A Jew among Nazis
How could a Jew possibly survive in wartime Germany? Edith Beer, a brilliant Viennese law student, found a way - she married a Nazi. For the first time, she tells her story to Dina Rabinovitch
Thursday 31 October 1996
I know this detail from an extraordinary witness of those years - a woman whose story is coming out only now because, like many Holocaust survivors, she buried what happened to her so deeply that it has taken years for her to be able to talk about it. Edith Beer, born in 1914 to a Viennese Jewish family, is 82 years old, and living in Israel. Her wartime story is unique, for she spent the war years married to a Nazi, living in Brandenburg, in the very heart of Germany, where people didn't talk about the Jews because there were none left.
Edith's family were assimilated Jews, living in a non-Jewish neighbourhood of Vienna. She was a first-class law student when the Nazis came to power. "I should have finished my doctorate that year," she says, "but they returned my exams - no permission to study." A rueful flicker of emotion is all she allows herself when she says this, but it was the beginning of a lost life. Then the physical deprivations kicked in: moving out of the family house into a flat shared with two other families - "we had one kitchen, and one bathroom, but we never quarrelled" - reporting with all her documents to have the name Sara added in, now forced on every Jewish woman, and, above all, the obsession with food: where would the next piece of bread be found? "We didn't talk about our situation," Edith says. That fear of talking about it - if you talked about it, it might beat you - was also the beginning of a pattern for a whole Jewish generation. For Edith, it was the key to the way she would live the next years of her life, clamping down every figment of self.
Edith's father had died before the Nazis came, her mother had been sent on a transport to Poland, and her two sisters had left for Palestine. But Edith stayed behind for two reasons. One was that she was sure it would all be over in a few months. But the main reason, the reason she held on to that belief, was because she had a boyfriend she loved - as it proved - more than her life: Pepi. Pepi had a Jewish father, but a non-Jewish mother. When Edith and Pepi told Pepi's mother that they were both thinking of getting on a boat for Palestine, his mother screamed and wept, and said that if her son left she would commit suicide. Edith had been in love with Pepi for nine years. Without him she couldn't go.
So she stayed, and lived on her wits. She had been ordered to report at a food exchange for rations. Knowing the Gestapo went to the food exchange to find Jews, she never registered, but walked the streets, sleeping on staircases at night, not using toilets in case someone heard the noise. Pepi's mother wouldn't let Edith near their flat. Edith began to write to Pepi - signing her letters with kisses and love, and regards to his mother. She wrote for most of the war years. "I don't think about Poland," she wrote to him in June 1942, as she continued to hide out in Vienna, just after her mother had been deported. "It's very similar to death. Nobody's ever come back from there, and nobody writes from there." Pepi kept Edith's letters all his life, finally returning them before his death in the mid-Sixties.
Back then in Vienna, though, discovering she was unable to rely on Pepi for help, Edith went to see a businesswoman who, although a member of the Nazi party, had befriended her. The woman sent Edith to a man, saying Edith should tell him the truth, that she was a Jew. When Edith arrived at the office, she saw the plaque on the door: "Superintendent for Racial Matters", and the man himself in full SS uniform. "I trusted the woman," says Edith, shrugging, as she does a lot, when you ask if she wasn't terrified at that moment. "I was living without food rations, and she had given me food." The superintendent said that Edith must get a non-Jewish friend to go to the police and tell them that she had lost her papers - including her certificate of baptism - and that she needed new ones. Then she would give Edith the papers that had been reported as lost. To get a document with her new name and a photo on it, Edith was to go to the railway station, ask for a season ticket, and then hand over her photo, with the false identification. "At the train station they won't ask questions, he told me, and they didn't." The superintendent told her that to avoid having two women by the same name on the central list on which everyone was registered, she must leave Vienna. "He didn't ask me for money," says Edith. "The only impression I remember having of him is that he was double my size." She laughs. "I think it was because of the woman that he helped me. He said to me, `You're lucky, because tomorrow I'm going to North Africa'."
But where would Edith find the friend whose identity she would assume? While she was still living at home, she had acted as tutor and stand- in big sister for a neighbour's teenage daughters when the girls' mother had died. "I got them through school - there was no mother, and their father was always away, so the two girls turned to me."
Now Edith turned to them. The older girl, Christina Margarethe Denner, aged 18 at the time, immediately agreed to go to the police and swear under oath that she had lost her papers. "It was pure friendship. Also, she was not a Nazi. When all girls had to be in the Hitler Youth, she was thrown out of it. I was there when she got the letter, and we had a good laugh about it. They threw her out because she was very beautiful and she liked a bit of make-up. She was not the ideal Nazi girl."
Edith, 10 years older than the age on the identity papers she was carrying, now had to leave Vienna. In her new guise, she performed a typically defiant act before going, marching into a cinema forbidden to Jews. The newsreel showed an art exhibition in Munich. "I saw a white marble sculpture, on the screen," Edith recalls. "It was a woman lying down. It fascinated me. I couldn't take my eyes off it - it seemed to be everything I longed for: peace, security and quiet. I felt it was a personal message." So she went to Munich to see the sculpture. It was August, 1942.
Calling herself Grethe (from Margarethe) she found lodgings - rooms offered in return for sewing - in a suburb of Munich. "I told everybody that my mother had died, my father had remarried a woman not much older than me, and that I could not get on with her, so I had left Vienna. It was a plausible story, and also," she says, grinning, "people were tactful, not asking too many painful questions." Grethe worked for the Red Cross. "In the afternoons, a woman would come to us trainees, and tell us that we were the nearest to Hitler's heart."
On afternoons off she went into Munich to wander around art galleries, and it was on one of these outings that she met the man she was to marry. "A young man came and sat down beside me. He didn't know much more about pictures than I did, I must say." They had a coffee, and though usually men used their coupons to pay, this man asked Grethe for her coupons. They spent the next week together. The man was on holiday from his job in an aircraft factory in Brandenburg. "Why him? I can't tell you. I never agreed to meet any other man twice. I didn't mind about the coffee coupons - it amused me."
The man's name was Werner, and he was a member of the Nazi party, wearing the badge on his lapel. He had a thin, intense face and light blue eyes. He kept coming back to Munich to see Grethe. She took three days off to go to Vienna: "I wanted to talk to somebody who knew me. But I had the feeling I was not welcome - I was this legal Jew." On her return to Munich, Werner was waiting with a marriage proposal.
He wouldn't take no for an answer. Finally, she told him she was Jewish, and that he should go home and think it over - she would wait for him. Werner said her being Jewish didn't matter, and that in fact he had a confession of his own: he was married, with a four-year-old daughter, but in the process of getting a divorce. Grethe and Werner began living together in Brandenburg, marrying a year later at a register office.
Grethe had no papers for her mother, as the real Margarethe Denner's mother came from Russia, from where it was impossible to obtain birth certificates. When she explained the lack of her mother's birth certificate to the registrar, he almost refused to marry the couple, saying, "but in that case you could be Jewish." Then he paused, took a long look, and said, "but I can see from your appearance it's impossible that you are Jewish." Pictures of her at the time show a classical beauty - big eyes in a solemn face that lit up when she smiled.
Was Edith in love? "I was in a way, yes. Here was a stranger who didn't care at all that I was illegal, and just wanted me. Nine years I was with Pepi, and he did nothing for me."
Werner always called her Grethe. "Our marriage was regarded as very happy. But how could I be what you call happy? I was not myself - I just kept quiet the whole time. When you are illegal you are not human. He was happy. I did my housework. He put on weight. He didn't want more." It's the first time in our interview that this small, bright-faced woman, who giggles a lot, gives any indication of the strain she was under. Listening to her, and her matter-of-fact attitude to the dangers involved, it is possible to forget the brazen courage she had to call forth every day. It is a measure of her personality that she added extra courageous acts: not putting up a picture of Hitler in her house, although acquaintances' children would point this out; and searching out a grocer where one went in and said "Guten Tag", instead of "Heil Hitler".
On Easter Sunday, 1944, Edith gave birth to her daughter in Brandenburg hospital. She refused drugs, even though she was haemorrhaging, out of fear of what she might blurt out when she came out from under the anaesthetic. Having worked in the hospital, she had seen farmers' wives giving away that they had been (illegally) slaughtering pigs, as they came round from an anaesthetic. Just having the baby was an act of self-assertion. "Werner didn't want a child, but I persuaded him - I wanted a baby. He said the Jewish genes are stronger than the others, and the child will be more my child, not his." Werner came to the hospital with flowers, but when he heard that the baby was a girl, not the boy he was hoping for, he threw the flowers in the garbage and left without visiting. Edith laughs again as she tells this. Angela, their daughter, has a birth certificate stamped with a swastika, and the strange knowledge that she is certainly the only Jewish child born in a German labour ward in 1944.
At the end of the war, Edith's ordeal was not over. She had to flee the Allied bombing of German cities. Then Russians marched into Brandenburg, and artillery destroyed Greta's home. She ran to the country, finding refuge with her daughter in a barn. In the morning she saw that the baby had measles, and the other women shrieked at her to get out. Nobody in the town would take her in, for fear of infection. But then, in the last house, she found an old woman who did.
The baby recovered and Edith went back to Brandenburg. Three months after the end of the war she took out her papers, which she kept sewn into the hardback cover of a book, and went to the register office where she had married Werner. She found herself facing the very same registrar who had looked at her and said "you couldn't be Jewish." She showed him her papers: "Edith (Sara) Hahn". He spluttered and said "But this is illegal, impossible." She just said to him, "Yes, but I think you will not detain me. Issue me the correct papers". He did.
In the last years of the war, Werner was called up, taken prisoner of war by the Russians and sent to Siberia. When he returned to Brandenburg, he found Edith newly restored to her original identity. He began hitting her. "He couldn't deal with my survival," she says, very simply, "when he had suffered so much in Siberia." Their daughter began to make faces at Edith when she told her off. "I'll tell Papa" the little girl would say. "He'll hit you for telling me off." In the end, Werner left Edith and their daughter for his first wife.
Edith stayed in East Germany, working as a judge, having completed the law studies she'd had to give up when the Nazis came. So prominent did she become that the Russians wanted her to be a judge at the Nuremberg trials, but she refused. She says, "Who would find me a fair judge - Nazis would say I am Jewish, and the Jews would say maybe I am going to lean over backwards, be too lenient."
It took courage to refuse a call to act at the Nuremberg trials. Then the Russians started pressuring her to work for the secret service, asking her to inform on colleagues. "We helped you, liberating you", they told her, "now you help us."
Edith couldn't take any more; this time she left. She came to England, where she worked as a housemaid. "It's a jump," she says, "from judge to housemaid. But I felt I was safe." She does not dwell on how it must have felt to live the rest of a long life unable to use her brains, never to achieve the esteem she deserved. The years in England were incredibly hard - struggling to raise a child in a country whose language she didn't speak, where her qualifications counted for nothing.
Her daughter Angela is now 52 and an artist. Like her mother, she looks younger than her age, but she has lines of bitterness of which there are no trace on her mother's face. Tears fall silently down Edith's face - the only time she cries - when Angela tells me her childhood was unhappy: the poverty, the father whose absence was never properly explained, what she describes as an over-protective mother. The teenage Angela wanted only to escape her mother and her mother's life.
Angela, brought up as a Jewish child in England, ended up at the age of 18 back in Germany. "I grew up with this backdrop of death," she says. "There was always this aura of `everyone's had a bad time'. I wanted to be free - I didn't want to be one of those Jews who see Nazis on every corner." She went to Germany to visit her father. It had never really been explained to her why he lived there. Her mother had only told her that he couldn't get a work permit for England. She stayed in Germany and at 22 she married a German, just as her mother had done. She had three children with him.
It was only when Angela started asking questions, a few years back, that Edith's story emerged - and at the same time Angela's carefully constructed existence, free of refugee hang-ups, was unravelling. She is now divorced and living in England, having left her children in Germany. "I thought background didn't have to matter - that one's own culture and religion needn't matter" she said. "But it turned out not to be true."
Angela Schlutter, Edith's daughter, has just published a collection of her mother's letters, in German, `Ich Will Leben' available from M A Schlutter, 13 Queen's Court, 224 West End Lane, London NW6 (pounds 15).
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