A Survivor's Tale

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

308 pp , Rob Weinbach Books, William Morrow & Co., 1999  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

This is a story of courage, resourcefulness, luck and survival, one of many to emerge from the Nazi Holocaust--each unique, each different.

    Edith Hahn grew up in Vienna and witnessed the Nazi takeover, of a city which by an large welcomed its new masters. The persecution of Jews started quite early in Vienna. In 1938 Edith had successfully finished her university studies of law, but she was denied her diploma and instead had to find work as tutor and seamstress. Then in 1940 she and other young women were sent to a labor camp, to do slave-work in fields of German farmers, and later in a box factory, receiving no more than a near-starvation diet.

    Edith's father, a waiter, had died in 1936, and her sisters managed to emigrate, but her mother was left behind. By 1942 the mother--and many other Vienna Jews--were being sent away for "resettlement" in Poland, and Edith asked for permission to return to Vienna and join her. She could not have imagined that "resettlement" meant a one-way trip to Auschwitz or similar places, nor that such fate also awaited other women in the labor camp, soon replaced by non-Jewish slave workers. But her mother was sent away before Edith boarded the train to Vienna (together with a few friends on a similar trip), and they were therefore ordered to follow on a later transport.

    Instead, they secretly ripped the yellow stars off their jackets, then blended into Vienna crowds. Searching out friends, they were advised not to join any transport. But existing in Vienna was not possible either, with no documents and no ration cards: they might well be killed if caught, as would anyone who harbored them. Edith's former gentile boy-friend was too frightened to shield her, but her circle of friends came through and helped her obtain false papers--not good enough to stand close scrutiny, but adequate. With these she boarded a train to Munich, in Germany.

    Constantly fearful, she landed a job as a nurse, and in the end married a paint-shop foreman in an airplane factory, a German whose loss of an eye kept him out of the army. She actually told him who she was, but he was pressed himself, in the last stages of a rancorous divorce, and let it pass.

    It was a strange existence. Later such people would be called "U-boats" or submarines, submerged Jews hiding in Nazi society, pretending to be who they were not, forever fearful that some slip of tongue or bureaucratic trap would betray them. Under the name of Grete Denner, Edith blended and observed. Jews were never mentioned "as if they had never existed in this country," and for a while life seemed to be deceptively solid, for anyone who toed the official line. Then the air war began hitting harder, and an increasing number of young Germans never returned from the Eastern front. She bore a daughter, Angela--refusing any pain drug during delivery, having witnessed (during her service in a maternity ward) how mothers under the influence of drugs often revealed what was best left unsaid.

    It is a frightening story. As the Russian army approaches from the east, her husband too is conscripted, is even commissioned as an officer, but soon he is wounded, captured and sent to Siberia. Edith, now a judge under the Russian occupation (her law papers, hidden in the cover of a book, were finally recognized), keeps pressing the authorities for his release, and after two years he suddenly reappears, unannounced. The reunion does not last, and neither does Edith's stay in Germany.

    This is a revealing book--about the resiliency of human character, about the bonds of friendship, about the many Austrians and Germans who willingly embraced Nazi rule, and the brave few--far too few--who tried to temper it with mercy and secret help. Forget the phony tales of survival told on TV: here is a piece of reality which may give you the shivers even when you read it in the safety of your home.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 10 August 2006