Wilhelm Hosenfeld was a German schoolteacher, husband to Annemarie, a pacifist, and father of five. He’d grown up in a conservative Catholic and German patriotic family and in 1935 joined the Nazi Party. In 1940 he was stationed in Warsaw where he rose to the rank of Captain.
Wilhelm's loyalty to the Führer gradually dissolved into disillusionment as he saw the cruelty and horror playing out before him. In his journals and letters home to his wife he described his repulsion at what he saw.
On June 16, 1943 he wrote, “These brutes think we shall win the war that way. But we have lost the war with this appalling mass murder of the Jews. We have brought shame upon ourselves that cannot be wiped out; it is a curse that cannot be lifted. We deserve no mercy; we are all guilty..."
In the closing months of the war, he came upon a Polish Jew, hiding in the rubble of an abandoned building. Their eyes met. The Jew, starving and exhausted, was paralysed with fear at the thought of what would come next. What came next he would never forget.
Wilhelm hid him, brought him food and water and gave him his coat to shield him against the bitter cold. He didn’t see a Jew, but another human being and risked his own life for him.
Empathy requires that we ‘see ‘ the other person. And isn’t that what we all long for … to be seen for who we are, understood and appreciated? But so often we see a lack of empathy playing out every day.
Bullying, racism, domestic violence, terrorism, homelessness and loneliness are all evidence that we aren’t ‘seeing’ each other. When we shut our eyes to the worth of the other person, we lose sight of their humanity.
Maybe the ‘not seeing’ is more literal that we realize. In an age of 140 characters, Facebook friends and screens, have we lost the ability to look into one another’s eyes and see the pain and the joy? How often do we deliberately eyeball someone in an effort to connect and let them know they count … even for that moment?
Our way of greeting each other in the West, “Hi, how are you”, (often not seriously wanting to know) is so different to our African brothers and sisters where greetings require time and answers.
Sawubona, is an African Zulu greeting that means "I see you". It means more that our traditional "hello." It says, "I see your humanity. I see your dignity and respect you." It's a powerful greeting. And then there is the expectation of the answer. An African greeting is never hurried, it is a valued, respectful communication and needs to be taken seriously.
Someone mentioned to me the other day that in America, someone can chat to you for 90 seconds in the supermarket and then say, “It’s been nice visiting with you”. Have we too become adept at superficial relating? Are we too busy to make each other a priority?
It's easy to feel invisible.
Some years ago a new manager arrived at the office where I was working. He was a vibrant, positive, joy-filled person and brought a breathe of fresh air to the team. But over time I watched the vibrancy fade and the spring in his step disappear. One day I went to his office and asked if he have a few minutes to spare. I told him how concerned I was to see the enormous change in him, and he began to cry.
In the next few minutes, he poured out his heart. Oh the pain we often carry alone, the loneliness that no one seems to see and the healing that can come from someone letting us know we are noticed, valued and heard.
The polish Jew saved by Wilhelm Hosenfeld was Wladyslaw Szpilman, a famous pianist, who survived and lived to 88 years. When Wladyslaw heard that Wilhelm had been taken prisoner by the Soviets, he tried desperately to get him released but Wilhelm never got to see his wife and children again. This man whose heart of compassion had reached out to a number of Jews, saving and protecting them, died in prison as a result of torture at the hands of people who knew no compassion or empathy.
'Are you lost in the world like me?' Brilliant video clip by Steve Cutts - Second clip down.
"When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands and we increase our capacity for connection and compassionate.” Daniel Goleman