Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to participate as a panelist in Carleton University’s third annual Carleton Reads.
This year’s theme was Deception, Illusion and Corruption.
My task as a panelist was to select and then defend the book that I thought best represented the theme.
I looked through what I had read in the past year and selected Edith Hahn Beer’s The Nazi Officer’s Wife – How One Woman Survived the Holocaust.
In my defence last week, I of course focussed on how the book spoke to the theme. Briefly, it is the true story (a memoir) of a Jewish woman from Vienna who – to survive the war – assumes a false identity and ends up marrying a Nazi Officer and successfully hiding out until the end of the war posing as a good German housewife in Brandenburg.
I even learnt that there is a term for people who did this – they were called U boats, meaning “undersea boat” or submarine in German.
Her transformation was amazing. In the book she refers to the challenges of dealing with what she called the insanity of it: going in a matter of little more than a year from being hunted for dodging a transport to Poland – to being one of Germany’s most valued citizens, a breeding Aryan housewife. She states that “It was as good a lie as any that a woman could live in Nazi Germany, because the regime celebrated female domesticity and made itself extremely generous to housewives.”
So that was my argument for how this book won on the deception and illusion front.
But the other part of the book which I really enjoyed – and which speaks to what I wanted to discuss in this post – is a point she both stated and demonstrated many times. That was how everyone almost always has the choice of being kind or unkind, no matter what the circumstances.
And it was those who, despite personal risk, chose to be kind and help her, who saved her life.
Those people included:
- the wife of a Nazi doctor in Vienna who she befriends and who initially gets her in touch with just the person to help her. He is…
- Johann Plattner, another Nazi from the Office of Racial Affairs, who – even though he has never met her and never asks her for a thing – gives her the explicit instructions on exactly how to get falsified documents, how to avoid detection, and how to deceive the government.
- Her friend Crystal Margaret Denner, who then registers to take a holiday – thus getting an extra rations card – before sitting on her back balcony for a few days to get a little tanned before reporting to the police that she had gone on vacation and lost her papers in the river, thus getting herself duplicates and giving Edith her originals as well as the six-month holiday travel ration card.
Then, of course, there is Werner Vetter, who is the Nazi Party Member she ends up marrying. Before marrying him she tells him she is Jewish. Not only does he keep her secret for the entire war, he often takes her back to Vienna to visit those she left behind – including Pepi, who was her boyfriend before the war and who is also hiding in plain sight. Then on top of that, he even helps procure and forge false documents for Pepi so he can escape being drafted – which would reveal he was half Jewish.
She also speaks more broadly in the book about kindness and unkindness and the surprises in where she found it.
And as Hahn states:
It was the individuals who made their own rules in many situations. No one forced them to act in an unkind manner. The opportunity to act decently towards us was always available to them. Only the tiniest number of them ever used it.
And that brings me to the question posed this month by the 1000 Speak for Compassion Blogging Movement: Is compassion inherent? Is it something we naturally have, or something we learn, or both?
This book was fascinating in its discussion and description of how different people acted in the exceptional realities of living in Germany during the Second World War.
There is no question that some people showed great compassion at personal risk to themselves.
I can’t help but think they must have been moved by something that was inherent within them.
And then I wonder why them and not others?
So perhaps it was instead learnt? While some kindness could be explained in that they were her friends – eg: Crystal Denner’s giving her her identity, we cannot know the motivation of others who did not know her. For example, why did Mr. Plattner help her?
What do you think? Is compassion and kindness nature or nurture? Perhaps it can be situational? Or we are moved by specific experiences? Or personal connection? Or perhaps it is some combination of all of this? And even then, why some people and not others? In exceptional circumstances, like those in the Nazi Officer’s Wife, why are some courageously kind, overcoming the fear to act in the face of adversity, when so many of us clearly cannot?
Please take the time to read other posts on the topic this month here.