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Edith Hahn Beer

From Women in European History

Page created by: Nick Santoro Spring 2009

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A young Edith Hahn in Austria from http://www.channel4.com


Critical Biography

Edith Hahn Beer (1914-2009), an Austrian Holocaust survivor, led a life in World War II Europe that was defined in a variety of ways by her gender. The fact that she was a woman shaped numerous aspects of her life, including her education, her treatment by the Nazi's, and her marriage. The roles and expectations placed on her as a woman before, during, and after the war determined to a great extent not only the quality of her life but also the very fact that she was still alive. Beer utilized her status as an attractive, Aryan-looking woman to take on a false identity. This fake "double life" allowed Beer to avoid deportation and extermination as a Jew in Nazi Europe. She falsified documents and defied the Nazi's, incredibly courageous act for the so called "weaker sex," yet she was forced to portray a simple minded Aryan house wife, an act completely contrary to the intellectual nature instilled in her by years of education. In these capacities, Beer both transcended feminine gender categories and was imprisoned by them at the same time. For these reasons as well as many others, Beer is a subject in women’s history that is deserving of analysis. This subject is, for all intensive purposes, the persecuted woman. Beer played off of specific gender aspects, especially sexuality and femininity, to deal with the persecution enacted by the Nazi Regime. Events occurring throughout the 3rd and 4th decades of the 20th century demonstrate this as well as other roles that gender played in shaping the existence of this fascinating woman.

Education and Relationship with Joseph Rosenfeld

One of the first profound and gendered experiences in Beer’s life was her enrollment in the University of Vienna in 1933 to study law in hopes of becoming a judge. She recounts in her memoir that this decision as well as that of her enrollment in high school was entirely up to her father, Leopold Hahn.[1] After jokingly discussing marriage with a Christian boyfriend, she wrote, “Actually, I knew that if I told my father I was going to marry a non-Jew, he would lock me in the house and never let me go to university, a privilege for which I lobbied ceaselessly and which had become much more important to me than any boy.” This slightly hyperbolic anecdote demonstrates that the patriarchal family structure was still very much prevalent in pre-war Europe, at least in the Jewish community.

For further reading concerning women's lack of access to higher education in Europe during the beginning of the 20th century please see Marie Curie.

As a woman of a religious minority group attending a university, it can be reasonably inferred that Beer’s case was an exception in her time. Studies suggest, however, that 20th century Europe fostered increases in availability of higher education to Jews of both genders.[2] In her article “Higher Education in Central Europe,” Harriet Freidenreich points to “an extraordinarily high percentage of Jews among the women students in Germany and Austria” in the years leading up to the Second World War. Freidenreich explains these high numbers as resulting from Jews residing in major cities where universities were located thus being able to enroll their daughters yet have them live at home. “Perhaps most importantly,” she writes, “the secular Jewish culture developing in acculturated Jewish homes fostered the pursuit of higher education for both men and women as a means of more effective integration into the [German bourgeoisie].” Both of these explanations are valid in Beer’s case as her family lived in Vienna and they would most likely have been seeking to integrate their Jewish daughter into a German society with a status quo of Jewish prejudice. Thus Beer’s enrollment in the University of Vienna was not necessarily uncommon for the time period. It was, however, significant in terms of crossing traditional gender boundaries between males and females. It was her time spent at the University and the education she recieved there that provided Beer with the skills necessary to survive and assist her loved ones during several instances of Nazi persecution. Beer's status as an educated woman provided the basis for the juxtaposition of her feeble-minded U-Boat identity, see Becoming a U-Boat.

Beer’s experience at the university played an incredibly important role in shaping her life. The most significant event that occurred during her time there was her involvement with her first love interest Joseph “Pepi” Rosenfeld. Beer’s relationship with Rosenfeld had a tremendous impact on her life during the Nazi Anschluss of 1938 and the first years of the war. One cannot help but note from Beer’s memoir the amount of trust that she put in Rosenfeld to act as a strong male figure to protect her in a time of fear, uncertainty, and danger. She defers to his judgment in many cases while they are together exemplifying traditional and historical gender roles. Although Beer is a college law student, as a woman she finds comfort in the reinforcement of a male figure and follows Rosenfeld’s advice in a notably submissive manner. A particularly poignant example in which Beer seems to recognize this submissiveness is recounted in her memoir. Beer is asked by a friend after the Anschluss if she will join an underground anti-Nazi organization. Her first instinct advises her to say yes, “But Pepi said no…So I told my friend that he would have to work without me. Like a good little girl, I did what Pepi Rosenfeld said." This passage foreshadows the end of Beer's relationship with Rosenfeld. It also illustates the conflict that existed between the progress that women were making into the area of higher education and traditional gender values that had been instilled in them. Although Beer very likely possesses the intellectual prowees to make her own moral decisions, she still relies on her boyfriend for absolute guidance. Nazi persecutions later reveal to Beer that her dependence Rosenfeld was neither necessary nor logical.


The next defining event in Beer’s life occurred in 1941 when she was sent to a women’s arbeitslager, work camp, in Osterburg, Germany. Forced labor camps had been used by the Nazis to persecute Jews since 1938 yet they are often mistakenly associated only with the Holocaust concentration camps.[3] These camps were also utilized to create a more efficient economy within the Third Reich, as in Beer’s case, providing farmers with what amounted to slave labor in order to drive profits up and food prices down in wartime Germany. Working in Osterburg provided a uniquely gendered experience for Beer, as she worked alongside other persecuted women of all social classes and backgrounds, and worked under German women.

Beer’s account of her time at the arbeitslager demonstrated that persecution destroys social hierarchy to some extent in the societies of both parties, those who are persecuted and those doing the persecuting. Beer’s Osterburg experience provides numerous examples of this destruction and the resulting consequences among women. The first instance of this change in social class structure took place in the German Aryan population. Beer recalled the farmers who come to the German train station to pick which Jewish women they want working for them. “The farmers came…plain, rough people determined to behave in a superior manner, still a bit uncomfortable with all this new power,” Beer wrote indicating that the lower class agrarians and the middle and upper class Jewish women had now switched places in the social structure under the Third Reich. Among the Jewish laborers too there was a shift in social order; not a reversal so much as a leveling. Beer wrote of former upper and lower class Jewish women living and working together in the arbeitslager. A “former maid loved to watch [the] pampered women stumble through the rutted fields with the rest of us,” she recounted.

It was this persecution that also destroyed Beer's relationship with Pepi Rosenfeld. Upon returning from the arbeitslager, Beer witnessed the effect that the Nazi mindset had imposed on Austria including her boyfriend Rosenfeld. She recounted that, during a secret night meeting between her and Rosenfeld, he appeared "like a child, not like a man," with reference to his anxiety over being caught by the Gestapo accompanying a fugitive Jew. It was at this point that Beer realized that she could no longer be with Rosenfeld. She later stated, "The focus of my life had been my love affair with Pepi Rosenfeld, and the Nazis had destroyed that." This point in Beer's life is significant because she realizes that masculinity does not necessarily denote strength. Rosenfeld was a masculine figure, just not a strong and resolute one, he feared the Nazi's and was unwilling to take risks to continue his relationship with Beer. Beer found the strength that Rosenfeld lacked in the feminine figures of Maria Niederall and Christl Denner, see Becoming a U-Boat. The disintegration of this relationship signified a break from the traditional gender roles that had been present in Beer's life before this point, namely the strong, omnipotent man and the subordinated woman. Beer stepped out of this subordinate role and assumed a more assertive one that led her to risk becoming a "U-boat."

Becoming a U-Boat

No event in Edith Hahn Beer’s life as far as her survival in Holocaust Nazi Europe was as significant as the forging of her fake identity, her U-boat identity, in 1942. U-boat, an abbreviation of the German word for submarine, was the term used for Jews who assumed fake identities to escape the Holocaust. Beer was assisted in this endeavor by two women who essentially saved her life, Christl Denner and Maria Niederall. Denner provided Beer with her own identification papers and ration cards for Beer to use in a different city. Niederall, a high ranking Nazi Party member, arranged for Beer’s transport and lodgings throughout her ordeal as a fugitive Jew in Austria. These two women, although Aryan, risked death and deportation at the hands of the Nazi’s to assist in Beer’s survival and well being. If nothing else, the intervening acts of Denner and Niederall illustrate that decency and compassion still existed in the Nazi population. It is also worth noting that these women had established bonds of friendship with Beer; she helped tutor Denner as a teenager and befriended a young associate of Niederall in the arbeitslager, and thus did not hesitate to help her. Thus bonds among women had the power, in some cases, to cross social and religious boundaries that had been set up by the Nazis to enforce their power. These boundaries consisting mostly of the racial laws that prevented and prohibited Aryan interaction with Jews.

As a part of her U-Boat identity, Grete Denner, Beer needed to look and act like a simple-minded Aryan girl instead of the college-educated Jewish woman that she was. In order to properly convey the lie she was perpetrating, Beer utilized various aspects of her femininity, her youthful appearance, as well as contrived aspects, shyness and submissiveness. The latter two characteristics were not questioned, although they were often badly faked by Beer, because they embodied the expectation for obedient Aryan women. Beer wrote of smiling “my silly little fool’s smile” in her memoirs when she wished to appear simple minded when working as a nurse’s aide in Brandenburg, Austria. This falsehood worked for Beer only because she exploited her status as a woman to portray characteristics that would make her seem meek.

Werner Vetter from http://www.channel4.com

Relationship with Werner Vetter

Beer’s relationship with and subsequent 1943 marriage to Werner Vetter, the titular Nazi Officer from Beer’s memoir, marked a period of relative safety for the Jewish fugitive. Vetter knew of Beer’s status as a U-Boat yet did not turn her in. Instead he loved her as his companion and wife until the end of the war. Beer wrote that she often found it comically ironic that a secret Jewish woman in hiding could become one of the most respected women in the Third Reich, an officer’s wife with the capability to reproduce German “Aryan” children. Beer goes out of her way to fulfill the traditional gender roles placed on wives during the time she is married to Vetter during the war. Because it is her relationship with him that places her above suspicion, Beer cleaned meticulously, learned to cook proficiently, and always made certain that her husband was sexually fulfilled. She wrote, “Sex is one of the few things you can do in life that make you forget all the things you cannot do.” This contrived relationship between sex and survival as a unique experience for women in the Holocaust is suggested and expanded upon by author Joan Ringelheim in her article "Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research."[4] Ringelheim writes that “heterosexual love relationships were often created out of the need for help.” In part, this definition fits with Beer's motivation for becoming involved with Vetter. It is evident from her memoir that she realized how "helpful" a relationship with a Nazi Officer would be with respect to her continued survival as a Jew in the Nazi Empire.

After the war, Beer’s marriage to Vetter fell apart. The dissolution of this marriage was caused for the most part by Vetter’s frustration at the upset of the status quo that he had experienced for the several years that he and Beer had been together. In post-Nazi Austria, Beer was given a high-ranking job as a judge, a position that she deserved given her law training during her time at the University of Vienna. The gender roles were then reversed in Beer and Vetter’s marriage. Beer became the bread winner and Vetter was left at home without work, another disgraced member of the fallen Nazi Party. It was Vetter’s anger at no longer having a perfect, although “fake,” wife in Beer that led him to seek a divorce.

Later Life

Edith Hahn Beer fled Austria with her daughter Angela for Britain in 1948 after she observed Soviet policies in occupied Austria that were eerily similar to Nazi policies. She later moved to Israel where she lived out the majority of her later life. She died in Britain in 2009. Overall, Beer’s story illustrates the plight of the persecuted woman and the various consequences in gender and social categories. Women who are under the stress of persecution must often exploit their roles as women by embodying stereotypes. Persecution also breaks down social class structures on both sides of the action. Beer transcended traditional gender roles by attending a university and defying an evil empire but she was also imprisoned by those same gender roles in her life as a U-Boat and the wife of a Nazi Officer. She acted in many ways contradictory to her own nature as a human being during that charade. When she finally broke out of those contrived roles, it caused the destruction of her marriage to the man who had saved her life.


  1. Beer, Edith Hahn, and Susan Dworkin. The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust. New York, NY: Rob Weisbach Books, 1999.
  2. Freidenreich, Harriet. "Higher Education in Central Europe." Jewish Women's Archive (2001). http://www.jwa.org (accessed May 7, 2009).
  3. Gruner, Wolf, Kathleen Mitchell Dell’Orto, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Jewish Forced Labor Under the Nazis: Economic Needs and Racial Aims, 1938-1944. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  4. Ringelheim, Joan. Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research. Signs: Vol. 10; No. 4. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Edith Hahn Beer with her daughter Angela in 1998 from http://www.bfkbooks.com

Additional Background Material

The Anschluss

Annotated Bibliography

Gruner, Wolf, Kathleen Mitchell Dell’Orto, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Jewish Forced Labor Under the Nazis: Economic Needs and Racial Aims, 1938-1944. Cambridge University Press, 2006

This study conducted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum examines Jewish labor camps started in Germany as early as 1938. This study explicitly mentions the arbietslager at Osterburg where Edith Hahn Beer works for several months. This study also refutes the claim that work camps were merely an intermediate before Jews were sent to the death camps.

Opdyke, Irene Gut. In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer. New York: Anchor Books, 2001

Opdyke’s story, in which she rescues twelve Jews by working for a Nazi Officer during the Holocaust, provides context as well as similar themes to Beer’s account. Opdyke, as a non-Jew helping Jews, echoes the role fulfilled by Maria Niederall and Christl Denner in Beer’s Holocaust ordeal. Overall, In My Hands reveals that cases of Gentiles helping Jews was not limited to Beer’s story.

Ringelheim, Joan. Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research. Signs: Vol. 10; No. 4. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985

Ringelheim believes that women’s stories in the Holocaust have been given less value compared to those of men. She claims that the Holocaust is rarely evaluated with a feminist perspective and seeks to do this in her article. This article thus becomes especially relevant when thinking about Beer’s Holocaust experience; her marriage that provides her safety as well as child rearing in such an environment.

Segev, Tom, and Haim Watzman. The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust. New York: Owl Books, 2000

In this book, Segev examines the feelings of early Zionist Israeli settlers towards the European Jewish Holocaust refugees that escaped or were relocated there during World War II. This book provides context for the situation of Edith Hahn Beer’s sister Hansi who escaped to Palestine after the Anschluss as well as the many other Jews who did the same. Segev also explains that reasons why certain Jews were able to move to Israel during and after the war were based on those Jews’ utility to the fledgling nation.

Wimmer, Adi. “Expelled and Banished:” The Exile Experience of Austrian Anschluss Victims in Personal Histories and Literary Documents. Journal of European Studies: Vol. 20; 1990

Wimmer’s article details accounts of Austrian Jews after the Anschluss between Austria and Germany in 1938. This article provides helpful context with which to understand Beer’s somewhat limited coverage of the Anschluss in her book. Wimmer also discusses the involvement of Aryan Austrians on every level of Nazi activity a helpful knowledge to possess when interpreting Beer’s post-Anchluss experience in Austria.

Other Sources

Beer, Edith Hahn, and Susan Dworkin. The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust. New York, NY: Rob Weisbach Books, 1999.

Freidenreich, Harriet. "Higher Education in Central Europe." Jewish Women's Archive (2001). http://www.jwa.org (accessed May 7, 2009).

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