Translated by Anthea Bell
Afterword by Hermann Simon
Foreword by Hermann Simon
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In 1942, Marie Jalowicz, a twenty-year-old Jewish Berliner, made the extraordinary decision to do everything in her power to avoid the concentration camps. She removed her yellow star, took on an assumed identity, and disappeared into the city.
In the years that followed, Marie took shelter wherever it was offered, living with the strangest of bedfellows, from circus performers and committed communists to convinced Nazis. As Marie quickly learned, however, compassion and cruelty are very often two sides of the same coin.
Fifty years later, Marie agreed to tell her story for the first time. Told in her own voice with unflinching honesty, Underground in Berlin is a book like no other, of the surreal, sometimes absurd day-to-day life in wartime Berlin. This might be just one woman’s story, but it gives an unparalleled glimpse into what it truly means to be human.
Marie Jalowicz Simon, the extraordinary woman who narrates the wartime life recorded by her son in Underground in Berlin, was eleven years old when Hitler came to power in 1933. She was one of some 163,000 Berlin Jews, approximately a third of the total German Jewish population, which in turn was less than one per cent of the whole. Racist ideology doesn’t need vast numbers to feed on. Feeling swamped needs no swamps.
By 1939, some 400 Nazi decrees later, the Jewish Berlin population had dwindled to 75,000. Laws had been put in place excluding Jews from the professions, public and business life, universities and state schools, and finally from unforced employment. Jews were stripped of assets, pensions and homes, compelled by the race laws of 1935 that made Jewishness a matter of lineage not religion, to declare themselves on ID cards and passports, and eventually on their clothes. After 9–10 November, 1938, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, they were excluded from the very literature, theatres, concert halls, cinemas and sports venues that had so bound them to German culture. Eventually they were transported out of the country (on the only trains permitted them) and excluded from life itself. In May 1943, Berlin was declared Judenrein – cleansed and clear of its Jews.
But Marie Jalowicz was there. How this happened and how she managed to survive through the war years in Germany is the tale these vivid pages tell. They may be based on seventy-seven tapes of conversations she held with her son towards the end of what turned out to be a long postwar career as an academic in East Berlin, but they bear all the immediacy of the present tense.
Marie’s mother, Betti, well-educated, vivacious died of cancer in 1938. Betti’s brother, an orthodox and eccentric ‘joke dealer’, who lived with a gentile woman, followed her two months later, literally starving to death in protest at the Nazi prohibition on Kosher food provision. Marie’s father, no longer able to practice as a lawyer, refused a visa to Palestine, lived an impoverished life with his daughter in bug-infested lodgings until he followed his wife in March 1941.
By this time Marie had already been working for some ten months – along with some 200 other Jewish women – as forced labour making armaments for Siemens at their Spandau plant. These were Rosie the Riveters with a vengeance! Their overseers were men, often enough Nazis. But a vibrant esprit de corps existed among the women. Solidarity, together with small acts of sabotage, made the long grind of daily life tolerable. Marie has a young person’s curiosity about others and gets to know many on the shop floor. She also has a writer’s relish for individual quirks and a marked ability to convey character with a telling detail.
Even though they may be anti-Semitic, the overseers bend a rule for her here and there and when she needs extra leave to cope with her father’s death and funeral arrangements, it is granted. Soon after, since Jews can’t leave a job, her superior fires her on her request. She wonders at this kindness of strangers, anti-Semites among them. She explains it to herself by noting that Berlin was not the provinces: its share of Communist and Social Democratic voters was far greater. Then, too, ‘I realised that the same Aryan German who hated the rich Jew from the big house like poison … had nothing against starving young girls who worked hard, just as he worked hard himself.’
Her father dead, Marie has to find new lodgings. All around her relations and friends are being deported. She is pursued by officialdom to take up another forced labour post. But young woman that she is, she hungers for freedom rather more than for those essential ration coupons which come with registration and work. She starts wearing her Star of David only in the areas where she is known, then tears it off and hides it for long daily treks through the city. A threaded needle in her pocket allows her to sew it back as soon as she enters familiar terrain.
In June 1942, when the Gestapo come to arrest her at six in the morning, she manages to outwit them and leave the building in her petticoat. She has now gone to ground, or as the German title of this memoir has it, become Untergetaucht – submerged. U-boats was the name eventually given to those 1,700 Jews who managed somehow to survive the war under the surface of officialdom, to disappear, their identities changed and often changing, like their innumerable addresses and places of hiding.
When rules are made by madmen and torturers, justice lies in breaking them. It takes courage, cunning and occasionally a ruthless resilience that the young seem to be better at than the old. It also takes a great deal of the moral luck Marie has in spades to make it through the long, hungry war years, the bombing and the difficult aftermath.
I recognise that luck from my mother, whose wartime story I told in my family memoir, Losing the Dead. Living as a Jew under the Nazis was no business for shrinking violets or indeed for women who feel victimised by male attentions of the sexual kind. Linked to a fiancé, Marie escapes to Bulgaria. She enters into marriages of convenience, interprets a black eye as a feature that allows her to blend into the working class environment she moves in. She will do a great deal for food or lodging. This is not a time when anyone can be out on the streets during working hours. When the liberating Russians arrive, the sex act is no cause for immediate breakdown: rather, the proprietorial sign the soldier leaves on her door means she is bothered by no one else.
The fact that Marie emerges scathed but unbroken is a tribute to her great intelligence and inner resources.
This is a book which in its adventurous particularity as well as in its common experience sheds new light on a terrible time. Like Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, it throbs with the pulse of the backstreets of a world capital in peril. Here the working and criminal classes can be kinder than the educated elite who administer injustice.
But unlike Fallada, Underground in Berlin is testimony. It’s also that rare thing – a wartime story from the woman’s point of view. I couldn’t put it down.
It was freezing outside, and already dark. The bar was in Wassertorstrasse, part of the Kreuzberg district of Berlin where I had never been before. I entered the place, which was still entirely empty. Someone called ‘Hello?’ from a back room. Looking through the open doorway, I saw a woman sitting there mending a fur coat. She seemed very reluctant to abandon this occupation and shuffle through to the front room to see me.
Benno Heller had sent me here. He said I was to approach the only waitress in the bar, a woman called Felicitas. She was one of his patients. As a so-called ‘half-Jew’, she ought really to have been wearing the yellow star, but she was not. Heller, a gynaecologist, had already found me a place to stay now and then, but this time he had warned me: Felicitas is something of a crook. He had not been happy about giving me her address, but he didn’t know anyone else who could help me.
A sense of terrible dread surfaced in me, a deep fear: everything in my situation and in this part of the city was strange to me. All the same, I brought myself to tell Felicitas, in a few words, why I had come.
She thought for a moment and then told me, in her thick Berlin accent, ‘I know what. The rubber director ought to be here soon, he’s always one of the first in the evening. He might be able to help.’ Meanwhile, she told me to stand at the bar counter and act like any ordinary guest drinking a glass of beer.
Soon the ‘rubber director’ entered the bar. I was horrified. At a rough guess he was in his early fifties, and he walked with great difficulty. He moved as if his legs were made of rubber, and owed his nickname to his awkward gait and the fact that, as I learned later, he really was the director of a small company.
His way of communicating was like his odd walk, a kind of verbal mishmash, and he brought out what he meant to say only after various failed attempts. In order to be understood, he kept saying the same thing over and over again, hoping to get it out more clearly. Yet again I felt terribly anxious. A woman doctor among my circle of acquaintances had once told me about patients in the late stages of syphilis to whom she gave psychiatric treatment. She said that they walked as if their legs were made of rubber, and they could no longer articulate properly. For instance, they didn’t say Topflappen [oven cloth] but Topfappen, and then corrected it to Opfappen – exactly as the man now before me spoke.
I couldn’t hear what he and Felicitas were discussing, but afterwards I realised that she had sold me to him for fifteen marks. She wanted twenty, he offered ten, and they split the difference. Before I left the bar with him, Felicitas poured him another beer – he was a regular customer – and told me to go into the back room with her for a moment. There she told me the story she had served up to him: I was an old friend of hers, I had a husband at the front, and was living with my in-laws. My relationship with them, she told me, had become so unbearable that I had asked her to put me up somewhere, anywhere. She also confided, in an undertone, that Karl Galecki, the ‘rubber director’, was a Nazi whose fanaticism bordered on derangement.
Then we set off. It was so icy cold outside that it took our breath away. He offered me his arm; we did not say a word to each other.
The snow had frozen over and was glittering brightly. The moon was nearly full. I looked up at the sky: the Man in the Moon showed in gigantic proportions, a podgy face with a nasty grin. I felt desperately unhappy. Dogs can at least howl at the moon; I mustn’t even do that.
Then I pulled myself together, thought of my parents and spoke to them silently in my mind. You needn’t worry about me, I told them, not in the least, your upbringing has left a deep impression on me. What I’m going through now has not the faintest influence on my mind or my development. I have to survive it, that’s all. The idea comforted me a little.
Marie Jalowicz in 1942, aged twenty.
The rubber director’s home was not far from the bar, but he had such severe difficulty in walking that we made slow progress. Finally, we were outside a large building, with an arched entrance leading to a yard. The long, hut-like structure where he lived stood there, and a little further off was a second hut which was his workplace.
He ran the beam of a torch uncertainly over the door, looking for the keyhole – blackout restrictions were in force. I saw the nameplate beside the bell. Then I made my first mistake; to overcome my terrible fear I tried a touch of humour: I gave him a mock bow and said, ‘Good evening, Herr Galezki.’
He stopped short. I was obviously the first person ever to have called him anything but ‘Galekki’. But how was it that I knew the right way to pronounce a Polish ‘c’? To explain that, I had to think up a lie quickly: a Herr Galecki used to live opposite us in my childhood, I said, a Pole who insisted on the proper pronunciation of his surname as ‘Galezki’. The rubber director promptly insisted on more information: could this man be a relation of his, what was his job? And so on and so forth.
Then we went inside the hut. He lived here alone; his wife, he told me, stammering, had left him because she didn’t want to live with a cripple. He had spent years of his life in hospitals and sanatoriums. And now, living here, he indulged in the passion that helped him to endure his loneliness: his fish. The walls of the long room were covered to left and right by aquariums. Here and there a gap between them left room for a piece of furniture, but on the whole the place was devoted to fish. I asked him how many he had. There were far more than he could count by now, an astonishingly wide variety of species.
Then he told me at length, and struggling again and again to get out the individual words, that he had his own fixed routine and wasn’t going to change it. I reacted with great understanding. ‘Why, of course you go to your regular bar every evening. We’re joining forces, but we won’t disturb one another,’ I reassured him, adding, ‘And of course you’ll be eating your midday meal with your mother as usual.’ We addressed each other by the informal du pronoun from the first, in the easy, spontaneous way of the bar-frequenting classes.
His bed stood at the back of the long hut where he lived, among the aquariums, and there was a sofa at the front on which I was to sleep. He showed me where to find a blanket, pillows and sheets.
Even without Felicitas, I would soon have realised that he was a fanatical Nazi. He proudly told me how, while he was in a sanatorium, he had made a matchstick model of Marienburg,* dedicating it to the Führer. He asked me to guess how many matchsticks he had used. I guessed some very high figure, but of course it was nothing like high enough. He happily corrected me, and showed me a couple of newspaper cuttings praising this little miracle, with pictures of it. I praised it too.
Towards the far end of this curious dwelling a picture frame hung on the wall, containing another frame, an empty passe-partout consisting of two pieces of glass. Oh dear, I thought, maybe this was someone’s way of portraying a void, or some such nonsense. When the empty item was being framed, a hair must have got stuck in it. It lay at a slant on the surface, and showed an interesting play of colour.
‘Any idea what that is?’ he asked me, pointing at it.
‘No idea at all.’ Even if I’d guessed, I would never have said so. Finally, he revealed the secret: he had acquired this item by complicated means and at some expense, as he told me, closing his eyes. It was a hair from the Führer’s German shepherd.
‘Goodness me,’ I said, ‘I’d never have ventured to suggest such a thing in case I hurt your feelings if I was wrong. Why, that’s wonderful!’
Then he showed me the kitchen, and something that I hadn’t expected in this crazy aquarium: a side door leading to a proper, normal bathroom.
After that we sat together for a while. I had become used to the strange jumble of words that he came up with, and I did not stare at him inquisitively, so he gradually cast off all inhibitions and gave his enthusiasm for Nazi ideology free rein. None the less, I was terribly afraid of betraying myself. I could keep myself from saying the wrong thing, but I didn’t have all my physical reactions under control. For instance, he assured me that ‘the Ewes, the Yoose, the Jews must all die’. I felt myself flushing red, jumped up, pointed to one of the aquariums and said, ‘Oh, look, those fish are swimming in a different way now.’ He clapped his hands in approval – I was a good observer of his darlings!
It was in fear and desperation that I made contact with those fish. I knew no broche, no Hebrew blessing for them, and I was not sure whether God existed at all. On the other hand, he was my reliable companion – hakodaush boruch hu – and I told him, ‘You must take the broche as it comes to me. If you won’t even let me have a siddur, a prayer book, or a reference book where I can look things up, it’s no use expecting verbal perfection.’
I think God was reasonable himself, and saw my point. My improvised broche ran, ‘Praise be to you, king of the world, baure ha dogim, who made the fish.’ I also addressed the fish directly in my mind. I am in mortal danger, abandoned by everyone, I told them. You are innocent creatures, just like me. Please intercede for me, you silent fish, when human beings abandon me.
A little later, the rubber director announced, ‘There’s something I must tell you. This isn’t easy for me, so I will keep it short.’ With bowed head and tears in his eyes, he said he was afraid he must disappoint me: he was no longer capable of any kind of sexual relationship. I tried to react in a neutral, friendly manner, but I was overcome by such relief and jubilation that I couldn’t sit still, and fled to the toilet.
It was the most sublime and edifying visit to the toilet of my life. I conjured up in my mind Friday evening prayers as I had so often heard them in the Old Synagogue, of course in an abbreviated version. I call on you, dear choirboys, to sing, I thought, and made them sing as I remembered it. Everything served to thank God for saving me from deadly danger.
I do not know, of course, just what Galecki really suffered from at the time, but I believed he was syphilitic, and if I had been obliged to share his bed I would indeed have felt myself to be in mortal danger. Once I knew that matters would not come to that, I felt deeply relieved, as if I had been set free. Hashem li welau iro – God is with me, I fear nothing, I recited silently before I returned to Galecki.
The rubber director’s hut would really have been an ideal hiding place for me, if only the man hadn’t been such an incorrigible Nazi.
* Translator’s note: Marienburg – a masterpiece of Gothic architecture now located in Malbork, in northern Poland.
I was to learn to assert myself
Childhood and Youth in Berlin
My parents had been married for eleven years when I was born on 4 April 1922. I was their first and only child, and my mother’s late pregnancy was a great surprise to them both.
Hermann and Betti Jalowicz had both grown up in the Mitte district of Berlin, but in very different circumstances. My grandfather Bernhard Jalowicz dealt in job lots of cheap goods, a business based in Alte Schönhauser Strasse. He was a heavy drinker and beat his wife. His birth name had been Elijahu Meir Sachs, but after emigrating from Russia he had bought identity papers bearing the name Jalowicz from a widow in Calbe on the River Saale.
His sons went to school, gained their school-leaving certificates and studied at university. Besides studying law, my father participated in the Zionist sports movement. Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were considered physically degenerate, as a result of the cramped living conditions in ghettos and their pursuit of such traditional Jewish activities as selling their wares from door to door. The Zionist idea was to do away with this stigma, and encourage a new national Jewish frame of mind by means of healthy exercise in the fresh air. From time to time my father was the editor responsible for the supraregional journal of the Jewish gymnastics association.
My mother Betti was also active in the Bar Kokhba sports club. Her father was a grandson of the famous rabbi Akiva Eger, and thus belonged to the Jewish scholastic aristocracy. The prestige of his family background enabled him to marry into the Russian Jewish Wolkowyski family, who were very rich, and he invested his wife’s substantial dowry in building up a large forwarding agency with offices on Alexanderplatz in Berlin.
My mother, the youngest of six siblings, had been born in 1885. She was a plump little woman whose intellect, wit and enormous vitality impressed everyone as soon as she opened her mouth. Her unusual combination of dark hair with blue eyes was an attractive feature in her; less attractive were her short, fat legs.
Hermann and Betti Jalowicz, Marie’s parents, around 1932.
My father, at that time a good-looking young man with many girls chasing him, got to know Betti Eger for the first time on the telephone. He is said to have told her, ‘I’ve heard so many delightful things about you; I suppose I’m sure to be disappointed when I meet you in person.’ My mother immediately fell for that line; they did meet, and fell in love. In 1911 they were married in my mother’s family home at 44 Rosenthaler Strasse. My Eger grandparents’ large apartment lay opposite the newly built courtyard complex of the Hackesche Höfe in central Berlin.
In his early years practising as a lawyer, my father had gone into partnership with his colleagues Max Zirker and Julius Heilbrunn, who had their chambers in Alexanderstrasse. He had been to school with Zirker, who had grown stout since those days, but enjoyed social occasions as much as his partner Heilbrunn. Meanwhile, my father sat at his desk attending to the everyday work of the practice.
Angry resentment gradually built up in Betti Jalowicz. She felt that Zirker and Heilbrunn were unscrupulously exploiting her husband. ‘Let’s build up a practice of our own. We’ll make it,’ she kept telling my father, to encourage him. And a little while before the outbreak of the First World War the two of them did indeed move into their own premises, at 19a Prenzlauer Strasse, a few hundred metres from Alexanderplatz. That address was their living and working space rolled into one.
My mother devoted herself energetically to this legal practice. She had always been sorry that she couldn’t take a school-leaving examination and embark on further studies herself. When her older brothers were studying jurisprudence, she secretly followed the course that they were taking. As a young woman she had been office manager in her brother Leo’s large legal chambers, where she was not only in charge of all the staff but drafted whole documents herself. From the legal viewpoint, they were often so brilliantly written that nothing in the wording or punctuation of her drafts had to be changed.
My father was certainly interested in jurisprudence and the philosophy of law, but he hated the daily routine of a lawyer’s life, and was useless as a businessman. He would sometimes leave the room when a client got on his nerves, slamming the door behind him and telling my mother, ‘You go and deal with him; this is your practice.’
On the other hand, he loved to amuse a large social gathering with accounts of curious incidents from his working life. For instance, he told the tale of the client who, in great agitation, showed him a summons to appear in court on a certain day. ‘Look at that, Dr Jalowicz, look at that!’ he kept saying as he pointed to the date. Only when the client explained that it was Yom Kippur did my father understand the problem. ‘It’s Puderbeutel’s doing!’ the client lamented. Puderbeutel was the name of his adversary in the case concerned, and he was convinced that the villain had meant to hit him where it hurt by ensuring that he would have to offend against the Jewish holy day by appearing in court.
My father also liked to tell the story of the old Jewish woman who came to see him in order to ask whether a man is supposed to beat his wife. Even as she spoke she was beginning to remove her clothes to show him the evidence of conjugal violence. ‘No, no, don’t do that!’ he had said, horrified.
His clients also included non-Jewish members of the working class, like the man who came to ask a question; he stammered, but my father made out, with difficulty, that the matter concerned someone whose gold teeth had been removed after he had died in hospital. With care and great tact, he asked which of the man’s loved ones had been so shamefully mistreated. ‘Doesn’t have to be a loved one, does it?’ inquired the man, annoyed. He was a pall-bearer, and wanted to lodge a complaint against the Virchow hospital, which was delivering corpses deprived of their gold teeth to the cemeteries. In the opinion of my father’s client, it was the pall-bearers’ right to supplement their meagre income by robbing the bodies themselves.
My grandparents on my mother’s side had both died before I was born. After that, my aunt Grete took over the apartment at 44 Rosenthaler Strasse. She gave dinner parties there for the whole family circle on the major Jewish holidays, and every year our unforgettable Seder evenings took place in her huge dining room.
As far back as I can remember, my great-aunt Doris presided over the company, as the eldest member of the family. She always wore grey silk, with a ribbon round her neck, and the expression on her face reminded me of a bulldog. Doris Schapiro had once been a very rich woman, and had fled from Russia to Berlin before the revolution. Her daughter Sylvia Asarch, who had a similar story behind her, was always present at these gatherings as well.
There were not many children in the family – apart from me, only my cousins Kurt-Leo and Hanna-Ruth. That made Uncle Arthur all the more important to us. A very amusing man, and fond of children, Arthur was an extraordinary bundle of contradictions. Even his outward appearance was unusual. The Egers were usually short and either fat or thin, but Arthur towered at least a head above them all. The others had nondescript dark hair; Arthur’s was fiery red. He differed from the rest of the family in mindset as well, being both a communist and a passionately Orthodox Jew. He used to send his sister Grete, with whom he sometimes stayed, nearly crazy with his religious notions and practices. Professionally, Arthur traded in joke and novelty articles. For a while he had a shop in Münzstrasse, later he ran a market stall, but his projects regularly led to bankruptcy.
A family party at the summer house in Kaulsdorf in March 1932. Top row, from left: Herbert Eger, Sylvia Asarch, Mia Eger, Edith Lewin (a niece from Riga), Betti Jalowicz, Julius Lewin. Bottom row: Kurt-Leo Eger, Margarete (Grete) Eger, Marie Jalowicz. Front: Hanna-Ruth Eger, Hermann Jalowicz.
On Jewish holidays there was bound to be trouble with him. When everyone else had arrived at Rosenthaler Strasse after the religious service, and were waiting for the festive meal to be served, he invariably arrived last. At the time, family members used to say, ‘Ah, well, Arthur’s closing the shul again,’ referring to the synagogue, and with a punning reference to Schule, school. He always met more acquaintances outside the synagogue and would talk to them for hours.
Picture postcard of Arthur Eger as a soldier in the First World War, 1915, left in the picture. The postcard reads: ‘How well one could live if one were a millionaire and the war was over – apart from that, we’re in good health. Regards from Arthur.’
But when, on a Seder evening, he spoke of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, he did so with such deep and serious feeling that he might have been there himself. And every time the standard liturgy continued after the meal, he looked a little paler, and announced with credible alarm, ‘The Seder cannot go on; thieves have broken in and stolen the afikaumon
A Washington Post Notable Non-Fiction Book of 2015
"The most extraordinary memoir of World War II I've ever encountered."—Gerard DeGroot, Washington Post
- "Captivating....Jalowicz's story is unquestionably tragic in so many ways, but is also full of miracles, hope, and a future."—Publishers Weekly (Starred review)
"Marie Jalowicz Simon transports the reader right to wartime Berlin. Even seventy years later, her voice is young, fresh, and gripping. Her story is by turns funny, wise, and horrific. I felt like she was reaching out to me across time and I couldn't help but fall in love with her. Despite the incredible dangers she faced living underground in Nazi Berlin, Marie's story is incredibly life-affirming and at times, even joyful."
—Clara Kramer, author of Clara's War
"An absolutely gripping account of one young woman's struggle to escape deportation at the hands of the Nazis and of those who helped her. Marie Jalowicz-Simon details for the first time with total honesty the harsh sexual politics of survival in the Berlin underground."
—Thomas Ertman, New York University, author of Birth of the Leviathan
- On Sale
- May 3, 2016
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little Brown Spark