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30 August 2005

The Nazi Officer's Wife (2003)

Edith Hahn Beer
Directed by Liz Garbus

From Hollywood Video: "Unsettling documentary about one Jewish woman's story during WWII who married a member of the Nazi Party to keep her identity a secret. Narrated by Susan Sarandon and Julia Ormond."

"And why were these people like this? Please - I mean, that's how it is. When there's a pack of wolves, you howl like a wolf."

I debated whether this review should be posted here or in the Education Corner. Ultimately, I suppose the distinction is only mine to make. So here we are.

This was a solid, straight-forward documentary of Edith Hahn's tangled path through the years between Austria's fall to invading German forces and into the 1970s when she still feared that her story would somehow open the door of memory to her terrible, fearful existence during World War II. On some level, even after decades had passed and she was living in Israel, she still feared that should her secret be discovered, she would suffer consequences - even within the Jewish community, where she lived in the constant shadow of what she had done to survive.

What she had done was just that - survive. Her best friend and lover, Pepi Rosenfield, was a half Jewish/half Christian scholar who convinced her to stay in Vienna with him, even after her sisters fled to Palestine. Within months, she was forced to register a Jew and was subsequently sent to serve a 13-month stint as a slave laborer in Germany, while her mother was sent a concentration camp. When Edith returned to Vienna, she found the city of her childhood utterly changed. Pepi, whose mother had used money and influence to register him as a Christian, was fearful and reluctant to be seen with Edith, and the betrayal severed any affection they shared.

Using luck and bravery, she defied the inevitable. Instead of wearing the Star of David, she removed it and went about securing a new identity. She had tutored a Christian girl named Christl Denner in the years before the war, and Christl admired Edith like a big sister. Out of love and respect, Christl convinced the authorities that she had lost her identity papers and then gave Edith her copies. Shortening Christl's middle name "Margarethë" to "Gretë", Edith moved to Munich to live in plain sight within Hitler's Reich.

There she met Werner Vetter, a factory manager from Brandenburg who fell in love with her. He was exempt from military service because of an accident that left him blind in one eye. Even after she told him about her true identity, he still wanted to get married. They set up house in Brandenburg and lived a quiet life among the war. Edith subsumed her intelligent, out-spoken personality in order to better please Werner and keep him happy. The fear of being denounced was always present, even in her own household. Eventually, they even had a baby together.

On a trip to Vienna, Edith introduced Werner to Pepi, and the two men got along quite well. Werner went so far as to forge official documents to prove that Pepi had a job indispensable to the Reich, thus keeping Pepi safe from service and suspicion. Edith said, "I tell you of all the things about Werner Vetter that appealed to me. This, most of all, warmed my heart. He had no respect for the truth in Nazi Germany."

Werner was drafted in 1944 when the Nazis became desperate for bodies to throw at the advancing Russian front. He was captured and sent to a prisoner camp in Siberia. When the Russians liberated Brandenburg, Edith produced her long-hidden law school papers (the final exam for which she had not been allowed to take under the Nuremberg Laws), and she became a family court judge. Werner's return to Germany in 1947 proved difficult. Edith had decided to make a go of their marriage, even to the point of having their daughter baptized. But Werner could not rise above the propaganda he had been influenced by for so many years. He wanted an Aryan daughter, and he wanted the quiet, submissive wife he had known as Gretë. He could have neither, so they filed for divorce.

Edith went in search of her family, as did most of the survivors of Hitler's Holocaust. Her two sisters had lived through the war in their refuge in Palestine, eventually settling in London. Her mother was lost among the dead in Poland. Edith remarried a Jewish refugee from Vienna and lived in London until his death, when she then moved to Israel. She raised her daughter as a Jew but did not tell her of her father's position within the Nazi party until 30 years had passed. The fear, the dread, the guilt of how she had managed to survive - all of these emotions kept her silent for years, until she was finally able to share her story with the world.

Werner died in 2002, ten days before filming for the documentary began. He had been married seven times. Pepi saved the 250+ letters Edith had written to him from the German slave camp, and despite her pleas that he protect himself and burn her words, he kept every one and returned them to her just before his death in 1977.

All quoted text ©Edith Hahn Beer

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