The Nazi Officer's Wife -- A Book Review
During World War II, over 6 million European Jews were killed by the Nazi government. After being systematically oppressed by measures forbidding Jews to intermarry with Germans, to employ or be employed by Germans, to attend schools, or to participate in many occupations, the Jews were rounded up into ghettos, deported to concentration camps, and then worked to death or outright murdered in the most notorious act of genocide the world has ever known. From classic memoirs like Night by Elie Weisel and The Diary of Anne Frank, most people have heard or read about the experiences of Jews in the camps and in hiding-- But what about the Jews that were hiding in plain sight?
In The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust, Edith Hahn Beer tells the story of her life as a "U-boat," a secret Jew posing as an Aryan in Nazi Germany and Austria. Growing up the daughter of a seamstress and a restaurant owner in Vienna, Edith watches the Nazi rise to power in horror and disbelief. After her father's sudden death, she is the only one of three siblings to remain in Austria after her family pays the government all they can afford to send her younger sisters to safety in Palestine. She is sent to perform hard labor on a farm and then in a factory before the Nazis return her to Vienna with instructions to board a train for relocation to Poland-- instructions that she chose to ignore. Removing her yellow star, Edith Hahn disappeared, assuming instead the identity of Grete Denner, a part that she would play for years, until the fall of the Nazi government in 1945, even to the point of marrying a Nazi party member and having a child with him.
Like many Holocaust memoirs, The Nazi Officer's Wife is simultaneously heart wrenching and inspiring. Readers witness both the horrible cruelty of the masses and the remarkable courage of a few individuals who risked their lives to help Edith. They see the phenomenal resilience of the human spirit in Edith, who endures living amongst her destroyers, and in her Jewish friends and acquaintances, who cling to their humanity in inhuman conditions, patching together holiday gifts with no money or reading from play scripts found abandoned and smuggled into their barracks. They also see the self denial Edith must exercise in order to survive, a suppression of vitality, of the intelligence, humor, and beauty that attracted others in her youth, and which she must now deny in order to avoid attention. It is a suppression from which she has never quite fully recovered.
The Nazi Officer's Wife is a gripping, tragic, and uplifting read, presenting a perspective on the Holocaust that few have ever seen. Neither suffering with her people nor safe among their enemies, Edith's story is one of isolation, of guilt at her own survival, and of constant fear and resentment of the people amongst whom she has to live. She encounters all sides of the Holocaust, including victims, perpetrators, and German sympathizers with the Jewish people, and lives as both Jewish victim and Aryan mother herself.