October 2016 – The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn Beer
blog by Cindy Bushey
Perspective is an interesting thing. Artists may look at perspective a bit differently than authors, however both realize the importance of it. If you change the angle of your vantage point, new discoveries can be made. Fresh perspectives can jump start chains of events, spark inventions, change minds. A new viewpoint can enrich knowledge already held, and that was the unique surprise for Zion’s readers in their October selection The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn Beer.
Our club has read many novels and non-fiction accounts set during World War II, and our readers have individually perused accounts of concentration camp survivors. So, we were anticipating more of the same with this month’s book. Little did we know this perspective of wartime Germany was going to be different. Mrs. Beer’s memoir traces her life as a non-observant Jewish intellectual college-age woman pursuing a law degree when the German army invaded Austria. The author presents herself without embellishment as a popular student interested in philosophical discussion but able to ignore political realities around her. We did not understand her attraction to fellow student Pepi who seemed to be a mama’s boy with little backbone but appreciated her unvarnished account of the gradual stripping of Jewish rights. One of our readers likened this process to the old story of the frog placed in a pot of water. As the water slowly heats, the frog adapts to the temperature until it becomes so hot that he succumbs without ever trying to get out of the pot.
As Jews became slaves and worse in German society, Edith was caught up in the madness and sent to a forced labor farm and then later a box factory where she was forced to work in horrible conditions. Her descriptions of the farm, the factory, and the events taking place were like a backdoor view of the Holocaust. Edith managed to jump out of her boiling pot when she was on a train back to Vienna and faced with imminent deportation to a concentration camp. It was questionable whether she jumped from the frying pan into the fire for a while. The risks she took by removing the yellow star and the painful discovery of how to hide in plain sight were compelling reading. The story offered a new perspective for how people coped who could not escape. It also offered details that astounded us. Who ever heard the term “u-boat” used referring to people who dropped out of sight and went into hiding? Who would have thought that people slaving on the labor farms could actually send letters and packages back to friends in the cities? Why would the famed meticulous attention to detail of the Nazis not have discovered Jews through this exchange of mail? It was an example of a normal thing continuing to happen in an abnormal situation that jarred our picture of reality.
Our readers admired Edith as a survivor who clawed her way through obstacles that destroyed other people. She had an inner strength in her small frame and found her Jewish heritage to be a support as she made life and death decisions. It was amazing what small things could be life and death decisions in 1940’s Germany. The author admits she was very fortunate to receive help from unlikely sources including identity papers from a Christian friend and advice and directions from various Nazis and local people. To watch her totally change her own personality to become a meek German hausfrau named Grete Vetter made our readers wonder how she mentally coped with the pressure and stress. We marveled at her practicality and pragmatism and her luck at finding a husband who, Nazi though he was, found that her lying about her origins matched his ability to fabricate huge whoppers. Was Werner Vetter a pathological liar, or did he use lying as a defense mechanism to cope with the insanity that was World War II? Our readers could not decide but felt that in his own way, Werner was heroic to give Edith his protection. His conflicted views about Jewish blood showing up in their daughter was just another example of the complicated compartmentalization people practiced.
The title of the book seemed a little presumptuous since Werner Vetter was not drafted into the army until the end of the war due to being blind in one eye. He did rise to be an officer more of necessity than anything and ended the war as a POW in Russia. Edith had to navigate the chaos of the Russian army liberating Austria and Germany which took ingenuity and a little luck. Again, our readers questioned some of her decisions but applauded her bravery in recognizing that life under the Communists was going to have parallels to life under the Nazis. To divorce her husband and manage to get herself and her daughter to safety in England showed incredible fortitude.
Like many World War II survivors, Edith kept the details of her journey from her daughter and labored to give her a normal childhood even sending birthday cards to her signed with her dead grandmother’s name to give her a sense of family. Luckily if very dangerously, spineless Pepi kept all her letters even though she had told him to burn them. When the letters came to light, her daughter learned the truth and persuaded Edith to share it with the world. The letters and pictures are now housed at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Zion’s readers are the better for experiencing her viewpoint. Eleven readers gave it one thumb up while three felt it was only deserving of a knuckle as the story, while worthy, was confusing and had too many characters.