Pros: Interesting topics, complex moral dilemmas
Cons: mystery patient in first chapter not identified, no clear reason for this
This is an autobiography, co-written with Susan Dworkin, of Edith Hahn Beer (1914-2009), a Viennese Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust as a “U-boat,” that is, by hiding in plain sight. A Christian friend of hers provided her with a ration card and identity papers, telling the authorities she was going on vacation, then “lost” her identity papers and extra ration cards in the Danube. Later, a Nazi fell in love with her. Knowing that she was Jewish, he lived with her. They married when she became pregnant.
This bare bones summation ignores the daily terror of being found out Hahn lived through, or the horror she felt at learning that the concentration camps, which hitherto had been regarded as prisons, had become death camps. She herself worked as a slave laborer on a farm, then at a factory, with starvation rations, but was still able to write to her family and friends in Vienna. She demanded that her boyfriend back home burn all her letters on receipt. She learned that her mother was to be deported to Poland, and begged her to wait for her to return. They would go together to Poland. By the time she got back to Vienna, her mother was gone, but Edith had already made a decision. She removed the yellow star, marking her as a Jew, before she got off the train.
Thus began her life as a U-boat. First, she shuffled from family and friends. The authors want the reader to understand the risk the friend who gave her the identity and ration papers was taking and how quickly she assumed it:
Christl did not hesitate for a second… Do you understand what it would have meant if Christl Denner had been discovered aiding me in this way? She would have been sent to a concentration camp and possibly killed. Remember that. Remember the speed with which she assented, the total absence of doubt or fear. (p. 153)
It is not unusual for the authors to break into the narrative and address the reader directly like this when they have something important to say. At other times, they break in with, “You will ask…“ Personally, I often find such interruptions annoying, and in other circumstances, they can clang. However, in this book, it is almost as if Great Aunt Edith is telling the story herself. She wants the reader to remember her gratitude toward Christl.
Once she had the identity papers, the advice she received was to go anywhere else in the Reich. She chose Munich. As a “U-boat” she had to become an expert in not getting noticed. She was trained in law, just short of getting her degree. (At the point of taking her final exams, she was told that she was no longer welcome.) She couldn’t let on that she had an education, but volunteered as a Red Cross nurse’s aid.
Hahn notes that many of the things in the book were purposely hidden for a long time until her daughter started asking questions. Fortunately, Hahn and those around her preserved paperwork. Despite her demand, her old boyfriend did not burn her letters, and even kept her old identity papers for her. Christl Denner received a medal for heroism and permission to plant a tree in the Garden of the Righteous Gentiles in Jerusalem before her death in 1992.
One point they did leave open is the identity of the “important industrialist,” a stroke victim Edith nursed in the first chapter in Brandenburg. He is someone notable enough that Albert Speer sends him flowers during his hospital stay. Three reasons he remains unnamed occur to me 1) the person is still alive, 2) Edith doesn’t recall his name or 3) the incident in fabricated. Because it so beautifully illustrates Edith’s predicament, I’d hate to think #3 is correct. At other times when she’s not sure of someone’s name, the narrative will say, “I think her name was…” so #2 is unlikely. Given that the patient was old enough to have grown sons in the 1940’s, #1 is also unlikely. There may be reasons that haven’t occurred to me.
Overall, this is a haunting book of one woman’s survival, made all the more real because of the documentation, which has been donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Happily recommended.