Essay on “The Nazi Officers Wife: How one Jewish Women Survived the Holocaust”
- February 4, 2017
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The story of Hahn’s survival is told in a memoir she has written, The Nazi Officer’s Wife, which has enough twists to make a plot for a thriller. Time and again, her life was saved by chance and random encounters with strangers – including Nazis – whose personal morality eclipsed orders. Hahn is used to keeping secrets, and on a scale that is beyond the comprehension of most. The spirited daughter of a middle-class Jewish family in Vienna, she was transported by the Nazis as a slave laborer in 1941. Sent back to Vienna, she was about to be deported to a death camp, but fled to Germany under an assumed identity. There, at the height of the war, she married a Nazi party worker. Her husband, Werner Vetter, knew her background but they never spoke of it. Living in terror that the authorities would uncover her, she worked for the German Red Cross under an assumed identity and swore oaths of allegiance to Hitler. When her daughter, Angelika, was born, she found herself feted as a fine example of the Aryan housewife, breeding for the Reich.
“More than half a century after the Holocaust, the amazing individual stories are still jarring and inspirational. In setting down her own tale of survival -largely for her daughter’s benefit-Edith Hahn Beer provides a fascinating addition to the testimonial literature. As a young Jewish woman in Vienna, she makes a foolish choice: missing the chance to flee Nazi-occupied Austria because her boyfriend doesn’t’ t want to leave. She winds up as a slave laborer but adopts the identity of a Christian friend and ends up working for the Red Cross in Munich. There a Nazi officer falls in love and marries her and, amazingly, she gives birth to a Jewish baby in a German hospital. They divorce after the war, and Ms. Beer settles in England before moving to Israel for her final years. A powerful story.” (Precker, 1999)
The story of Hahn’s survival is told in a memoir she has written, The Nazi Officer’s Wife, which has enough twists to make a plot for a thriller. Time and again, her life was saved by chance and random encounters with strangers – including Nazis – whose personal morality eclipsed orders. As a teenager growing up in Vienna, Hahn was fascinated by philosophy and politics and, while studying law; she read Mein Kampf and other racist tracts of the time. But life was changing irrevocably and, as anti-Semitism spread, the humiliations heaped on the Jews became impossible to dismiss. Hahn and her widowed mother were evicted from their home and denied a radio or a telephone. Forbidden to sit her final law exams, she was dispatched to Germany as a slave worker, first to an asparagus plantation and later to a paper factory.
Hahn felt herself laden with the burdens of being Jewish, but without any of its strengths: the Torah learning, the welded sense of community, the deep faith in God. Her mother, she learnt, had been deported east; only thoughts of her half-Jewish sweetheart, Pepi Rosenfeld, sustained her. After a year, she was sent back to Vienna, from where she was to be deported, ostensibly to join her mother. But on the train, she slipped her Jewish yellow star into her pocket and escaped to meet Pepi. He was a changed man, living in the shadowy margins of the ghetto. Fearing for his life, he refused to give her shelter or even food – providing refuge to any fugitive, even his lover, was too great a risk.
Her fate, like that of so many, was determined by the kindness of others. Above all, a Christian friend, Christl, helped her. The younger woman risked her life by giving Hahn her papers, claiming to the authorities they had been lost in the Danube. Hahn, then 28, assumed the identity of Grete, a 20-year-old, poorly educated, nurse’s aide. She went to Munich, where she joined the Red Cross.
Like the German writer Erich Kastner, who responded to the Nazi era with internal emigration, she retreated deep into herself. Her new persona was that of a friendly but distant girl who listened but seldom spoke. Then, one day at an art gallery, Werner Vetter sat down beside her and struck up a flirtatious conversation. He was a couple of years older than her and, with his silky blond hair, bright blue eyes and thin, rather hard mouth, appeared a typical example of Hitler’s ideal Aryan man. Quiet Grete also enchanted him. After a whirlwind courtship lasting little more than a week, he begged her to marry him. Hahn was plunged into panic. She tried to fend him off with platitudes, saying they couldn’t marry in wartime and that she would wait for him, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Finally, she whispered into his ear that she was Jewish. Vetter responded by saying that he, too, told her a lie when he said he was single. He was in the midst of a divorce, and had a young daughter he had pretended was his niece. As he saw it, they were quits, and she moved into his flat in Brandeburg, outside Berlin. But Werner was a complex man, who, rather bizarrely for a Nazi, had a problem with authority. He worked as a painting supervisor at an aircraft factory, but if he felt like staying in bed, he would call up his bosses with a lie about his mother’s house being bombed. While she remained calm on the outside, the daily anxieties of dealing with petty bureaucrats, or even entering a coffee house, made her nauseous with fear.
There were some concessions she would not make. She avoided shops where she would be required to give the Heil Hitler greeting and would not hang a picture of Hitler in her house. Her daughter Angelika, who later called herself Angela, was born in 1944. A year later, the war ended. After two months, she retrieved her real papers, hidden in the binding of a book. Her law training was officially recognized, and she was made an attorney in the new state of East Germany and, soon after, a family law judge.
Defeated in war, Vetter had no role in the new regime and resented the fact his meek wife had been transformed into an empowered professional. He left and was reunited with his first wife. Heartbroken, Hahn agreed to a divorce. But further disruption was to come. Hahn took Angela to Britain, where her sister had lived since before the war. Here, she found work as a housemaid, and a seamstress. Turning her back on “the charade of assimilation”, she raised Angela as a Jew. In 1957, Hahn married a Jewish jewellery merchant, Fred Beer, whose mother had been killed in Theresienstadt. After he died, in 1984, she moved to Israel. She kept in touch with her first husband for the sake of their daughter but he was violent towards Angela, whom he rejected as a Jew. Hahn broke off contact with him, but harbors no ill will.
Edith Hahn Beer, “The Nazi Officers Wife: How one Jewish Women Survived the Holocaust” Harper Perennial; ISBN: 068817776X; (November 2000)
Precker, Michael Warming Words: As nights turn chilly, our book reviewers find the perfect curling-up companions. , The Dallas Morning News, 11-27-1999, pp 1C