Sunday, 13 July 2008

Down to the Letter

Angela Schluter embarked on an odyssey of self discovery when her mother conferred to her over 250 personal letters and documents which tell the story of a woman’s struggle for survival in Nazi Germany. By Ori Golan.

Elegant, eloquent and poised, Angela Schluter cuts the stereotypical figure of the English woman brought up on everything English. And yet Schluter’s family story takes part in a different country at a different time. It is a story which she has only recently been able to piece together, thanks to a personal archive which her mother, Edith Hahn, has recently opened up to her. "It is a life story that was recounted to me in piecemeal; my mother never spoke about her experiences during the Holocaust. This was the first time that I got the full, unedited, story of her life."
Edith Hahn’s story begins in Vienna 1914 where she was born into an assimilated Jewish family. In 1938, when Hitler marched into Austria, Edith was about to finish her law studies and was writing her doctorate thesis. "My mother - like all Austrian Jews - was expelled from University and was unable to disallowed to complete her studies" says Angela, "She was unable to work on account of the racial laws which excluded Jews from public life, and took up sewing with her mother, although even that was illegal."
In 1938, while Jews were still allowed to leave Austria, Edith’s sisters saw the impending disaster about to descend on Austria’s Jewish population and seized the opportunity to flee for Israel. Edith, believing that Hitler "was just a passing phase", decided to stay with her mother in Vienna and pursued a romantic relationship with a fellow Jewish law student who she had met at university.
"My mother’s love affair with Pepi (Joseph Rosenfeld) was taken out of a fairy tale" says Angela. "The letters reveal a passionate love between two young people who were deeply in love with one another. It was a deep, innocent and unquestionable love. My mother and Pepi were inseparable."
In 1939 Edith was sent to a labour camp in Osterburg, north west of Berlin, where she was forced to work up to 80 hours a week in appalling conditions. Throughout her six months at the camp, Edith wrote frequently to her young lover, relating to the harsh conditions of the camp. Some of her letters contained photographs of the camp which she had taken secretly, even though this was strictly forbidden. In her letters, Edith gave vent to her frustration of life in the camp and her fears concerning Austria’s Jewry. She wrote; "Is it really possible…that all the Jews in Vienna have to wear armbands. This is impossible, it just can’t be…To think that I would never be allowed to walk with you again… in our Vienna. No, that is impossible.."
Edith was subsequently sent to a second labour camp in Aschersleben, near Leipzig, where she worked in a factory making cardboard packaging. The factory, she describes, was large, very noisy and the air polluted by paper dust, making breathing difficult.
"This love story between my mother and Pepi," explains Angela, "which, through circumstances, took on an epistolary form, and the frequent exchange of letters (mother sometimes wrote to him twice a day), has enabled me to learn, and understand, what went on during those terrible days. In one letter, dated May 1942, Pepi tells my mother that her own mother was bout to be deported. She managed to obtain permission to go back to Vienna, but by the time she got there, her mother had been put on a train bound for Minsk, and was never heard of again."
Back in Vienna, Edith found herself with nowhere to go and living on her wits. Pepi was unable to take her in, as his mother, with whom he was living, did not allow her to visit them. He managed to steal the key to their neighbour’s flat where Edith stayed while the neighbours were away. The relationship between the two lovers took on a rather clandestine aspect and, although they met frequently, they did so fleetingly and surreptitiously. The question of survival was becoming increasingly urgent, with food and accommodation becoming increasingly scarcer. It was about then that life was to take a dramatic turn for the young Edith.
Close to desperation, she approached a Nazi woman mentioned to her by a friend she had met in the labour camp. "I don’t know where she got the courage from- or why this woman was willing to help her. It defeated the logic of the times." says Edith’s daughter, "It is just one of those inexplicable quirks of fate that life sometimes brings".
The Nazi woman telephoned a friend and told Edith to go immediately to the Department of Racial Affairs and see an officer named Plattner. "My mother, terrified, walked into a Nazi office and admitted to a Nazi officer - a total stranger - that she was a Jew". Plattner told Edith to find a female friend who would be prepared to go the police and declare that she had lost all her papers in a boating accident. As good fortune had it, Edith managed to find a non-Jewish friend, Christine Denner, a childhood friend eight years her junior, who was willing to help her out. Putting her life and that of her entire family at great risk, Christine went to the authorities and reported her documents missing. She was then handed a new set of identity papers. (For this selfless act Denner was formally recognised in 1985 when she was invited to plant a tree under her name in the Garden of the Righteous in Yad Vashem.) Thus, in 1942 Edith Hahn assumed the identity of Christine Denner and immediately left Vienna for Munich.
Under her new identity, Edith volunteered as a trainee nurse for the Red Cross. When asked about her family history, she explained that her mother had died and her father took a second wife who she did not like, which is why she left Vienna. The new Christine Denner had to attend regularly Nazi lectures and swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. It was during this time that she met Werner Vetter - a member of the Nazi party - at an art gallery. The young German fell head-over-heels in love with the young "Christine" and soon after, sought her hand.
"Werner," says Angela, "would simply not take ‘no’ for an answer. He wooed her, entreated her, and finally persuaded her to marry him. It was not simply a marriage of convenience for my mother; he was a good looking, determined man and his love for mother was genuine. However, while her old love, Pepi, who was more of an intellectual and saw Edith as an equal, Werner saw her as a devoted wife, a domestic help and an altogether acquiescent person with whom he would have a comfortable life." But Pepi would not leave his mother in Vienna and finally the ties between the two were broken.
In a rare moment of truth, and at the risk of being denouncement, Edith revealed to Werner her Jewish identity. Werner, however, was not deterred by this revelation and insisted on marrying her. The couple married the following year, after, Werner’s divorce from his former wife came through. "My mother was forced to lead a very isolated and introverted life", says Angela, "She lived a quiet life, never engaging in politics and avoiding any confrontations; even with her own husband she was always very careful. You must also remember that she assumed the identity of a woman who was eight years younger than herself, and did not want to attract any untoward attention."
Angela, the couple’s only daughter, was born in 1944 in Brandenburg, Germany. Although it was a difficult birth, during which Edith haemorrhaged, she refused to be administered anaesthetic. "Having trained as a nurse, my mother knew that women in labour confess all sorts of things under the effect of anaesthetic and she feared she might reveal her Jewish identity. She was not prepared to take the risk, even though my birth almost killed her."
"I was welcomed into the world by Nazi doctors" says Angela ironically, "They congratulated my mother on producing another child for Hitler’s third Reich. I guess I was the only Jewish girl born in Nazi Germany whose birth was officially recorded. My birth certificate was stamped with a Swastika."
At the end of the war Edith retrieved her personal documents, including her Law degree, which Pepi had slid behind the cover of a book and had hidden in a suitcase. She also reverted to her former identity and assumed the name of Edith Vetter.
Werner, Angela’s father, who had been captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia. returned home in 1946, to find that Edith had become a judge and was now in a prominent within the community. "She was no longer the grey mouse he had become accustomed to" smiles Angela. "Their relationship cooled and their marriage ended soon afterwards. I met up with him a few times afterwards, but we never established a father-daughter relationship." she summarises.
Edith was soon approached by the Russians who asked her to work for them as a judge in the Brandenburg trials which followed the Nuremberg trials. She was also told to spy on her friends and colleagues. Fearing she was under KGB surveillance, Edith left for England with her young daughter and, unable to speak English, procured a job working in London with a woman doctor who spoke Yiddish.
In 1957 she married again and was widowed in 1984. Ten years ago she left England and, at the age of 73, made a new life in Israel where she now resides.
Angela recently decided to sell her mother’s archival collection through London’s Sotheby’s; "My mother, who is now 83 needs to undergo an operation on her eyes and we simply need the money. I believe it will afford my mother the opportunity to lead a more comfortable life. I also believe that her story should be told. By making it public, more people will learn about this terrible time in our history."

Box 1
The extraordinary story of love and survival is told through a collection of personal letters and official documents which was sold by Angela Schluter. These included;
More than 250 letters written by Edith to Pepi
23 pages of letters from Pepi to Edith
More than 40 photographs of Edith, Pepi and Werner and Angela, their daughter
Illicit photographs from Edith’s Labour camp
letters written under Edith’s assumed name
Edith’s German passport, stamped with a ‘J’
Letters from Werner smuggled out of Siberia in a spectacle case

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