of World War I and World War II. He believed that up to the last hour, before the beginning of World War I, German Kaiser Wilhelm II had attempted to keep the peace. He also believed Hitler wanted peace and that the Nazis’ demands to Great Britain were modest. In both cases, Hosenfeld was wrong.
He trusted the German propaganda that said Polish soldiers had attacked and killed workers at a German radio station on August 31, 1939, and that there had been other Polish attacks. This was totally untrue. There were no attacks. Nazis used this propaganda to justify their offensive against Poland. The Germans made a totally unprovoked attack, while pretending to be interested in negotiations.
Hosenfeld’s reverence for Hitler grew by the end of September 1939, when victory over Poland was certain. He wrote to [his son] Helmut:
Never has a German statesman played a larger role than the Führer today. Just think, if the Führer applies the strength of the German people in their entirety, so that what was today organized for war can be put to use after the war for peace . . . peace can be built with the same determination with which today’s war is being waged. What a great and exhilarating future will then be before us.
At the time, millions of Germans thought as Wilm Hosenfeld did.
The contrast between official statements from the Nazi propaganda machine and the truth Hosenfeld encountered daily in Warsaw was even more blatant. Reading the German-controlled newspapers and hearing reports on the radio, one got the impression everything was in order, the war already won, and the German nation filled with hope for the future.
However, for a long time, Hosenfeld had not believed these reports. In his journal, he wrote about credible reports he received about Nazi brutality:
Various credible sources report that the Ghetto in Lublin has been cleared out, that the Jews were expelled and murdered on a mass scale, that they were driven into the woods, and some of them locked up in a camp. It is said of Litzmannstadt [Łódź] and Kutno that the Jews—men, women, and children—were poisoned in mobile gas carriages [moving vans], the clothes taken off the dead, their bodies dumped in mass graves, and their clothes sent to textile factories for further use. Horrifying scenes were said to have taken place. . . .
Hosenfeld also noted more unsettling news: Thirty thousand Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto had been taken to somewhere in the east. The deportation of ghetto residents to the Treblinka extermination camp was now under way. Hosenfeld heard rumors about “heating chambers”—similar to a crematorium—where people were burned alive. There was also talk of executions by shooting and mass graves.
Wilm Hosenfeld could not imagine Adolf Hitler himself had given the orders for these mass killings. He doubted any humane German would lead such a horrific campaign. In the same journal entry, he further noted: But one cannot believe all that. I refuse to believe it, not only out of concern for the future of our people, who once had to pay homage to these monstrocities, but because I do not want to believe that Hitler wants that—that there are German people who give such orders. There is only explanation: they are sick, abnormal, or insane.
Hosenfeld’s conclusive information about the extermination and killing of millions of people on an unprecedented scale reflects what we now know. Reinhard Heydrich’s program for the “final solution to the Jewish question” began well before the Wannsee Conference meeting of Nazi officials in January 1942. When Hosenfeld started writing about deportations and mass murder, the program was already well underway—it was coordinated and executed by various state authorities. The Nazis had already built and used several extermination sites for Jews, most of which were in Poland.
Some things jarred Hosenfeld’s thoughts, things that would not let him rest. In addition to writing about these in his journal, Wilm Hosenfeld also wrote to [his wife] Annemarie about the horrible and incomprehensible events. On July 23, 1942, he wrote:
I don’t want to be here anymore. What is now being done, the way the Jews are being killed. Thousands have already been murdered in other cities. [Heinrich] Himmler is supposed to have been here. Can a German still show himself anywhere in the world? Is this what our soldiers are dying for out on the front? History has never experienced anything like this. Maybe the cavemen ate each another, but to simply slaughter men, women and children, in the twentieth century, especially we, who are leading the crusade against Bolshevism, that is such an abominable national guilt, that one wants to sink into the ground in shame. One must ask, are the people responsible for this atrocity normal? Has the devil taken on human form? I wouldn’t doubt it.
[In the summer of 1943,] Hosenfeld asked himself how it was possible National Socialism had been able to become so powerful. He reflected on this in his journal:
At the time that the Nazis came to power, we did nothing to prevent it. We have betrayed our own ideals, the ideal of personal freedom, of democratic freedom and of religious freedom. The worker went along, the church observed. The citizen was too cowardly, as were the top spiritual leaders. We allowed the unions to be smashed, religious denominations to be oppressed. There was no freedom opinion in the press or broadcasting. In the end, we allowed ourselves to be driven to war.
Although despondent, Hosenfeld continued to do what he had done since the start of the occupation of Poland—he helped people in distress. Auschwitz survivor Arno Lustiger called it “rescue resistance.” Without regard for the risk, Hosenfeld expanded his help once he fully understood the extent of the crimes committed in the name of the German people.
For Wilm Hosenfeld, 1944 began as depressingly as the previous year had ended. At night when I cannot sleep, my concerns about Germany’s future and fears about our own fate come crawling, he wrote in his journal. There were no indications things would improve. There had been heavy German casualties on the Eastern Front in 1943. The Wehrmacht retreated almost 700 miles. Almost daily, hundreds of Allied planes flew over Germany, bombing industrial plants. Before long, no German businesses remained intact.
Hosenfeld was admitted to a hospital during the first week of January after suffering from intense pain and breathing difficulties. The doctor diagnosed him with influenza and inflammation of the linings around the lungs, and he was bedridden for one week. Hosenfeld was allowed to go home to Thalau for two weeks of sick leave at the end of January. In contrast to previous visits, he did not rush into work at home, but instead took things slowly and made time for talks with Annemarie and his children. Detlev, who was an air force helper and on home leave at the same time, recalled that his father spoke about the concentration camps, the extermination of Jews, and the gas chambers. Wilm Hosenfeld also told his family about Jews who had to remove the dead bodies from concentration camps and who were then shot so they would not be able to report the mass murders.
When Hosenfeld returned to Warsaw, the sergeant who met him at the train station told him that he should immediately undergo a medical examination. The criteria for classifying soldiers as “fit for military action” had been loosened to fill the massive shortage of German troops. Initially, the military doctor classified Hosenfeld as “conditionally fit for military action,” but soon afterward the qualification “conditionally” was removed. Hosenfeld, therefore, expected he could be sent to a battlefront or any German-occupied country.
His Polish staff [at the sports school he managed] was dismayed. If Hosenfeld would no longer be able to protect them, they would be in grave danger. He calmly reacted at first, but then also began to despair. What is left to still fight for? Hosenfeld wrote in his journal. All the senselessness of this life came down upon me like lead. He felt like a pawn on a chessboard that could be moved back and forth, and was very depressed.
Hosenfeld’s superiors attempted to keep him in Warsaw, but their efforts appeared to make no difference. All indications were that he would soon depart. Hosenfeld invited his army comrades to a going-away party on March 12, 1944. He had a friendly relationship with them and knew some of them well; Hosenfeld did not want to simply disappear from their lives. The celebration took place, but a call never came and daily routine continued.
At the end of March, the Polish workers at the sports school expected Wilm Hosenfeld to leave. There was still no decision about if and when he would be reassigned. However, the workers wanted to show Hosenfeld their appreciation for his willingness to help and how much he meant to them. They prepared a type of certificate, written by hand in Polish and German, with 27 signatures. The first signature belonged to “Cichocki A,” code name for the Polish priest Antoni Cieciora. A finely drawn branch with leaves and blossoms decorated the envelope. The signatories’ letter was directed to the recipient Panu Kapitanowi Hosenfeldowi (Mr. Captain Hosenfeld). It read:
During the time that we had the honor of being allowed to work together with you, we have come to know and appreciate you as a caring father and exemplary boss. If we could, we would want to always work together with you.
Today we have come together, not to say goodbye, but to honor you with the offer of a small gift. May this gift serve as a lasting remembrance and always remind you of the Polish workers of the sports school. May the Madonna of Czlstochowa bring continual happiness and blessing upon you and your family.
Warsaw, March 29, 1944
Amid a sea of persecution and violence, Wilm Hosenfeld succeeded in creating an island of humanity. What his workers actually wanted to express was something they could not write about in the spring of 1944 without endangering themselves and their rescuer.
Including the Polish insurgent fighters Hosenfeld rescued from execution, all available information indicates he saved the lives of at least 60 people. It is understandable he did not write about these perilous activities. He not only protected himself, but also the Poles who were in danger.
Defying the Nazis: The Life of German Officer Wilm Hosenfeld, Young Readers Edition
By Hermann Vinke
Translated by H. B. Babiar
2018, Star Bright Books