WATCHED A VERY moving movie on Channel 5 last night. The Pianist was filmed based on a true story of a Polish-Jewish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman who survived the holocaust after years of suffering (hiding, hunger, horror...) -- through the help of many people (non-Jews, an anti-Semitic guy, even a German officer...) and through his own indomitable spirit. As William E. Grim put it, "The Pianist is a testament to the indefatigable spirit of life that refuses to go gentle into the night."
I am especially fascinated by one character in the story, German captain Wilm Hosenfeld who met the emaciated Szpilman in his last hideout, asked him to play the piano, subsequently brought food for him for weeks and towards the end, seeing how cold the latter was, gave away his coat before leaving the city for good with the other German soldiers.
"...the question remains; was his kindness driven by altruism or opportunism, or was it the arbitrary act of a man who has had the power of life and death over people deemed worthless by the Nazis for the last four years?"
According to the information in the Szpilman.net website:
Dr Mordecai Paldiel, a director of Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority), said, "Wilm Hosenfeld was an officer in the Germany army. He was stationed in Warsaw for four years, during which time many large-scale atrocities occurred. During this time, he rose in rank from sergeant to major. You have to ask yourself several questions, especially, 'what else did he do in Warsaw other than save Wladyslaw Szpilman?'."
... Andrzej Szpilman, the son of the pianist ... says that all the available evidence suggests that Hosenfeld had consistently used his position as a German officer to help Jews and other people threatened by the Nazis. ... A woman in Australia testified that he saved her brother, Leon Warm, after he escaped from a train bound for Treblinka. Hosenfeld sheltered him and procured him false papers. "Hosenfeld first saved Jews in September 1939, and he continued to do it throughout the war," says Andrzej Szpilman. "To my knowledge, he helped at least four people and I think there were probably many more. I know that we owe a lot to Mr Hosenfeld. Without him, my father would not have survived and this film could not be made."
... It turns out that Hosenfeld left behind very extensive documentation: letters, diaries, professional impressions, chapters of memoirs and pictures. His five children carefully preserved all of these, though quite surprisingly they never saw to their publication. Thomas Vogel decided to put at the center of the book the documentation from the days of World War II (even so, with some excisions), and with respect to the earlier periods he confined himself to selected passages. Nevertheless the book makes it possible to follow the fascinating character of Hosenfeld, who is indeed deserving of a biography that is based on all his writings. Presumably in our era, when micro-history of "common people" has become a desired direction of research and "the other" has become a central character, such a biography will indeed be written. Likewise, historians like Ian Kershaw and Dov Kulka, who for years have been researching public opinion in Nazi Germany through secret reports of government agents, will see Hosenfeld's writings as a treasure trove.
The letters and the diary testify to the analytical powers of the village teacher Hosenfeld. Thus, for example, he wrote in his entry of July 23, 1942 that he cannot adopt the prevailing opinion that Germany is close to victory, because tyranny is always short-lived and sooner or later the German methods of oppression will arouse a counter-response. "The urge to liberty is imprinted in every individual and in every nation, and it is impossible to repress it over time." Indeed, the information at his disposal relates only to Poland, and this only in a fragmentary way, but he assumes that what is happening in other countries is not essentially different.
The entries also make it possible to follow the movements back and forth in Hosenfeld's thinking. On that same July 23, 1942, he wrote in his dairy that reliable people had told him about the extermination of the Lublin ghetto and the murder of most of its inhabitants, and about the poisoning of Jewish men, women and children from Lodz and Kutno in motorized gas vans. And he added: "But it is impossible to believe all these things and I hesitate to believe them, and not only out of worry for the future of the German people that one day will have to atone for these monstrous deeds, but also because I do not want to believe that Hitler wants such a thing, that there are Germans who give such orders. There is only one explanation: They are sick, abnormal or insane."
It is possible that his inability to believe was related here with a certain degree of rhetoric, because on that very same day Hosenfeld wrote to his wife about the genocide of the Jewish people, its men, women and children, as an unprecedented fact in history. "Has Satan indeed taken on human form? I have no doubt that this is so." He is so ashamed that he wants to sink into the ground. But here, too, he makes a distinction between the criminals and the soldiers, and asks bitterly whether soldiers are dying at the front in order to allow the carrying out of the acts of slaughter behind the front line.
... Roman Polanski, the director of The Pianist, himself a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, is ambiguous in his portrayal of Hosenfeld. The German appears smart and powerful and questions Szpilman without any hint of his intention. He toys with Szpilman, as if deciding whether to kill him or save him. His decision to help the pianist after hearing him play appears either idiosyncratic or opportunistic. He knows the war is all but over and the actions of the Nazis will soon be scrutinised and this is not the time to alienate any potential saviour. We can only wonder what would have happened if Szpilman had played Chopsticks rather than Chopin.