Monday, November 28, 2016

The Nazi Officer's Wife by Edith Hahn Beer with Susan Dworkin

I'm not sure how I ended up with so many Holocaust books on my reading list right now, but hopefully this is the last for a while (it gets a bit too heavy).  This was a memoir of Edith Hahn who survived the war as a "U-Boat" - a Jewish woman hidden in plain sight in Berlin, living life as the housewife of a Nazi officer.

Edith was born to a well-to-do, very assimilated Jewish family in Vienna.  Her father was a shop owner and her mother was a very talented seamstress.  Before the Nazi invasion of Austria Edith studied law and was active in the Communist movement.  She saw the writing on the wall, but did not leave Austria as she was madly in love with Pepi, a half Jewish man who would not abandon his Christian mother.  Edith's father died before the war and her two sisters managed to escape, one to Palestine the other to Britain.

When the Nazis took over Edith was first forced into the ghetto with her mother then sent to a slave labour camp.  There she suffered immense hardship through starvation and overwork but did manage to survive and even make some friends.  However, shortly after her mother was deported to Poland (until after the war Edith strongly believed it was just for resettlement) Edith was also ordered back to Vienna to report for resettlement.  Instead she took off her yellow star while on the train and immediately became a fugitive.  The reception she received from Pepi and her remaining cousin was far less welcoming than she'd hoped and instead, with the help of kind non-Jewish friends she was given a new identity as Grete Denner and moved to Berlin to work as a nurse with the Red Cross (because they did not demand national identity papers).

While in Berlin at an art gallery she met Werner Vetter, a Nazi party member who fell in love with her and offered to marry her.  Despite her protests and eventual confession of her true identity he still married her and protected her throughout the war.  Werner was a bit of an enigma - he did seem to love her though he feared their baby as he believe the Nazi propaganda that "Jewish blood" would prevail.  He was also a pathological liar and may have somewhat enjoyed the "game" of hiding a Jew.  Due to blindness in one eye he spent most of the war supervising a Nazi paint factory, but at the end was sent to the front and injured and captured by the Russians.  Edith who survived the war and revealed her true identity afterward got a job as a judge in post-war East Berlin and worked tirelessly to obtain his freedom.  When Werner did return he abandoned her and their daughter for his first wife.

A couple of years after the war Edith was asked to spy for the East German government - not wanting to do so she escaped to Britain and lived the rest of her life there and in Israel.  She told her daughter very little about the war years until much later in life when she learned Pepi had kept all her letters which diarized life in the labour camps as well as living underground.  These papers were all donated to the Holocaust museum in Washington.  In addition, the Christian woman whose identity she assumed is recognized as a righteous gentile at Yad Vashem.  Edith did not stay in touch with Werner but did maintain contact with his daughter from his first marriage who had spent time with her as a child during the war.

In all this was an interesting story though I would not say the book was the best written - it was a bit disjointed in style and therefore it was sometimes hard to keep the character references straight.  But it does tell of life of a Jewish person during the war from an entirely different perspective.

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