Saturday, April 2, 2022

Book Review | The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust

Rating ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is a harrowing, beautiful survival story and one I could not put down. I have read more than my fair share of such stories, but they have typically focused on those who survived the death camps, the death marches, all the cruelty Nazi Germany had to offer. That does not mean there was not cruelty in Edith Hahn's life; she was still surrounded by it every single day.

Hahn grew up in Vienna and was forced to live in a ghetto when the Nazis arrived. From there she was sent to a labor camp for many months. Her sisters had escaped the Nazis, but barely. Yet Edith stayed for her mother and her love, Pepi. He insisted it could not really be that bad. Pepi was Jewish, but his mother had him baptized as a Christian. It made no difference in the end, because he was still Jewish and the baptism was not applicable 'retroactively'. He had to hide for most of the war no matter what - as a Jew, he would be deported to a camp; as a gentile, he would be shot on-sight as a deserter from the army. His mother was also awful and hated Edith because she was Jewish and said the most awful things to her all the time, begging her to 'let Pepi go' so he wouldn't be seen with a Jewish person. I am a little disappointed that his mother survived the war, not going to lie.

But I digress.

While Hahn was held in the labor camp in Germany, her mother sent whatever little comforts she could. Hahn remarked that her mother always sent whatever she herself needed - gloves, cakes, etc. While Edith was away, the ghetto was cleared and her mother was sent off to Poland. Hahn always kept the idea in her head and heart that she would find her mother again, and the family would be reunited. It was never to be however, as her mother was murdered within a week of arrival in Poland. Though Hahn does not find this out until after the war has ended. It is absolutely gut-wrenching because logically you know elderly women were not kept alive to work, but you hold out hope nonetheless.

Hahn's survival eventually came to depend on the very monsters who were hunting her people down. After returning from the labor camp, Hahn was supposed to report to a deportation site. She never did, and spent the remaining years of the war under an assumed name of a Christian friend in a plot that would have seen them both tortured and executed on the spot had either been discovered.

Hahn takes the name of her friend in order to get the necessary papers, and lives as Grete Denner. She lived in Munich after she escaped Vienna and eventually meets a man named Werner Vetter. He is a Nazi and pursues her at all costs. He is in the midst of divorcing his wife he later reveals, and in turn Hahn confesses to being Jewish. Despite his inclination to be in the party of mass murderers, Vetter continues to insist they get married. Hahn worries about the identification papers she does not have, those which prove her family's lineage as "pure Aryan", but in the end they are allowed to wed.

Side note: One of my favorite parts of the book occurs when the war is over and Hahn returns to the office where her papers were accepted so she and Vetter could marry. She needed to do so in order to get identification with her real name this time, finally safe from the Nazis. The same officiant is working in the office and he is shocked and angry to find out she lied, that she is actually Jewish. It was a beautiful little snippet.

I can not imagine living in a state of constant, paralyzing fear. Yet Hahn performs in her role so well, never giving in to that fear. She knows what to do in order to survive, and plays the part of the dutiful German wife. For a long time Vetter resisted the idea of having a child, and his terrible temper worried me for Hahn quite a bit, but she eventually becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl. Of course he is pissed because he wanted a boy. Hahn speaks of refusing any pain meds during Angela's birth, out of fear of what she might say when under their influence.

As the war rolls on and Germany's defeat becomes a foregone conclusion, Vetter is drafted. He had previously escaped this due to the fact that he was legally blind in one eye. He is captured by the Russians in battle and a prisoner for ages, though Hahn uses every professional and political connection she has to free him. You see, before the Nazis came to Vienna, Hahn was studying to become a judge. She'd completed all her classes and only had to take the final exam. Yet the day she showed up to do so, she was turned away (with glee, I might add). After the war she was able to fulfill her goal and become a judge.

It was through these connections she was finally able to get Vetter home, though it did not last long. He still went on and on about her Jewish blood infecting their daughter, which confused me. If the Germans were so superior, shouldn't their blood have been "stronger"? GTFO of here, you Nazi scum, is all I have to say about that.

Hahn eventually leaves Germany for good when the Stasi is growing, and she is repeatedly asked to spy on her friends and acquaintances. Under the guise of visiting her sister in England, Hahn escapes for good. The heartbreaking turn of events means she will never practice law, never sit as a judge again. But she survives, as does her daughter.

Hahn was urged by her daughter to tell her story, and for that I am grateful. here we have a complete record of how one woman was able to do the unthinkable - live opening among the very people who hated her and would have wanted her dead had they known her true identity. I worried throughout the book whenever Vetter was angry, that he would turn her in, but that never happened. They divorced eventually when he went back to his first wife. That didn't last long however, and soon he was divorced again. He'd marry four more times before passing away in 2002.

Hahn kept every single piece of paper she was issued over her years in hiding, and when her daughter discovered these, she convinced her mother to give the photos and documents to the world. They are now part of the permanent collection at the Holocaust Museum in DC.

As memoirs from this period often do, this felt like much more of a conversation between Hahn and myself. I was there only to listen to her incredible tale of survival, to be in awe of a courageous woman who kept going, day after day, never knowing if that dreaded knock at the door in the middle of the night would come.

My only slight issue is the title - it is a bit misleading. Vetter worked for most of the war as a supervisor in a paint factory. He was only sent to fight near the end of the war, something he had avoided previously due to his blindness in one eye. But truly, it doesn't even matter all that much, because Hahn's story is so remarkable. She survived.

Highly recommended.


  1. It's a great review. It is truly sad that many have not progressed beyond blind hatred of " the other" and Jews are once again being scapegoated around the world, and even massacred in their synagogues.

    1. Thank you. I can't imagine how hard it must've been, having to live in fear every single day that you might be discovered.


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