Last surviving Austrian who hid Jews honored
VIENNA – It was 1942 in Hitler's Austria, a time when a late-night knock on the door could have resulted in deportation or death. Edeltrud Becher shuddered as she heard the rap of knuckles from unannounced visitors.
She opened the door — and gasped: Instead of the Gestapo, her Jewish fiance and his two brothers were on the doorstep, looking nervously over their shoulders.
The three had fled to Prague after the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. But by 1942, that city too was in the hands of Hitler's henchmen. The three were told to pack essentials for deportation to a concentration camp.
They wrote suicide notes to make authorities think they were dead, and then did what no one thought any Jew would do — they took a night train straight to Vienna, back into the heartland of the Nazi Reich.
In deciding to protect them from the Nazis that night, Becher — now Edeltrud Posiles — embarked on a dangerous game of hide-and-seek that included some truly hairy moments: on one occasion the three jumped from a balcony to escape detection, and Walter, her future husband, pretended to be a waiter as the Gestapo stormed a cafe.
Walter Posiles as well as his brother Ludwig survived. Hans, the oldest brother, beat the odds of being found by the Nazis only to be killed by a Russian bomb during the dying days of the war.
Hiding Jews was punishable by death. But the feisty 94-year old says "there was never a moment's doubt in my mind," when asked if she hesitated as she was asked by the brothers for sanctuary.
And — even though the marriage ended in divorce — "I would do it again," declares Posiles, the last one of 88 Austrians known to have saved Jews from the Holocaust who is still alive.
"Even though I'm a coward," the former librarian adds after a pause, moving gingerly from her walker to stand proudly before banner letters prominently spelling out her name on Vienna's bustling Ring Avenue along with Austria's 87 other known "Righteous Gentiles."
The title is reserved for those in Austria and elsewhere who saved Jews during the Holocaust and whose names are engraved by Israel on a Wall of Honor in Jerusalem's Garden of the Righteous.
German industrialist Oskar Schindler and Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg are well known for rescuing thousands, but others who saved more modest numbers of Jews remain anonymous — unless profiled by exhibits such as the Vienna show, put on by a Holocaust remembrance group.
Posiles insists that what she did was nothing special, but it's clear that she enjoyed the sudden prominence granted her by the exhibit that ran from late April through early May.
Frail, but sharp as a tack and with a wicked sense of humor, she willingly answered questions shouted into her ear as she related some of the more chilling moments of her adventure while sitting in the cafeteria of her seniors' residence.
There was the time, for instance, when Fritz, the Nazi fiance of Posiles' sister, came home from the front lines on leave unexpectedly — while the three brothers were being hidden in his apartment.
"I managed to keep him busy on the stairs just long enough for them to grab their belongings and jump over a balcony to freedom," she said, adding other quarters were found for the three until Fritz left again.
Even though leaving their shelter was dangerous, the brothers took chances. Posiles recalls standing in a park in front of the apartment, handbag in hand and lifting the bag — left hand if all clear, right hand if not, "because I'm left handed."
"Once Walter and I went into a coffee house and minutes later the Gestapo rushed in, looking for deserters," she said. "Walter pretended to be a waiter, grabbing a bunch of newspapers and distributing them among the guests."
Feeding three hungry men called for taking further risks — despite the consequences for being caught that included execution. "We made counterfeit food ration cards so that we could get food for five," said Posiles.
While many Austrians embraced Hitler and his ideology, not all were enthusiastic followers. Posiles said that while some friends would not have hidden Jews out of fear for their lives, they shared in her secret — and kept silent.
"They behaved admirably," she said of the dozen or so people she said she had to confide in "for one reason or another."
"As for me, I have a clear conscience," she said of the war years. "Not everyone can say the same."
George Jahn can be reached at http://twitter.com/georgejahn