Hiding in Plain Sight
Adrianna Keller Wyman
June 15, 2013
Anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews was a central principle of Nazi belief. Soon after Hitler was elected in 1933, the Nazis started to make laws against Jews in Germany, beginning on April 7, 1933 with a law that barred Jews from civil service and public sector jobs.
Greater Germany, which included annexed areas such as Austria, went on to pass more and more restrictive laws as time went on, including laws that: only allowed certain numbers of Jewish students to attend German schools and universities; forbade Jewish doctors from getting reimbursed by public insurance; and forbade Jews from having German citizenship or marrying so-called “Aryans.” In 1938, the Nazis began banning Jews from many public places, like cinemas and public schools. In 1941, all Jews were forced to wear yellow stars and to live in walled ghettos. In 1942, the plan to exterminate the Jews began.
For my major Bat Mitzvah project, I examined three memoirs of people who hid in plain sight during the Holocaust. I will summarize them, spending more time on one of them, called “The Nazi Officer’s Wife,” and then share some of my reflections.
The first memoir I read was “Mischling Second Degree,” by Ilse Koehn. Ilse lived in a town in Germany called Waldmannslust. Her family was middle class and in addition to her father, her mother also worked as a ticket seller at a train station. The book starts when she was 6 in 1935 and ends when she was 16 in 1945, but the majority of the story is set in the Hitler Youth Camp where Ilse spent several years of her life. Ilse became a bit of a leader, but her father told her in a letter not to become a leader because she had one Jewish grandparent so he didn’t want her to be a leader in anti-Semitic activities. Having one Jewish grandparent made her a Mischling, Second degree, under Nazi Law. Though the Hitler youth administrators wanted her to become a leader, Ilse had one of the more liberal people in charge say that Ilse needed more training so she couldn’t become a leader.
This story centers on the fact that Ilse had to keep her Jewish grandparent a secret and pass as an “Aryan.” Her family had to have false papers saying they had no Jewish blood and give a reason for why her father hadn’t joined the army. The main thing she had to do to pass was to play along and act like she didn’t have any Jewish blood. She looked “Aryan” since she had blond hair and blue eyes and was considered Germanic looking. Still, she needed fake papers to say she had no Jewish blood; her parents got them just in time. But, she worried about her father, who had one Jewish parent, being found out.
The second story that I examined was “Europa, Europa,” by Solomon Perel. Solomon Perel was born in 1925 in Germany, but moved to Poland with his parents after Hitler came to power. After his older brother came to visit and warned their parents that Hitler was going to attack Poland, they sent Solomon and his brother off to hide and find safety. Solomon’s brother stayed with a group of Jews, but Solomon got separated and ended up living in a Russian orphanage for 2 years. After the orphanage was bombed, he got lost. He was found by Nazis who questioned him and other people about whether they were Jewish. He lied and said that he had lost his personal documents and that he was not a Jew. They believed him. Because he spoke Russian as well as German, he joined the army as a translator. He was later sent to a military boarding school. After the war ended, he was being punished for being a Nazi, but then his brother recognized him and they reunited.
The final memoir I read was “The Nazi Officer’s Wife,” by Edith Hahn. Edith Hahn was born in 1915 and grew up in Vienna, Austria, with 2 sisters. Her family was Jewish but not very religious, though the children went to children’s services at the synagogue on Saturday afternoons and most of their friends were Jewish. Her parents owned and ran a restaurant.
In 1938, Germany had already annexed Austria, and Edith wasn’t allowed to take her final exams at college because she was Jewish, so she couldn’t get her diploma. The mother of her boyfriend, Pepe, had him baptized and paid to have his name removed from the list of members of the Jewish community. However, it was too late, because being Jewish was considered retroactive to 1936.
Life was difficult for Edith’s friends and family in other ways as well. Pepe’s mother didn’t allow him to go to Edith’s house, because she didn’t want him seen with Jews which might make people think he was Jewish. In 1939, Edith’s older sister got a ticket to immigrate to Palestine on an illegal transport. Around the same time, her grandfather was evicted from his house and shop and came to live with them. When Edith had a cavity, she had to go to an “Aryan” dentist, who made her give him 3 gold chains as payment to pull the tooth.
In 1941 Edith signed a contract to do farm work for 6 weeks. Her mother was originally also told to do that, but Edith told the SS that her mother was actually just her maid and was not Jewish. When she went to the farm, work was very hard and the women had to stay there much longer than they had been told. Edith and some other girls from the farm who were from Vienna were told that they could go home to visit, but then the day before they were to go home they were instead sent to work at a factory. After working in the factory for a while, she went back to Vienna. On the train ride home, she and her friends took off their yellow stars. This was the first time she had hidden her Jewish identity.
After her mother was deported to a concentration camp in 1942, Edith decided that she had to hide the fact that she was Jewish. She had heard about a person at the local Office of Racial Affairs who could help her, so she went to see him. He told her to find an Aryan friend who looked like her and to tell that friend to go to the ration book office and say that she was going on vacation. Then a few days later, the friend should tell the police that while on vacation she had lost her purse in the Danube River and that she needed a replacement ration book. The friend should then give Edith her original ration book, birth certificate, and baptismal records and Edith should move elsewhere in greater Germany. He told Edith not to apply for a clothing ration book because those were distributed from the national office—and the national office would be able to see that two different people in different regions were living under the same identity.
Edith’s friend, Christl Maria Margarete Denner, gave Edith the necessary papers, and Edith moved to Munich to begin life under the name of Grete Denner. In Munich, Edith rented a room and did sewing and mending in exchange for room and board. She couldn’t get a clothing ration card, so she had to make all her own clothes by hand. When she was in public places, she kept her head down and avoided talking to people beyond what was necessary. Since her friend Christl was younger than Edith, Edith had to pretend to be 21 and uneducated instead of 28 with four years of college.
One day Edith went to an art gallery where she met Werner, a Nazi officer, who began talking to her. She didn’t like him at first but he kept persisting and she agreed to go out to lunch with him. They continued dating for a while, but when Werner asked about her family, she couldn’t tell him because she was living under a fake identity. Eventually, however, she told Werner she was Jewish. He said that he had lied too—by not saying he was divorced, so they were even. Even though he was a Nazi officer, it seemed that Werner was not an anti-Semite because he talked about a Jewish man his aunt had married whom he had liked.
When they got married, they didn’t have a fancy wedding; they just went to a judge. Edith got a job with the Red Cross—one of the only employers in the country that was not required to register its employees with the government. Edith knew it was important that the government not see two different people living under the same identity. They eventually divorced because Werner wanted Edith to be a housewife, but Edith instead went back to school and became a lawyer. After the war ended, Edith stopped pretending and started living under her old name again.
These three stories have a lot of similarities. One of them is that all the stories of hiding take place in Greater Germany. All of the people hide in plain sight and just pretend to not be Jewish, unlike, for example, Anne Frank, who actually hid. All of them had to criticize Jews and say things that they didn’t believe in or agree with so that other people wouldn’t suspect them; they had to be active in Nazi society, not just keep their heads down and not speak to anyone. Solomon Perel was in the German army and had to fight against the Jews, even set a house with Jews inside it on fire. Edith Hahn had to say ‘Heil Hitler’ and have a picture of Hitler hanging in her house; Ilse Koehn didn’t really have to do things against her family, but she was in the Hitler Youth and had to wear the uniform. All of them were under the age of 30. All were passing totally on their own (Ilse was away at Hitler Youth camp; Solomon had been separated from his family; Edith was a young woman who lived on her own until she met Werner). None of them looked especially Jewish (by Nazi criteria).
There are also some differences in the stories. Ilse was much less Jewish than the other two–she only had a Jewish grandparent and had no real connection to Jewish life and didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays. Edith was living on her own as an adult, while Ilse and Solomon were young people living with others–in the Hitler Youth, in the army, at boarding school, and in the orphanage. Edith and Solomon had riskier situations than Ilse, since they had to change their lives, while Ilse just had to keep her Jewish grandparent a secret.
My grandmother’s parents were named Emil and Edith Goldschmidt. They lived in Stuttgart, Germany, where Emil was principal of the Jewish high school. They had one child, my grandmother. They were not very religious, but they were very much part of the Jewish community. They had good friends who were not Jewish; Emil had a best friend named Hans Dinkuhn who later helped him escape. Emil and Edith both had family who moved to other countries—Chile and Palestine–before things got very bad.
On Kristallnacht, the Jewish high school was set on fire, and my great-grandfather, the principal, went to investigate. He was chased and arrested and put in prison at Dachau for 2 weeks. My great grandparents felt they had to leave Germany.
If I had lived in Nazi Germany, I would have been a Mischling second degree, since I have one Jewish grandparent. My situation would have been most similar to Ilse’s because of this; plus my family isn’t that religious. However, we are members of a Jewish congregation, my step-mother is Jewish, and my dad does Jewish-related work.
I probably would have been able to pass as Aryan because I have light coloring. Kids in Germany were required to join the Hitler youth, so I would have done that. My family would have needed to get fake papers. Probably we would have had friends who would have helped.
If I were faced with this now, it would be hard because I wouldn’t be able to see friends who were Jewish. It would be hard because I would always be afraid of being found out, and I would have to lie to everyone that I was not Jewish. I might have had to say things against the Jews that I didn’t believe so that other people wouldn’t suspect me of being Jewish. I would have instead wanted to leave with my family, like my grandmother and her parents did, even if that meant leaving my friends and most of my possessions behind.
If I had been able to get good fake papers for myself and a Jewish friend asked if she could get copies of mine, like Edith did, I wouldn’t have given her the papers, since, because mine were fake, there would have been a big risk of being caught. However, I would have helped my friend find someone else to get papers from. If I had gotten fake papers, I would have had to change how I lived. I couldn’t have contact with my Jewish family or friends; I would always worry about being found out.
Many people in our society today choose to pass in different ways. Sometimes illegal immigrants get false papers to show that they were born in the US. They might have unfair working conditions, but they can’t go to the police, because their employer might know they are illegal and report them. They also can’t visit their families in the countries they came from, or have family come to visit them. I know someone who immigrated here illegally and hasn’t seen his daughter in 13 years.
Many gay people have pretended that they were straight because their families and society wouldn’t accept them otherwise. Some famous people had fake partners so people didn’t suspect them of being gay. If they were found out, people sometimes lost their jobs, were ridiculed, disowned by their families, or dropped by their friends. Sometimes people were even killed for being gay.
People have also hidden their political beliefs because those beliefs weren’t accepted by society or by people in their circles. Most recently, in the 1950s and 60s, people who were Communists, or suspected of being Communists, lost their jobs and were prevented from getting other work, which was called blacklisting.
Also, sometimes people in our culture have hidden the fact that members of their family were African American, because they wanted to be perceived as white. There has been and there still is a lot of racism against African Americans, and racist organizations like the KKK still exist. In many parts of our country, black people can get beat up or killed for dating a white person or moving into a white neighborhood.
Passing to fit in can help you feel like you belong and are not the odd person out. You can have better job opportunities and get treated more fairly. It can help you and your family stay alive and can get you or your family into a better school. By passing you may be able to get and keep a better job. Even though passing can help you get what’s best for you and your family, there are certain costs to it. If you pass, you might feel like you are betraying your family or your heritage. You may also feel like you are living a lie. As well, you always worry about being found out.
People dealt with the crisis of the Holocaust in many different ways. Some hid, some stayed and fought, some fled and some were killed. But some people found a way to stay safe by pretending to be people they were not. And sometimes in our own culture people still have to hide who they are.