Until Wilhelm Simonsohn walked into Warsaw in September 1939, he hadn’t seen the consequences of war up close. The 19-year-old spent the 18-day German invasion of Poland in a spotter plane, guiding tanks and infantry to their targets far below. From thousands of feet in the air, the first days of the war seemed like a great adventure.
All that changed when Simonsohn drove into the captured Polish capital, shattered by German bombers in the closing days of the campaign. Some 20,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the assault, one of the war’s first air assaults on a civilian population. The smell of rotting bodies trapped under the rubble is what Simonsohn remembers most vividly.
“I had to come to grips with a city destroyed by bombs,” he says. “I aged 10 years in a single moment. It made such an impression on me I said to myself, I’ll never drop a bomb on a human being. And I stuck by that.”