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Edith Hahn was the wife to notorious nazi war criminal Werner Vetter. A Viennese law student with Jewish ancestry, she had to keep her identity a closely guarded secret through the nazi reign. This is her story, carefully narrated by Susan Sarandon and … see full wiki
Shortly after the massive collapse of Enron, Linda Lay (wife of Enron CEO Kenneth Lay) tried to gain sympathy for herself and her husband by saying they were broke, at one point even crying. The essence of that interview and the essence of the story in The Nazi Officer’s Wife are very similar—for me the visceral reaction was just about identical.
Edith Haan was a Jew in Vienna in 1938 after the Anschluss when Germany took over administration of Austria. Shortly after the war began, she was sent to northern Germany as agricultural forced labor. After a year she was sent back to Vienna. Here she discovered that her mother had already been sent east. Basically on her own, she removed the yellow star, became a fugitive and sought a way out of Austria. Her search was risky but not difficult—a Nazi woman who had been friendly with one of Edith’s campmates explained to her how she could fake her identity. Edith did this and moved to Munich and became a nurse’s aide in the Red Cross. She met Werner Vetter (an accident left him blind in one eye so he was not part of the military when they met in 1942) and after a rather brief courtship, they moved in together in Brandenburg as an engaged couple. Before getting married, Edith was honest with Werner about being a Jew passing as a German (one of the so-called u-boat people, hiding in plain sight). Werner didn’t care; and they had a daughter together. Eventually he was forced into the war and was captured by the Soviets and sent to Siberia. Brandenburg being in the Soviet sector, Edith was able, due to having studied law in Vienna before the war, to become a judge. Werner returned and found Edith too independent for his tastes so he divorced her and she left what was to become East Germany for England in 1948.
Here is the position I am in with regards to this: Edith’s story is an individual story of surviving the Holocaust so, purely from this perspective it has value; however, her ‘survival’ was due to luck which is the driving force behind the survival of others, but her luck allowed her to have a daughter, relative freedom of movement and the same level of food as free Germans.
Before I go deeper into the analysis, I want to say that I really didn’t like Edith, nor did I like the documentary. It is useful only as a counterpoise to the more common survival stories. Linda Lay wanted to compare her situation with that of the other Enron employees; this is what made people so mad. Edith wants to be considered a ‘survivor’ but I cannot imagine a survivor or Holocaust historian or scholar looking at her situation and not be angry. I had this in my Netflix queue because I misunderstood what it was about—I thought it was the story of a Nazi Officer’s wife who helped Jews escape certain death. This was my mistake.
One of Edith’s friends says that you do whatever you can to survive a situation as obviously dire as that of Nazi occupied Europe. I cannot disagree. Many were able to escape to the US or Britain due to family or business connections. Others went into deep hiding, relying on the kindness of neighbors who risked their own lives to keep former neighbors from being killed in the camps. Yes, you do what you can to survive. The question is not about the method used to make it through the years of Nazi control, the question is whether it deserves a hundred minute documentary. I think the answer is a resounding no.
The documentary states over and over again how much risk Edith was while she was living as Gretta. No matter how many times the documentary said this, it did nothing to stir sympathy. Of course she was at great risk, but while she was eating well, going to the market, pregnant, or the mother of an infant her mother and twenty-three other family members were dead from the Holocaust machine. Her risk meant nothing to me in the broader picture—in some ways it was an affront. Director Liz Garbus only covered this very obvious issue and problem toward the end of the piece and then only for a couple of minutes. It is as though saying anything about it, however inconsequential, was enough to put the question of Edith’s ‘survival’ to rest.
At the end of the war when the displaced people were housed in different locations awaiting resettlement, Edith goes to Berlin to such a location to see if she can find information about her mother. Here is a rosy cheeked, well fed woman with a daughter obviously born during the fighting coming to a transit camp populated by people who had been in the Holocaust machine. She says that men pawed at her and insulted her because of this. If she had said this was only natural, I could have had some respect for her, instead she is surprised that it happens and treats the incident as a breach of etiquette.
Another problem is that she says towards the end that she didn’t separate good Nazis from bad. This was so astounding to me I backed it up to listen again. An Austrian Nazi told her how to get fake papers her husband had no problems with her being a Jew (and yet is called an anti-Semite by both Edith and her daughter). There were two people who were instrumental in creating her relatively safe cocoon and yet they were bad people. Only someone divorced from broader history could be so hopelessly blind and dogmatic.
Finally the film is called The Nazi Officer’s Wife. The title is misleading. Yes, Werner became a Nazi officer in 1944 when Germany was throwing the elderly and the very young and the disabled at the Eastern front as a cynical last ditch effort to keep the Soviets away. Werner was not an officer when the two of them met nor was he when they married. The title is just a low form of sensationalism.
This documentary neither deserved to be made nor, once made, see the light of day. My real problem with it is not the story itself, but the indication from Edith that her story of survival is on par with that of others. She shows no level of appreciation for the privilege of her situation and once or twice seems to indicate a level of entitlement. Had she been truly thankful, had she not referred to her situation as involving the irrational sense of survivors guilt the film would not have made me as angry as it did.
Viewing Format: DVD
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