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


Edith Hahn was an outspoken young woman studying law in Vienna when the Gestapo forced Edith and her mother into a ghetto, issuing them papers branded with a "J." Soon, Edith was taken away to a labor camp, and though she convinced Nazi officials to spare her mother, when she returned home, her mother had been deported. Knowing she would become a hunted woman, Edith tore the yellow star from her clothing and went underground, scavenging for food and searching each night for a safe place to sleep. Her boyfriend, ...
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Edith Hahn was an outspoken young woman studying law in Vienna when the Gestapo forced Edith and her mother into a ghetto, issuing them papers branded with a "J." Soon, Edith was taken away to a labor camp, and though she convinced Nazi officials to spare her mother, when she returned home, her mother had been deported. Knowing she would become a hunted woman, Edith tore the yellow star from her clothing and went underground, scavenging for food and searching each night for a safe place to sleep. Her boyfriend, Pepi, proved too terrified to help her, but a Christian friend was not: With the woman's identity papers in hand, Edith fled to Munich. There she met Werner Vetter, a Nazi party member who fell in love with her. And despite her protests and even her eventual confession that she was Jewish, he married her and kept her identity secret. In vivid, wrenching detail, Edith recalls a life of constant, almost paralyzing fear. She tells of German officials who casually questioned the lineage of her parents; of how, when giving birth to her daughter, she refused all painkillers, afraid that in an altered state of mind she might reveal her past; and of how, after her husband was captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia, Edith was bombed out of her house and had to hide in a closet with her daughter while drunken Russians soldiers raped women on the street. Yet despite the risk it posed to her life, Edith Hahn created a remarkable collective record of survival: She saved every set of real and falsified papers, letters she received from her lost love, Pepi, and photographs she managed to take inside labor camps. On exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., these hundreds of documents form the fabric of an epic story--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

  • ISBN-13: 9780062378088
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/10/2015
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 405,240

Meet the Author

Born in Vienna in 1914, Edith Hahn Beep, currently resides in Netanya, Israel. She and Werner Vetter divorced in 1947. Her daughter, Angela, lives in London and is believed to be the only Jew born in a Reich hospital in 1944.

Acclaimed writer Susan Dworkin is the author of many books, including the memoir The Nazi Officer’s Wife with Edith Hahn Beer, the novel Stolen Goods, the novel-musical The Book of Candy, the self-help book The Ms. Guide to a Woman’s Health with Dr. Cynthia W. Cooke, and the film studies Making Tootsie and Double De Palma. She wrote the Peabody Award-winning TV documentary She's Nobody’s Baby: American Women in the 20th Century and was a longtime contributing editor to Ms. Magazine. She lives in New Jersey.

Bess Myerson now devotes her time mainly to advocacy in the area of women’s health research and treatment, consumerism, education, and peace in the Middle East. She is on the National Advisory Board of the State of Israel Bonds, a member of the “Share” Board and a trained facilitator working with ovarian cancer survivors, and one of the founders of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. She lives in New York City.

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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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Reading Group Guide

Papa felt that Jews had to be better than everybody else.
He expected us to have finer manners, cleaner clothes, immaculate moral standards. I didn't think about it at the time, but of course now I realize that my father's insistence that we Jews must be better was based on our country's firm belief that we were not as good.


A law student in love, Edith Hahn is a sophisticated teenager who adores her intellectual and stylish city of 1920s Vienna. She passionately discusses subjects such as politics, law, and psychology with her half-Jewish boyfriend Pepi Rosenfeld and their friends. Devastated by her father's sudden death, she is left to care for her mother and two sisters as Hitler's regime gains momentum. Her life, and the lives of everyone she cares for, are to be forever changed on March 12, 1938 when Hitler announces his legislation to encorporate the Anschluss of Austria into the German Reich.

Soon after, Edith and her family are evicted from their home and forced to join the growing numbers of families living in the ghetto. As unspeakable violence and fear descends upon the city and its Jewish communities, the Hahn family realizes that they must flee Vienna. Edith's sisters -- Mimi and Hansi -- escape to Israel and Palestine by bribing officials for exit visas. Left with neither money nor resources, Edith remains in the Vienna ghetto to be near her mother and Pepi.

Eventually, Edith is sent to a labor camp -- an asparagus plantation in Osterburg where she, along with other Jews and foreign prisoners, works until exhaustion. When she returns home months later, she has become a hunted womanand goes underground, constantly searching for her mother. While Pepi remains unharmed because his Aryan mother arranged to have his Jewish identity erased from files, he refuses to marry Edith and leave Vienna with her.

Edith, who had once believed that somehow love would save her, faces her reality and plans her own survival as a "U-boat," a fugitive from the Gestapo living under a false identity in Nazi Germany. With the help of her Christian friends, Maria Niderall and Christl Denner Beran, she emerges in Munich as Grete Denner. It is there that she meets Werner Vetter, a Nazi Party member who falls in love with her. Despite her protests and even her agonizing confession that she is Jewish, he marries her and keeps her identity a secret.

In wrenching detail, Edith recalls a life of constant, almost paralyzing fear. She tells of German officials who casually question the lineage of her parents; of how, when giving birth to her daughter, she refuses all painkillers, afraid that in an altered state of mind she might reveal something of her past; and of how, after her husband is captured by the Soviet army, she is bombed out of her house and has to hide while drunken Russian soldiers rape women on the street.

Edith's remarkable account of her survival -- along with documents and photographs that she was able to save all these years and which are now part of the permanent collection at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. -- shows us a gripping new chapter in the history of the Holocaust: complex, troubling, and ultimately triumphant survivor testimony.

Discussion Questions

  1. The author describes Viennese Jews: "We had all the burdens of being Jewish in an anti-Semitic country, but none of the strengths -- the Torah learning, the prayers, the welded community. We spoke no Yiddish or Hebrew. We had no deep faith in God. We were not Polish Chasidim or Lithuanian yeshiva scholars. We were not bold free Americans…" (page 26). Does this effect your empathy for Edith and her family? Why or why not?

  2. It's always surprising to see moments of beauty in wartime accounts. Did you see any of these moments in this book? If so, what?

  3. "That was the only reason I stayed in Austria, you see. I was in love, and I couldn't imagine life without my Pepi," says the author (page 75). And yet, Pepi refuses to marry her. Do you think it is because he wants to stay and protect his Aryan mother or because he doesn't want to marry a Jew?

  4. "Frau Fleschner and the overseer assured us that as long as we worked here, our families would not be deported. I had the feeling that they tried to look out for us more and more as time went on" (page 93). How did you feel about the owners of the labor camp in Osterburg? Do you think they were slave owners or do you see them as the worker's saviors?

  5. "We all thought about converting to Christianity. What would have once seemed unthinkable, a shameful betrayal of our parents and our culture, now seemed like a perfectly reasonable ploy" (page 98). Do you think that if you had been a Jew at that time you would have converted in order to save your life?

  6. The men in this book -- Pepi and Werner -- come across as weak and cowardly compared to the strength of the women, both Jewish and Christian -- Edith, her mother, Frau Docktor Maria Niderall, Christl Denner Beran, even Werner's ex-wife Elisabeth. Would you describe this as a feminist book as well as a Holocaust memoir?

  7. There are many degrees of heroism in this story -- from the Bestehorn forewoman's advice on how to make Edith's impossible work quota to Christl's gift of her identity. Discuss other acts of kindness in the book and whether or not you regard them as heroic deeds.

  8. Edith's husband Werner is a complex man. While he knowingly marries a Jew, he does not want to have a Jewish child. Although Edith is able to use her connections to get him out of prison, he does not like his wife's new job or status. What do you think of Werner? Do you forgive him his flaws as the author seems to?

  9. As Edith lives her life as Grete, an ordinary Hausfrau, she is in constant fear that her Jewish identity will be discovered. Is there a particular incident in the book where you share her fear?

  10. "For the first time it occurred to me that maybe my life as a U-boat did not weigh heavily on the scales of suffering, that the hideous experiences which had transformed the men in the transit camp might make it impossible for them ever to accept me as one of their own" (page 278). Discuss other groups or people throughout history who might also suffer from survivor guilt.
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