The affinity of so-called pure races for Jews was not limited to men. German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl never officially joined the Nazi Party but she made her career by glorifying Hitler and the Aryan ideal in party-funded documentaries like Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl, who died in 2003 at the age of 101, spent more than half her life downplaying her Nazi ties, claiming total ignorance of the Final Solution and defending herself with lists of “Jewish friends.” But in a recent biography, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, writer Steven Bach finds she was an onlooker, albeit a shocked one, at a 1939 German Army massacre of Jewish civilians in Konskie, Poland. Bach also demonstrates that she knowingly used enslaved Gypsies from a nearby concentration camp as extras in her feature film, Tiefland.
The narcissistic Riefenstahl was a member of Hitler’s inner circle and, when it suited her craving for publicity, was delighted to hint that she had given the Fuehrer himself a little “Stefanie Isak” during the war. Whether or not she slept with him—and Hitler’s purported impotence makes it unlikely—the two were mutually worshipful.
A cunning knockout, Riefenstahl collected a Mussolini-like list of lovers, some of whom were Jews. One was a slender Austrian Jewish currency trader named Harry Sokal. A bon vivant and casino habitué, Sokal could have entertained few illusions about Riefenstahl’s sympathies: Once, sitting opposite him on a train, she thrust Hitler’s Mein Kampf under his nose, calling it a “beautiful book” and declaring its author “the coming man.” Seemingly good-natured in his gambling ways, however, Sokal pursued his alluring “ingénue” for years, lavishing her with fur coats, paying for her dance debut and bankrolling movies that might advance her career. Riefenstahl accepted his gifts while rejecting his occasional proposals of marriage until their passion (or her tolerance) flamed out. Sokal nevertheless continued investing in her projects and socializing with her as a neighbor in Weimar Berlin, almost to the day he fled Germany in 1933—a path taken by many of Riefenstahl’s other so-called Jewish “friends.”
Bach convincingly speculates that the only person Riefenstahl truly loved besides herself was her mother, Bertha Scherlach Riefenstahl—who may very well have been Jewish. Bertha’s mother died after giving birth to Bertha, her 18th child, prompting her widower to marry the children’s nanny. That the filmmaker recorded the nanny’s name—and not her true maternal grandmother’s name—on her Nazi-mandated “Proof of Descent” form has given weight to contemporary assertions that Riefenstahl was aware that she was of Jewish descent.
While Riefenstahl was criss-crossing the Reich making movies—a young Jewish law student from Vienna fled a slave labor camp and came to Germany with fake Christian documents provided by a friend. The 28-year-old Edith Hahn Beer was living under the name “Grete Denner” and working for the Red Cross when she met Werner Vetter on an art gallery bench on a hot August day in Munich in 1942, she recounts in her memoir, The Nazi Officer’s Wife. The tall, blonde Vetter, a vacationing Nazi Party member from Brandenburg, bore the swastika on his lapel but he nevertheless charmed her with his wryly heretical observations on art and cultural patronage under Hitler.
To her surprise, Beer found herself spending the following week with the art-loving Nazi. And when Vetter returned to see her in November, he proposed. “Werner was ready to jump on the train to Vienna and ask my father for my hand in marriage,” she wrote. “Where was I going to get a father?” Beer panicked and tried to put him off, but gentle demurrals failed. Overwhelmed by the pressure of her ruse and perhaps emboldened by Vetter’s own confession—he was not the bachelor he’d claimed and was actually in the midst of a divorce—Beer pulled him close and whispered the truth about her Jewish heritage. “Why, you little liar,” he grimly replied.
It was a heart-stopping moment for Beer, but Vetter’s equanimity quickly returned, along with his determination. “Let’s call it square and get married,” he decided. Over the following weeks, he pressed his case long-distance and Beer finally gave in. It was a fortuitous time to tie the knot: she feared a pending reassignment by the Red Cross would require paperwork that could expose her identity. “Here was this white knight in Munich, who came to me fearless and adoring, and he offered me not just safety but love,” she writes. “Of course I accepted.”