How much do you give up when you give up what others consider to be your very self? This is among the many questions prompted by the fascinating new documentary The Nazi Officer’s Wife, which opens Friday in New York. The film, directed by Liz Garbus, tells the story of Edith Hahn, a young Jewish woman living in Vienna at the time of Austria’s 1938 Anschluss by Germany.
Edith Hahn was used by the Nazis as a slave laborer, but went underground when she was about to be sent to the death camps. For a Jewish person to live under an assumed identity in the heart of Nazi Germany was no easy matter — and she wouldn’t have survived but for the heroism of individual Germans who risked their own lives to hide her true identity. You couldn’t live in Germany without papers, so a Christian friend of Edith’s agreed to pretend she had lost her I.D. papers in a boating accident. The Nazi police accepted the friend’s story, and gave her a new I.D.; Edith used the original papers to travel to Munich and get a job. In Munich, one amazing turn of events followed another. Edith met a true-believer Nazi-party member named Werner Vetter, who fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. Edith confessed to him the truth about her identity. He agreed not to reveal her secret, and they got married and had a daughter. Drafted and made a Nazi officer, Werner kept the secret.
Knowing what we do about the bestiality of the Nazi regime, and of the reprisals in which it regularly engaged, the bravery of Edith’s friend in Vienna and, later, that of her Nazi husband beggar the imagination. In this film, there is no suspense as to Edith’s survival; she appears on camera and comments on the narrative. What there is, rather, is a growing sense of the psychological cost of the lies she had to tell, and of the daily mortal fear in which she had to live. For survival, she paid a great price — denying everything about herself in order to conform to a brutal society.
After the war, she had to face the tough question: Who is Edith Hahn now? In prewar Austria, she had studied law; so she now agreed to be appointed a judge by the Soviets, who ruled her part of Germany. Her Nazi husband subsequently returned from a Soviet POW camp and wanted her to go back to being a housewife; she said no, and he divorced her. Edith Hahn wanted to integrate the truth about herself: She wanted to be both the prewar legal intellectual and Werner’s wife. It didn’t work. Some of the emotional cost is visible on the taut face of her daughter Angela, who also appears in the film; she seems to be consumed by hostility toward her father.
Edith also wanted to reintegrate herself with the Jewish community, but she had a troubling encounter with death-camp survivors at a transit camp. She says they were hostile to her, and made her feel she had gotten off too easy. She is vague on the details of this encounter, which may be a projection of the phenomenon later known as “survivor guilt.” Her family had not been religious before the war, but she was to raise Angela as a Jew.
The Edith Hahn of 1945 was not the Edith Hahn of 1938. She would not have been in any case; but it is part of the special barbarity of a totalitarian regime that it becomes a coercer of lies, forcing people to give up their very identities to save life and limb. Such a government is engaged in profoundly evil activity, the soulcraft of an artificially engineered crucible of character. It is good to be reminded, as we are by this impressive documentary, that goodness can survive even deep within such a monstrous system.