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German survivor’s papers sold at auction, donated to museum

Jewish Exponent
PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 21 (JTA) — A former Reagan Cabinet member helped create a satisfying ending to a Holocaust survivor’s story. Early on the morning of Dec. 3, Drew Lewis, former transportation secretary for President Reagan, was flying from Philadelphia to Fort Worth, Texas, when he read a story in the New York Times about Edith Hahn. The story explained that Hahn, an 83-year-old Jew who now lives in Netanya, Israel, was putting her personal letters and photographs from World War II up for auction at Sotheby’s of London because she needed money. According to the Times, Hahn had wanted to donate the material to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, but reluctantly decided to put her personal archives up for sale because she needed money for two cataract operations. Lewis — who is not Jewish — thought of his friend Dalck Feith, who also escaped from the Nazis. Feith, a member of the executive committee and board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, was born in Austria and lost his whole family, except for one sister. Lewis immediately called Feith and asked if he would split the bidding price at the auction. Feith agreed. “I didn’t care if it cost me a million dollars,” Feith said. “I already gave a million dollars to the [U.S.] Holocaust [Memorial] Museum, so I could give another million.” A member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council for 10 years, Feith is a founder of the museum and was instrumental in bringing to Philadelphia the first Holocaust monument on public property decades ago. Lewis also contributed to the museum. The auction house estimated that the sale of Hahn’s collection would bring a top figure of $34,000. But Lewis found himself in the midst of an intense bidding war. There was a lot of interest from literary agents and film producers; it was even rumored that Steven Spielberg was among the bidders. Lewis and Feith reportedly won out with a bid of $169,250, including commissions — almost five times the top estimate at Sotheby’s. The two immediately announced that they were donating the Hahn collection to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Hahn’s collection of more than 250 letters and personal papers, including rare photographs, details her life and survival. According to recent press reports, Hahn was born in Vienna, where her parents, assimilated Jews, ran a restaurant. Her father died in 1936. Hahn was training as a lawyer when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. She and her mother were forced into the Jewish ghetto in Vienna. She exchanged letters with the man she considered her closest friend, later her fiance, fellow student Joseph Rosenfeld, whom she called “Pepi.” They exchanged love letters when she was sent by the Germans to pick vegetables on a farm. During her five months there, she smuggled in a camera and took pictures of forced laborers in the field, recent stories have reported. By October 1941, she was working in a paper factory near Leipzig, getting little to eat. Her mother was deported and died in a concentration camp in 1942. Ordered to report for resettlement, which meant deportation to Auschwitz, Hahn went underground in Vienna. A non-Jewish friend supplied her with identity papers, which Hahn used to escape to Munich, Germany, where she worked as a seamstress and a maternity nurse. In August 1942, she met and eventually married Werner Vetter, a member of the Nazi Party. In 1944, as the war turned against the Germans and Allied bombing attacks intensified, Hahn fled with her infant daughter, one of the few Jewish children born in Germany in 1944, to the countryside. Vetter was drafted into the German army, captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia. After the war, Hahn became a judge in the Soviet zone of Germany, but fled to Britain when the Russians tried to make her spy on her colleagues. She and Vetter later divorced, media reports said. In 1957, living in London, she married another refugee from Vienna, Fred Beer. Before Beer died in 1984, they visited Pepi and retrieved her letters.