Medal for "Pianist" saviour stirs debate in Poland

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WARSAW, Oct 16 (Reuters) Poland's decision to honour the German officer who helped save the Jewish musician depicted in the film ''The Pianist'' has angered some World War Two veterans.

President Lech Kaczynski gave a posthumous award last week to Wilhelm Hosenfeld for helping Wladyslaw Szpilman during the Holocaust in occupied Poland. He was given the Commander's Cross, one of Poland's top awards.

''A hero? What he did was behaviour expected from an officer but not something which deserves a medal,'' Jan Podhorski, leader of a veterans' group, told daily Nasz Dziennik.

Podhorski fought during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, when most of the Polish capital was destroyed by the Nazis. Poland suffered massive destruction during the war and the occupation is burned deep in Polish memories.

In one of the most haunting scenes of Roman Polanski's Academy Award winning movie ''The Pianist'', Hosenfeld discovers the exhausted and starving Szpilman hiding from the Nazis in an attic in Warsaw.

A performance by the musician moves Hosenfeld and he decides to allow the Polish-Jewish artist to stay in the attic. He later brings him food and warm clothes, which saves Szpilman from the cold and hunger.

The film is based on Szpilman's memoirs.

Irena Sendler, 97, who was among candidates proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize this year for smuggling babies and children out of the Warsaw ghetto, also criticised the decision.

''It is worth remembering what he did and respecting him for this but not give him such a high award,'' she told Polish media.

''The president should not do this ... out of respect for those who died while saving Jewish people.'' The president's office defended its decision to give the award to Hosenfeld, who was captured by Soviet troops and died in a labour camp in 1952.

''It is not important in what uniform and on which side he was standing then, it is important that he has proved to be human,'' said Ewa Junczyk Ziomecka, a minister in Kaczynski's office.

Poland had the biggest Jewish population in Europe until the war but the murder of millions in the Holocaust by the occupying Germans and an anti-Semitic campaign by post-war communist authorities left only a few thousand Jews in the country.

Since the end of communism, Polish governments have tried to rebuild relations with the Jewish community and counter perceptions of anti-Semitism.

Reuters SS RS0845

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