Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 2 April 2000; on the web by permission, September 2002

Everybody in a democratic society needs to read autobiographies, but especially one whose profession involves making abstract, general statements about human affairs. I mean philosophers, historians, theologians, and social scientists of all kinds, sociologists perhaps most of all.

The reason is that generalities, however useful and necessary in public discourse and everyday conduct, always oversimplify. Life is bigger than any theory. The contradictions within even a single person defy formulas and principles. Every human individual is in some respects an exception to a rule.

Autobiographies are essential for correcting and tempering broad explanations on whatever topic, but especially one on which feelings run deep.
The Holocaust is such a topic. We blame Hitler, the Nazis, and the German people in general, for perpetrating a terrible evil, the systematic murder of some six million Jews. The former are Bad Guys in our overall understanding of that era. The latter are Good Guys. The Canadians who helped defeat Nazi Germany are also Good Guys. So, by extension, are we.

This general view of events fifty years ago affects politics even now. The protests against Jörg Haider, the rightest Austrian politician, are a recent case in point. Haider has said some good things about some Bad Guys. Despite subsequent clarifications and apologies, he accordingly becomes a Bad Guy himself, unworthy of the respect to which democratically elected holders of public office are normally entitled.

Autobiographies by people who experienced the Nazi era are correctives to facile generalization. Anne Frank's diary deserves every reader it has had. The same goes for Elie Wiesel's Night, Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich, and George Clare's Last Waltz in Vienna.

To the list of Nazi-era memoirs must now be added Edith Hahn Beer's. She is a 24-year-old Viennese Jew just completing her studies in law in 1938, the year of the Austrian Anschluss. She is preparing to marry Pepi Rosenfeld, an intellectual half-Jew from the same secular community as she.

Their romance endures through Edith's period of forced labour on a farm in Germany. On the train returning to Vienna, she rips the yellow star from her dress and becomes a "U-boat," a fugitive from the Gestapo surviving under the surface of Nazi society, taking the identity of a Gentile friend.

Lest she and her friend be discovered and destroyed, she moves to Munich and works for the German Red Cross. There she meets Werner Vetter, Aryan, racist, and loyal to the Nazi government. Werner falls in love with her, and she with him. She tells him her secret, that she is Jewish. He tells her his secret, that he is married. Werner gets a divorce and marries Edith. They have a child. He becomes an officer in the German Army. Edith, Werner, and daughter Angela all survive the war.

So does Pepi, Edith's forsaken lover. On a visit to Vienna, Werner meets Pepi and forges papers for him, so as to prevent his capture by the Gestapo.

Autobiographies vary in how well they correct and temper theories of history. Some authors shape their personal stories to fit one or another generality, that is to support some stereotype.

Edith Hahn Beer is too wise a woman for that. She puts facts on paper without pretending that they add up. She is not afraid to admit mixed feelings. Perhaps the single main lesson in her story is that contradiction is not escaped except through lies.

This book is not just for students of the Holocaust and Nazism. It is for anyone still tempted to divide humanity into sheep and goats. This book is for all of us.

So how come this author, whose maiden name is Hahn, has ended up not with Werner's surname, nor with Pepi's, but with still a different husband's? Could it be that, when the war was over, the Nazi Officer's wife divorced him? Actually, when at last he could say publicly that his wife was a Jew and be honoured for it, he divorced her.

Want to find out why? Read the book.