There are many stories of the trauma of the holocaust and the Second World War – stories of incomprehensible human cruelty juxtaposed against similarly incomprehensible human resilience. Edith Hahn Beer’s memoir, The Nazi Officer’s Wife, is one of those stories – a story of survival against some insurmountable odds, a story of how hope can continue in even the most frightening and darkest places.
The Nazi Officer’s Wife is Edith Hahn Beer’s frank and simple account of her life, from living in a Viennese Jewish ghetto, to becoming the wife of a Nazi officer in Germany. Born into a middle-class Jewish Viennese family, Edith was fortunate to be sent to law-school and was involved in progressive political thinking of that time. The narrative conveys Edith’s sense of trust in Austria during the early years of the war, so that when the Austrian “Anschluss” to Germany occurs Edith is emotionally and practically unprepared. Edith recounts how the small details of “every-day life” changing for the family and the wider Viennese Jewish community were the incremental descent into being turned into an undesirable “untermensch” (sub-human), and an enemy to her once-beloved country. When the new rules forbid Edith to continue her University studies, and she is deported to a farm labour-camp in Germany, she begins to realise the enormity and the inescapability of her situation. After her return to Vienna – a Vienna virtually unrecognisable to her, a Vienna where family and friends have been deported to Polish concentration camps – Edith takes the opportunity to “disappear”, and aided by the most unlikely people, she find herself on a completely unpredictable trajectory.
The narrative chronicles a life of constant fear – although outwardly Edith finds safety under the pretence of being a good Christian Nazi wife and mother, safety comes at the cost of hiding her true self in the innermost recesses of her personality, and living in fear from morning to night every day of that existence. The Nazi Officer’s Wife is a memoir that takes its place alongside other chronicles of this time which deal with the extent that a person can go to when they feel hope, as it is made clear that the reason Edith was able to go on was because there was always still a glimmer of hope: hope that her family will survive, hope that the Nazis will be defeated, hope that one day she will be a living testament to this time.
The Nazi Officer’s Wife is compelling and beautifully told – the style of the narrative is reminiscent of an oral history, with asides to the reader and ruminations by the author as she liberates her story from a retrospective viewpoint many years after the war. Aided by the many documents Edith was able to save from destruction, she makes her way through those years of her life with considerable insight into her own mind, and those around her, and reminds every reader that what we think we know of the plight of the Jewish people during the Second World War is most probably just the tip of the iceberg.