As young kid growing up there was an old back issue of Reader’s Digest magazine next to the toilet in our bathroom. Every once and awhile it would magically disappear and a different, usually slightly newer edition would appear in its place. Frequently, while sitting on the toilet during my fits of boredom I’d flip through its pages. Once while doing this I came across a condensed version of book about Jews secretly living in Germany during the Second World War. Even though I was too young to fully comprehend the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust, something I read that day has stuck with me all these years. According to that piece in Reader’s Digest I learned those Jews called themselves U-boats. Like German submarines hiding beneath the waves to avoid detection so did the country’s surviving Jews employ new identities and carry counterfeit documents while trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities.
Fast forward to the present and once again I’ve encountered the tale of a human U-boat. Published in 1999, I was gifted a copy of Edith Hahn Beer’s memoir The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust about two years ago and I’d been itching to read it but never got around to it. However, last week I finally cracked it open. Needless to say I was not disappointed.
The product of a modest upper middle class secular Jewish family from Vienna, by the late 1930s Edith Hahn’s life was full of promise. Young, intellectually gifted, politically active and enjoying a happy love life Edith was on the verge of graduating from law school and en route to a career as a judge when Nazi Germany absorbed Austria. Stripped of her civil liberties and made to live as a third class citizen, Edith endured forced labor before escaping and securing an Aryan identity and counterfeit papers with the help a friend. (A friend who was not only humane and resourceful, but also as stylish as Marlene Dietrich.) Living in Germany with a new identity, she would meet and fall in love with Werner, a Nazi Party member and supervisor at an aircraft plant. Until the end of the war Edith would hide in plain sight from the Gestapo.
Like a lot of excellent well-written books The Nazi Officer’s Wife reads effortlessly. Even though I finished it a few days ago, several memorable passages continue to stick with me. One is the time she was in childbirth labor and refused to take any anesthesia lest she babble away any incriminating information. Another such passage, probably the saddest of the memoir is the time she was listening to the BBC on her shortwave radio (listening to foreign broadcasts in itself was a crime punishable by imprisonment in a concentration camp) and heard the England’s Chief Rabbi offer prayers for the “remnants” of Europe’s Jews. It was then Edith learned something unimaginably horrific had happened to her co-religionists, not to mention her friends and family.
If you haven’t guessed by now this is a superb memoir. I have no hesitations recommending it.