Last surviving Austrian who hid Jews recalls perilous time

It was 1942 in Hitler’s Austria, when a late-night knock on the door often meant deportation or death. Edeltrud Becher shuddered as she heard the rap 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 also had fallen to the Nazis. The three young men were told to pack essentials for deportation to a concentration camp.

Instead they wrote suicide notes to mislead authorities and then did what no one thought any Jew would do — took a night train straight to Vienna, back into the heartland of the Nazi Reich.

Edeltrud Posiles, 94, shown in Vienna on May 13, is the last survivor of 88 Austrians known to have saved Jews from the Holocaust. photo/ap/ronald zak

In deciding to protect the brothers that night, Becher — now Edeltrud Posiles — embarked on a dangerous game of hide-and-seek that included some hairy moments: On one occasion the three jumped from a balcony to escape detection; on another Walter, her future husband, pretended to be a waiter as the Gestapo stormed a café.

Walter Posiles and his brother Ludwig survived. Hans, the oldest brother, beat the odds of surviving Nazi capture, only to be killed by a Russian bomb during the dying days of the war.

Hiding Jews was punishable by death. But asked if she hesitated when the brothers asked for sanctuary, the 94-year-old said, “There was never a moment’s doubt in my mind.”

Even though the marriage to Walter ended in divorce, “I would do it again,” declared Posiles, the last of 88 Austrians known to have saved Jews from the Holocaust, “even though I’m a coward.”

The former librarian moved gingerly from her walker to stand proudly before banner letters spelling out her name on Vienna’s bustling Ring Avenue, along with Austria’s 87 other known Righteous Gentiles, part of a recent exhibit.

The title is reserved for those who saved Jews during the Holocaust and whose names are engraved by Israel on a wall of honor in Jerusalem.

German industrialist Oskar Schindler and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg are well known for rescuing thousands, but others who saved more modest numbers of Jews remain anonymous — unless they are profiled in exhibits such as the one in Vienna, put on by a Holocaust remembrance group.

Posiles insisted that what she did was nothing special, but it’s clear she enjoyed the prominence granted by the exhibit that ran from late April through early May.

Understandably frail but still sharp and funny, she willingly answered questions shouted into her ear as she related some of the more chilling moments of her adventure.

There was the time, for instance, when Fritz, the Nazi fiance of Posiles’ sister, came home from the front lines 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,” Posiles said, adding that other arrangements were made for the three until Fritz left again.

Even though leaving their shelter was dangerous, the brothers took chances. Posiles recalled standing in a park in front of the apartment, signaling by lifting her handbag — 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 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 confided 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.”