The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust

The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust

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by Edith Hahn Beer, Edith Hahn-Beer

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Edith Hahn was an outspoken young woman in Vienna when the Gestapo forced her into a ghetto and then into a slave labor camp. When she returned home months later, she knew she would become a hunted woman and went underground. With the help of a Christian friend, she emerged in Munich as Grete Denner. There she met Werner Vetter, a Nazi Party member who fell in love

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Edith Hahn was an outspoken young woman in Vienna when the Gestapo forced her into a ghetto and then into a slave labor camp. When she returned home months later, she knew she would become a hunted woman and went underground. With the help of a Christian friend, she emerged in Munich as Grete Denner. There she met Werner Vetter, a Nazi Party member who fell in love with her. Despite Edith's protests and even her eventual confession that she was Jewish, he married her and kept her identity a secret.

In wrenching detail, Edith recalls a life of constant, almost paralyzing fear. She tells how German officials casually questioned the lineage of her parents; how during childbirth she refused all painkillers, afraid that in an altered state of mind she might reveal something of her past; and how, after her husband was captured by the Soviets, she was bombed out of her house and had to hide while drunken Russian soldiers raped women on the street.

Despite the risk it posed to her life, Edith created a remarkable record of survival. She saved every document, as well as photographs she took inside labor camps. Now part of the permanent collection at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., these hundreds of documents, several of which are included in this volume, form the fabric of a gripping new chapter in the history of the Holocaust—complex, troubling, and ultimately triumphant.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Born to a middle-class, nonobservant Jewish family, Beer was a popular teenager and successful law student when the Nazis moved into Austria. In a well-written narrative that reads like a novel, she relates the escalating fear and humiliating indignities she and others endured, as well as the anti-Semitism of friends and neighbors. Using all their resources, her family bribed officials for exit visas for her two sisters, but Edith and her mother remained, due to lack of money and Edith's desire to be near her half-Jewish boyfriend, Pepi. Eventually, Edith was deported to work in a labor camp in Germany. Anxious about her mother, she obtained permission to return to Vienna, only to learn that her mother was gone. In despair, Edith tore off her yellow star and went underground. Pepi, himself a fugitive, distanced himself from her. A Christian friend gave Edith her own identity papers, and Edith fled to Munich, where she met and--despite her confession to him that she was Jewish--married Werner Vetter, a Nazi party member. Submerging her Jewish identity at home and at work, Edith lived in constant fear, even refusing anesthetic in labor to avoid inadvertently revealing the truth about her past. She successfully maintained the facade of a loyal German hausfrau until the war ended. Her story is important both as a personal testament and as an inspiring example of perseverance in the face of terrible adversity. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A well-written, tense, and intimate Holocaust memoir by an author with a remarkable war experience. Young Beer (née Hahn) was a promising Viennese Jewish law student until the German Anschluss annexing Austria made her circle stop its laughing ("Hitler is a joke. He will soon disappear"). She was a Christmas-tree Jew with a Gentile boyfriend (dreaming of a socialist paradise), but Zionist siblings (who escape to Palestine), and the deadly follow-ups to the Nuremberg Laws send Beer into an underground existence as a "U-boat" in Aryan Germany. Beer took on an Austrian friend's documents and identity, got employed with the Munich Red Cross, and dated soldiers for the meals and cover—marrying one Nazi, Werner Vetter, with a good job and expertise in art. She admitted her Jewishness to him but lived outwardly as a normal Hausfrau. Beer talked her husband into pregnancy, even though under Nazi rule their baby would be considered Jewish. The baby was a girl, making Werner furious—"a Nazi who made a religion of twisted, primitive virility," Hahn comments. The losing Reich drafted the one-eyed Werner, made him an officer, and shipped him to Russia. The Nazi officer's wife discovered the Holocaust from forbidden BBC broadcasts and so learned the fate of family and friends. After the Russians conquered and burned her neighborhood, Beer retrieved her old identity papers and diploma, and this illegal fugitive was eventually transformed into a feared judge. Some embittered Jewish survivors cursed her for the way she survived the war, but Beer was still fearful enough to baptize her daughter. A returned Werner rejected the independent Edith who had replaced his servile Grete, so Beerdivorced him in 1947, left the oppressive Russians, and emigrated to England, then, in 1987, to Israel. This engaging book goes deeper than psychologizing on the (Patty) Hearst Syndrome in explaining how the survival instinct allows one to sleep with the enemy. (Author tour)

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
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Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

After a while there were no more onions. My coworkers (among the Red Cross nurses at the Stadtische Krankenhaus in Brandenburg said it was because the Fuhrer needed the onions to make poison gas with which to conquer our enemies. But I think by then-it was May 1943-many citizens of the Third Reich would have gladly forgone the pleasure of gassing the enemy if they could only taste an onion.

At that time, I was working in the ward for the foreign workers and prisoners of war. I would make tea for all the patients and wheel it around on a little trolley, trying to smile and give them a cheery "Guten Tag. "

One day when I brought the teacups back to the kitchen to wash, I interrupted one of the senior nurses slicing an onion. She was the wife of an officer and came from Hamburg. I believe her name was Hilde. She told me the onion was for her own lunch. Her eyes searched my face to see if I knew that she was lying.

I made my gaze vacant and smiled my silly little fool's smile and went about washing up the teacups as though I had absolutely no idea that this nurse had bought her onion on the black market especially to serve to a critically injured Russian prisoner, to give him a taste he longed for in his last days. Either thing-buying the onion or befriending the Russian-could have sent her to prison ,

Like most Germans who defied Hitler's laws, the nurse from Hamburg was a rare exception. More typically, the staff of our hospital stole the food meant for the foreign patients and took it home to their families or ate it themselves. You must understand, these nurses were not well-educated women from progressive homes for whom caring for the sickwas a sacred calling. They were very often young farm girls from East Prussia, fated for lifelong backbreaking labor in the fields and barns, and nursing was one of the few acceptable ways by which they could escape. They had been raised in the Nazi era on Nazi propaganda. They truly believed that, as Nordic "Aryans," they were members of a superior race. They felt that these Russians, Frenchmen, Dutchmen, Belgians, and Poles who came into our clinic had been placed on earth to labor for them. To steal a plate of soup from such low creatures seemed not a sin but a perfectly legitimate activity.

I think we must have had more than ten thousand foreign pnisoners in Brandenburg, working in the Opel automobile factory, the Arado airplane factory, and other factories. Most of those whom we saw in the hospital had been injured in industrial accidents. While building the economy of the Reich, they would mangle their hands in metal presses, burn themselves in flaming forges, splash themselves with corrosive chemicals. They were a slave population, conquered and helpless; transported away from their parents, wives, and children; longing for home. I did not dare to look into their faces for fear of seeing myself-my own terror, my own loneliness.

In our cottage hospital, each service was housed in a separate building. We on the nursing staff ate in one building, did laundry in another, attended to orthopedic cases in another and infectious diseases in yet another. The foreign prisoners were rigorously separated from German patients, no matter what was wrong with them. We heard that one time, a whole building was allocated to foreigners suffering from typhus, a disease that comes from contaminated water. How they had contracted such a disease in our beautiful historic city-which had inspired immortal concertos, where the water was clean and the food was carefully rationed and inspected by our government-was impossible for simple girls Iikee us to comprehend. Many of my coworkers assumed that the foreigners had brought it on themselves, because of their filthy personal habits. These nurses managed not to admit to themselves that the disease came from the unspeakable conditions under which the slave laborers were forced to live.

You must understand that I was not really a nurse but rather a nurse's aide, trained only for menial tasks. I fed the patients who could not feed themselves and dusted the night tables. I washed the bedpans. My first day on the job, I washed twenty-seven bedpans-in the sink, as though they were dinner dishes. I washed the rubber gloves. These were not to be discarded like the thin white gloves you see today. Ours were heavy, durable, reusable. I had to powder their insides. Sometimes I prepared a black salve and applied it to a bandage and made compresses to relieve the pain of rheumatism. And that was about it. I could not do anything more medical than that.

Once I was asked to assist at a blood transfusion. They were siphoning blood from one patient into a bowl, then suctioning the blood from the bowl and into the veins of another patient. I was supposed to stir the blood, to keep it from coagulating. I became nauseated and ran from the room. They said to themselves: "Well, Grete is Just a silly little Viennese youngster with almost no education, the next thing to a cleaning woman — how much can be expected from her? Let her feed the foreigners who have chopped off their fingers in the machines."

I prayed that no one would die on my watch. Heaven must have heard me, because the prisoners waited for my shift to be over, and then they died.

I tried to be nice to them; I tried to speak French to the Frenchman to assuage their homesickness. Perhaps I smiled too brightly, because one August morning my head nurse told me that I had been observed to be too friendly with the foreigners, so I was being transferred to the maternity service...

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