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Missing the Holocaust by Happenstance

As Hitler comes to power, Viennese Jewish woman moves to Italy. She goes on stage, marries a fascist officer and works for the Nazis.

June 22, 2003|Roland Prinz | Associated Press Writer

VIENNA — It was a godsend for a teenage Jewish performer desperate for a job: a dancing engagement in a Rome theater in late 1937, just months before the Nazis annexed Austria.

What followed for Margarethe Horowitz was a bizarre succession of lucky happenstance, happy family life, anxious months of working for the Nazis, and years as an acclaimed actress and part-time model.

Horowitz was 14 when she was "discovered" in 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. She was soon performing in minor roles on Vienna stages.

But after a year in Switzerland, her agent told her that he couldn't book her any longer because she was half-Jewish.

In 1937, she was 18, talented and jobless when she heard about opportunities for young singers and dancers in Italy. She auditioned and won a six-month contract to perform in Rome's Teatro Valle, where she met her future husband, Renato Trentini.

"Every evening, he sat in the box, met me at the stage door, adored me," Horowitz, now 84, recalled in an interview. "He was a handsome Italian, dressed in a white uniform."

She converted to Roman Catholicism for her wedding, and the tall, blond beauty became Margherita Trentini: a Jew married to an Italian fascist officer.

"For me, this was a stroke of luck -- my rescue," she said. "What else would have happened if my contract had not been extended?"

The relief didn't last long as war spread over Europe.

Trentini left to serve as a liaison with the German army, which occupied much of Italy and was desperate for translators. A German major offered a job to his wife, who was helping her Italian friends communicate with Nazi officers.

"I was afraid that if I declined, they might check on my background, that I have a Jewish mother sitting at home," she said. Her mother was eventually smuggled out of Austria and lived with her daughter until her death.

She sat in an office next to that of Gen. Kurt Maeltzer, a notorious Nazi later convicted of war crimes. For six harrowing months, she escorted Nazi officers to the tailor, organized theater performances for them, and translated their documents and conversations.

"Every day, I was in fear," she said. The Nazis never discovered her Jewish heritage, and her many fascist friends didn't betray her "or else I would have been doomed."

There were close calls. One evening, she and an Austrian friend, Trude Gruenbaum, who was also Jewish, sat in a theater with Horowitz's boss. "If there were a Jew sitting here, I'd smell it," the Nazi captain declared.

"Trude and I looked at each other in dismay, and we trembled a little," Horowitz said.

Her marriage ended in 1945 with the war, and she reverted to her maiden name, resuming her theater career while delving into modeling and film acting. She played numerous roles alongside such stars as Audrey Hepburn, Peter Finch, Clark Gable and Sophia Loren.

Horowitz treasures "two wonderful recollections" -- a meeting with the Shah of Iran and an evening at Rome's famous Cesare restaurant with Britain's Duke of Windsor, the abdicated King Edward VIII. Together, they sang Viennese songs.

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