June 19, 2009 / 4:59 PM / 10 years ago

Israel honors German soldier from "The Pianist"

BERLIN (Reuters) - A German army officer who helped Jews during World War Two and was featured in the Oscar-winning film “The Pianist” was posthumously honored by Israel at a ceremony in Berlin on Friday.

The story of how Captain Wilhelm Hosenfeld saved the life of Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman received worldwide attention through Roman Polanski’s 2002 film, which won three Academy Awards and many other prizes worldwide.

Hosenfeld is one of the few German World War Two soldiers to receive the title “Righteous among the Nations,” an honor given by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial to people who helped Jews avoid death in the Nazi genocide that killed 6 million.

Yad Vashem announced in February that Hosenfeld would receive the honor, which has been given to over 22,000 people. The sons of both Hosenfeld and Szpilman attended the ceremony in Berlin.

Hosenfeld, one of 460 Germans honored by Yad Vashem, was in the Nazi-occupied Polish capital from 1940 to 1944. He served as a sports and culture officer in Warsaw but was also involved in some interrogations.

“The rescuer of Jewish life who we honor today through his courageous act showed that there were people in uniform, even under a dictatorship and under terror, who stood up for humanity and compassion,” said Ilan Mor, Israel’s deputy ambassador.

Born in 1895 and raised in a pious Catholic family, Hosenfeld joined the Nazi party in 1935 and was drafted into the armed forces shortly before Germany invaded Poland in 1939.

In Warsaw he recorded the brutality of the German occupiers against the Polish and Jewish local population in his diaries and letters. They showed he had expressed his “horror at the extermination of the Jewish people” by the country that he served, Yad Vashem said.

“We have brought an eternal curse on ourselves and will be forever covered with shame,” he wrote. He also risked his life to save Szpilman and another Jew, Leon Warm, by providing false documents, shelter and assistance until the end of the war.

Hosenfeld was captured by the Red Army near the end of the war and perished in a Soviet prison in 1952.

A certificate and medal were presented to Hosenfeld’s son.

“We’re aware of the fact that this is the highest honor the state of Israel awards to non-Jews,” Detlev Hosenfeld said.

Andrzej Szpilman, whose father Wladyslaw died in 2000, said of Hosenfeld: “He was a person who helped very many different people from the beginning of the war, regardless of their origin, their religion or race.”

Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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