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Obituary: Edith Hahn-Beer

Born Vienna, January 24, 1914. Died London, March 17, 2009, aged 95.

    The extraordinary tale of Edith Hahn-Beer only came to light in 1997 when, aged 83, she sold her collection of papers at auction to raise money for an eye operation.

    Sotheby’s waived their ban on Nazi material because of this unique case of a Jewish woman saved by a Nazi.

    One of three sisters, Edith Hahn was was encouraged by her widowed mother to study law but her final qualification was prevented by the 1938 Nazi takeover of Austria, the Anschluss.

    After being evicted with her family to the Vienna ghetto, she was sent to agricultural and factory labour in Germany, before being returned for deportation.

    But she slipped off the train in Vienna, removing her yellow star, and went into hiding with her boyfriend’s help. She discovered her sisters had fled but her mother was never heard of again.

    Needing false papers, she was helped by a non-Jewish schoolfriend, whom she had helped with schoolwork. Christine Denner went to the authorities with a story that her handbag containing her papers had fallen into the River Danube during a boating trip.

    She received new papers and gave the originals to Edith, who used Christine’s other name, Grete (from Margarete). Christine was honoured by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile in 1985.

    Unable to stay in Vienna with a duplicate name, Edith left for Munich. An SS official told her to volunteer as a nursing aide for the Red Cross, which kept a separate list. Edith always suspected he knew she carried false papers.

    By chance she met another Nazi officer, Werner Vetter, who fell madly in love with her. Terrified of being found out, she tried to deter him but eventually told him the truth. He replied that he was divorcing and had a child. They never mentioned her Jewishness again.

    Strangely, Edith was not the tall, willowy “Aryan” type. She was petite at five foot, with dark curly hair. They married in 1943 and had a daughter, Angela, in 1944. Always controlling herself, Edith refused painkilling gas in childbirth in case she gave herself away.

    As the dutiful little wife, “Grete” Vetter stayed in the background with her baby, to avoid awkward questions. Her husband was later captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia.

    At the end of war, she reclaimed her Jewish identity, based on a hidden identity card. With her legal training she became a family law judge in Brandenburg, East Germany.

    She campaigned for her husband’s freedom but on his return in 1947, he could not adjust to his now successful professional wife. He divorced and returned to his first wife.

    In 1948 Edith fled with Angela to her sister in London, after being asked to inform for the Stasi. She became housekeeper to a Yiddish-speaking Stamford Hill doctor and, in 1957, married Fred Beer, an Austrian refugee and jeweller.

    The year after his death in 1984 she moved to Israel for some 15 year, until health problems brought her back to London to her daughter, an artist in West Hampstead. Her co-written book, The Nazi Officer’s Wife, apeared in 1999.

    A documentary TV film was shown in 2003. In 2007 a plaque was unveiled in her honour at the new court house in Brandenburg. Her vast archive is lodged with the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

    She is survived by her daughter and three grandchildren.

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