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Forsaking identity for survival

A skillful documentary examines a Jewish law student's decision to marry a Nazi and live under the Third Reich.

June 28, 2003|Carolyn Patricia Scott | Times Staff Writer

"August 1942, a young woman boards a train in Vienna bound for Munich, a city celebrating one Nazi victory after another," says the soothing voice of narrator Susan Sarandon, as the picture shows white steam curling out of the train's engine, then dissolving to archival film of 1930s Austria.

The film cuts to a woman, now aged and living in modern-day Israel. "I had to forget what I had learned," she says.

The next scene flashes back to 1930s Vienna just when, as a young woman, she made a series of momentous decisions in an atmosphere of conflict, disbelief and fear. She was destined to be betrayed and to endure all-encompassing misery.

Writer-producer Rory Kennedy and director Liz Arbus expertly reconstruct the ambiguities, confusion and naked instinct for survival of this very real woman, Edith Hahn Beer. Her incredible story is told in Kennedy and Arbus' skillful feature documentary "The Nazi Officer's Wife," premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday on A&E.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 01, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Documentary credits -- A review of the documentary "The Nazi Officer's Wife" in Saturday's Calendar incorrectly credited Rory Kennedy as the writer. Kennedy is a producer; Jack Youngelson is the writer. The same review also misspelled the last name of co-producer Liz Garbus as Arbus.

"Her papers say she is 20-year-old Greta Denner -- a full-blooded Aryan who can travel freely in the Reich, but she is not. She is, in fact, Edith Hahn, a Jewish fugitive wanted by the Gestapo," the narrative continues.

The essence of Hahn's story lies in the incomprehensible switchbacks, betrayals, mishaps and happenstance that she endured, and engaged, as she made her way from Vienna University -- where she was studying law and where she and her friends were dismissive of Hitler's "ranting" in what seemed a distant Germany -- and traveled into the heart of the Reich.

Hahn saw how Jews were beaten and insulted once the Nazis marched into Austria. She saw the queues at the embassies, but she was in love with Pepi Rosenfeld, who assured her "that everything would be all right."

But it wasn't long before reality defied Rosenfeld's promises and crushed her dreams, and Hahn and her mother were at the train station sending her younger sisters to Palestine.

As the pair returned home, they saw the night sky go orange. When they came upon their neighborhood, mad crowds were smashing their home, their neighbors' homes, setting fire to everything that would burn and breaking shop windows. It was Kristallnacht -- the night of broken glass.

That was the final straw, the sign that the naive young woman's life would change and that she would lose 24 family members. She herself would be saved through false identity papers: Out of fear and desperation, she took on a German identity and got a job in the Red Cross.

As Hahn recalls, "Soldiers invited me to coffee and cake. In one of these galleries I met Wenner Vetter." Reenactments, historical footage and Hahn's own photograph collection flesh out the narrative of her relationship with the handsome Nazi she came to love, a romance both implausible and intriguing. How could an intelligent woman forsake her identity, her heritage and dissolve into a culture so antithetical to her own existence? The film closes with segments focusing on the daughter she bore with Vetter, Angela Schluter, who was 30 when she discovered her birth certificate emblazoned with a swastika. After getting hold of Hahn's love letters, Schluter began to piece together her mother's story. She justifies Hahn's actions by noting that her mother "has spent her life trying not to feel terror."

Edith Hahn, who offers no excuses and says only that "human nature is not fixed," settles back in her chair and seems to be gazing back -- into her past.


`The Nazi Officer's Wife'

Where: A&E

When: Premieres 8 p.m. Sunday

Production credits: Producers, Rory Kennedy, Liz Arbus; writer, Kennedy; director, Arbus; narrator, Susan Sarandon

Rating: The network has rated the documentary TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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