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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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780688177768
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/28/2000
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Born in Vienna in 1914, Edith Hahn Beer lived in Netanua, Israel, until her death in 2009. She and Warner 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.

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...

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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Nazi Officer's Wife 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 238 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am 12 years old and i have an astonishing knowledge of the Holocaust and i have researched it for a few years now. I know that i may seem young but I am never to young to have a thrist for knowledge. This is an inspiring story of Edith Hahn Beer, or should i say,Grete. She is a normal person in Europe in the 40's. Until they come. The nazi's start to take over her life, hope and dreams. She is sent to a camp where she faces horrible things but continues to go on with a positive attitude in life. Until she gets out . The Nazi's are still continuing the horrid deportations and she does it. She befriends the nazis and gets a new identity, a pass to freedom,a pass to love and a pass to life. But then an officer for the Nazi Party falls in love with her and begs her to become his wife! It is a wonderful book of love, hate, freindship and life's troubles that we face.
sadie_leona More than 1 year ago
I really thought that this would have been a story about a poor Jewish woman saved by a sympathizing Nazi officer - they would fall in love and he would save her and they would live happily ever after, as if the war didn't happen.

Not so!

(Warning, Spoiler-ish) I VERY good book. It his a different insight to the Holocaust. I only wish that there would have been more about the later years in her life, with her second husband, Beer. This takes some time to read. The pages are thin and packed full of information. I usually read fast - a book or so every other day, but this one took me about a week and a half. I kept re-reading to REALLY connect the dots and get everything I could from it.
vampire_Bill More than 1 year ago
You just can't put the book down. You can see and feel everything the author is writing and thinking. The strength and chaos she had to endure not knowing how her family was. The constant fear, not knowing if the German's would realize she was a Jew. Her account really put's things into perspective and the constant propaganda that was thrown their way.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a story of a woman who escaped the Nazis in an unusual way-she married one. I find this story different because of the chutzpah of her family-and her life-long love for her nitwit half Jewish boyfriend. Then to ice the cake, when her German step-daughter became an adult, she preferred her Jewish mother over her real parents. I am used to reading and hearing about Jews who survived camps. It's refreshing to read about how one person managed to slip through the cracks. My friends get become happy when I tell them about Edith's sister, an English officer, telling some German officers to shut up and answer her questions, when she was interrogating them in North Africa. I find myself intrigued by Jewish life in Vienna. I find it amazing how Edith Hahn Beer travelled throughout post-war Germany trying to find lost relatives. She faced hostility from Germans because she was a Jew, hostility from the Russians because she was Austrian, and hostility from Jews because she had escaped the camps. I find it amazing that while she was a German judge in post-war Germany that she could have such wisdom tempered with compassion. Before she slipped through the cracks of the Nazi death machine, she was forced to do stoop labor on a German farm, and she was so ill-fed, her menses stopped from malnutrition. This story gives us a glimpse of what civilization lost because of the Holocaust. Edith never seemed to lose her courage whether it was speaking up to a Russian officer, whose rage was deflected because he was also Jewish or in confronting a barracks full of recently released male concentration camp inmates.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was so moving. I couldn't put it down. I have read many accounts of the Holocaust, but this was by far the most gripping.
Guest More than 1 year ago
You cant really put a review on someones life. But, you can put a review on a book. This book is emotional and what gets me every time I read it is that someone really went through this great sadness yet triumph.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is an amazing story. The middle of the book when she hooks up with Werner is great, but personally... I hate that man! How could he be 'madly in love' with her, and then come home from the war and act like a self-centered prat? He literaly threw her out on her bum and said 'all that matters is me myself and I.' I loved this book but the ending was kinda upsetting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Read this book over a few days, investing only a few hours as I just couldn't put it down. I could imagine myself in her position as she told her story, it flowed that easily..... A well written read that I would highly recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was very insightful,it allows the reader to have a look into the life of a survivor. How she over came so many challanges and terrifing situations. There are some pictures in the end of the book. 231 pages
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great book! Couldn't put it down. Its amazing what she went through. Talk about a survivor!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book in about 24 hours, unable to put it down even to eat. There are many books to read, but this is a book you will read and never forget.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is one of the best biographies of stores from survivers.It tells us not all got caught,they did not all get put into camps.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a captivating story of survival that reached epic proportions that stirred sympathetic emotions in me throughout the read. Edith Hahn, an Austrian Jewish woman survived as she did, outside the concentration camps with a formidable strength and will to survive that amazed me, staring the enemy straight in the eyes under the false identity of a Aryan German.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The story of survival of Edith is amazing. You will not be able to put this book down. This is for anyone that is even remotely interested in World War II and the Holocaust. A story of courage, survival, love, suffering, and compassion. You will be surprised at the compassion that is shown by some of the most unlikely people. A new view on the suffering of the Jews and POW's during WW2. A wonderful read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Edith Hahn Beer's story is one of the best memoirs about the Holocaust period that I have read. I am not certain how many other Jews had a similar experience during WWII but her poignant voice makes you feel as if you are there with her as she recounts her experiences. This is a definite must read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read,'The Nazi Officer's Wife' because I have two high school age children that were required to read it. It was one of the most fasinating books I have ever read. Edith Hahn's journey and survival it truly a triumph of the human spirit. I highly recommend reading this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book has become a favorite! It was amazing, I felt like I was right next to Edith the whole time. I was instantly thrown into the book as soon as I read the first chapter. Anyone who loves autobiography books (like myself) has to add this to their collection!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This very emotionally shocking account of the author's life as a young Jewish woman during early part of WWII when Hitler's army was taking possession of major European countries. She was Austrian and her father and other Jewish families refused to leave Austria while they had a chance. They believed that Hitler would be stopped long before the war actually ended. By the time his army marched into Austria, it was too late for them to escape. Very interesting, very realistic account of how the Jews were treated, even those who weren't sent to the death camps.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book will remain in my mind and heart forever. The author's story was compelling, but the writing style and candor is what set this book part. I could 'see' through the author's eyes and into her heart. I could not put this book down. This book should be required reading for every history class.

As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I have encountered a variety of people with different accounts, this one is by far the most unique and has provoked new thoughts about the subject.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book and learning about the situation of this woman.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a completely different look at how a woman survived the Holocaust. It is about a woman who survived not even knowing what was actually happening to her fellow Jews. It was interesting to read about how she went on day to day through this terrible time, and even how Arians lived during this period also.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is an easy read. I was at first dissappointed as the author seemed to write so simply. I was expecting a more colorful read but quickly changed my.attitude when I learned that this book was translated. I also changed my attitude because there doesnt need to be any extra in the author's accounts. There.doesnt need to be any extra fluff around a story so raw and so intense. I could not stop reading. I am so grateful Edith shared this story!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If this true story hasn't already been made into a movie, it should be! Edith's tale of survival is harrowing and gripping. I couldn't put it down. Her descriptions of life before and after the Nazi regime are clearly presented.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The stories told in this book will teach you want it truly means to live and to die. A beautifully written account of a life lived in Germany during WWII.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting story. Well worth your time and money