Underground in Berlin

A Young Woman's Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany


By Marie Jalowicz Simon

Translated by Anthea Bell

Afterword by Hermann Simon

Foreword by Hermann Simon

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A thrilling piece of undiscovered history, this is the true account of a young Jewish woman who survived World War II in Berlin.

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.


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"Do you seriously think I would not be intellectually capable of writing down the story of my life if I wanted to?"

My mother, then aged about seventy, shouted this question down the phone in a stentorian voice, as if she were standing in front of her students in the lecture room.

At the other end of the line, the recipient of her forcefully phrased inquiry was a journalist who wanted to publish interviews with survivors of the Nazi period. "That's the last thing I want," added my mother, turning to me—I happened to be visiting my parents and was thus by chance a witness to this phone call.

Much as I understood her, I thought it a great shame that her story might never be written. I was more or less familiar with it, but I was far from knowing all the details.

Before 1997, my mother had never really told the dramatic history of her survival. Now and then she had mentioned something in the family circle, but never as a consecutive narrative, and always out of the blue. You could hardly ever tell what set such reminiscences off.

One of my childhood memories is of a family friend who repeatedly tried to persuade her to write or, better still, dictate her story. "Yes, yes," my mother would tell her, only to add at once that this, that or the other was more important and must be dealt with first.

Once—I was still at elementary school—my class teacher asked my mother to talk to my fellow pupils about her life in the years just after 1933. She agreed to that request. The lesson set aside for the talk passed quickly, and she still hadn't really said much, apart from describing relatively minor incidents in the years when she had gone to ground, although she certainly made them sound exciting.

As she grew older, however, she became increasingly willing to talk about the details of her life. For instance, I managed to persuade her to tell the historian Carola Sachse about her experiences doing forced labor for Siemens, and she gave her an interview, under the pseudonym of "Gerda B.," on 22 April 1993. She was very anxious that her real name should not appear in Sachse's book.*

At the same time, she went along with my wish for her to give an interview to the Berlin historian Raymond Wolff, who was working on the history of the Neukölln doctor Benno Heller, and then to answer his questions at length. However, as she had emphasized to me, she didn't want to tell him all she knew about Heller, even though it was her opinion that "all omissions do considerable damage to the truth." Again, she does not identify herself in that interview but calls herself "Frau Eissler." In the case of a woman who had given her shelter when she was on the run, she was also anxious not to identify her by her real name or to tell Wolff what it was; he did not learn from her that "Frau Rademann" was really a woman called Gerda Janicke, who plays a not inconsiderable part in my mother's memories.

In June 1993 she also said she was prepared to give a lecture at a conference in Eisenstadt, at the invitation of the University of Vienna, on the subject "The U-Boats—Individual Cases of Resistance" (U-Boats being a name that those who had gone underground in the Nazi period gave themselves). Significantly, this lecture was not published because—and I am sure of this—my mother didn't want it to appear in print. She had given away a good deal of herself in it, probably more than she had intended. This was the first and last time she spoke in public on the subject.

In the lecture she confined herself to "Survival in Berlin," adding, for the benefit of her audience: "This has… the advantage of my being able to draw on my own experience, and where I quote others I can also criticize the sources from an insider's point of view."

She devoted a good deal of space in her lecture to Dr. Benno Heller and his wife, Irmgard, and will have been directly influenced by the interview mentioned above, which she had given only a little while earlier.

I would not admit, being a historian myself, that I couldn't get my own mother to talk about her life, and so on 26 December 1997, without any warning, I put a tape recorder on the table in my parents' apartment and said, "You've always been meaning to tell your story—go ahead."

Rather taken aback, but also excitedly, my mother began recording her memories up to May 1945 on seventy-seven tapes in chronological order. The recordings followed strict rules; they were continuous, and I did not interrupt her narrative with questions. The clarity of structure was remarkable. My mother could pick up the thread of her story precisely, going on from the end of a previous session that had lasted sixty or often even ninety minutes. In parallel, I did my own research to check her facts. I always told her about it, especially when I came upon several people of the same name, and sorting them out was difficult. She found this extremely interesting, and was particularly glad when my research confirmed what she herself had said.

Our sessions, although interrupted again and again by time that she spent in hospital, went on until 4 September. Some of the recordings were even done in hospital; the last was only a few days before her death. Marie Simon died on 16 September 1998.

It is particularly obvious in the last recordings that her powers were waning, and one can sense the effort it cost her to dictate her memories.

Next the tapes had to be typed out, and then the transcript—some 900 pages—lay fallow for some time, because the copy had to be compared with the sound recordings, and I could not face that directly after my mother's death.

The writer and journalist Irene Stratenwerth, with whom I have worked for many years on various projects for exhibitions, finally, and with sensitive feeling for the original, turned the long transcript into a self-contained text, the manuscript of this book by Marie Jalowicz Simon. I can hear my mother's voice in every line of the present work.

Preparing the manuscript entailed not only identifying the most important of the astonishing wealth of details and characters that my mother had remembered, and finding the narrative thread that was always present in my mother's mind, however far she sometimes deviated from it; the events that she described also had to be exactly reconstructed. Now and then, for instance, she either did not know a precise date or had forgotten it.

The places, names and characters that featured in her memories were to be found in old address books or the files of a number of different authorities. Many people helped to search various archives. Often it was only through this work of reconstruction that we understood "the whole story" she was telling—and at the same time we kept acknowledging, in retrospect, that Marie Simon was right and really had said all that was necessary on a given subject.

In the fifteen years since her death, my own researches into hundreds of names, addresses and lives have shown that my mother remembered almost every detail correctly. I concluded my research work just before writing this foreword; only a part of what I found is included in the index of names. Describing the course of my research would make a book in itself, including, for instance, the account of how I found the descendants of Hans Goll, who helped my mother in Bulgaria, and those of "the Dutchman."

I would have liked to know more, and in more detail, about the time immediately after the liberation, and also about my mother's life in the 1950s, but she was not prepared to talk about those periods. That time in her life was not as easily recalled as the preceding years, and by the time she reached it in her account, her strength was failing her.

I still wonder why she left it so late to put it all on record. "If I tell you something," she said once as she was dictating her story on tape, "then it has to be the truth, and there's a lot that one can't talk about until half a century later." Her dictation did indeed sound as if it were a story that she was reading aloud, and a session often lasted as long as a lecture.

In the course of dictating her memories, and in contrast to the lecture at Eisenstadt mentioned above, my mother deliberately avoided using books already published as sources and comparing her memoirs with those of other people, either printed or from archives. On that subject, she said, "I didn't really want to draw on any sources other than my own memory, because if I had, they would have modified what I remembered.… What is entirely subjective, if it is honestly presented, is of greater objective value than alleged objectivity that misses its mark. In other words, to use an image: a frog should describe its experiences from the froggy point of view. For all the limited nature of the depiction, for all the coloring of the picture presented, it is then of objective value as the object of its subjectivity. The frog ought not to act as if it could fly and see things from an eagle's point of view."

However, she had thought of putting her memories down on paper even during the time when she was in hiding; she kept a diary in her head without paper or pen and edited the entries again and again to make all her experiences after 22 June 1942 shorter and more precise.

It was on that date, 22 June, a Monday, that my mother escaped being arrested by the Gestapo, and from then on she was living "illegally." I put the word in quotations marks on purpose because she repeatedly told me that she regarded the idea of illegality as extremely questionable, "because the technology of the worst mass murder in the history of mankind was illegal; we must surely grant everyone the right to life. The Nazis were illegal, not me."

Hermann Simon


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.

Hermann and Betti Jalowicz, Marie's parents, around 1932.

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.

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 practicing 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 meters 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 gray 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.

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.

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.

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." The word meant a special piece of matzo that we children had hidden. If we brought it out, we were rewarded with something sweet—that was the custom.

Long before I went to school, Arthur tried to teach me the Hebrew alphabet. That, too, was in line with an old Jewish custom. My father used to tell me how, when he was a little boy sitting on his grandfather's lap, the old man had told him, "My boy, now you are three years old, and I don't want you learning your German alphabet first and then our own sacred letters, but the other way round."

However, Arthur's way of going about my lessons infuriated my mother. The first that he drew for me was , the Hebrew letter H. Arthur told me, "Look at that, my child, that's H, and you say hi. Now repeat it: hi."

Of course I showed it proudly to my parents. "See that? It's a hi."

"Where did you learn such nonsense?" they said at once. For pronouncing the letter hi instead of hey was an older usage, regarded as outmoded and inelegant, something that they did not want me to learn.

Arthur was constantly at odds with Aunt Grete. For instance, he liked to drink tea with a great many sugar lumps in it, which she thought wasteful. But whenever she protested, Arthur, adding lump after lump to his cup, quoted a silly advertising slogan claiming that the body needed sugar for nourishment:

Don't believe the folk who say that sugar is no good.

You need sugar every day as an essential food.

Sometimes he declaimed the rhyme like a small child reciting a verse and then getting stuck; at other times he assumed the manner of a ham actor. My stern, dour Aunt Grete kept begging him to stop it—until even she burst out laughing. By then he would have more than ten lumps of sugar in his tea.

When I was about ten years old, I saw him sitting at the table a day or so after Pessach, putting a piece of matzo on top of a piece of bread, and repeating over and over again, with a silly giggle, "Chometz and matzo," leavened and unleavened bread. No sensible person would still be eating unleavened bread after the Pessach festival,* but he made a joke out of it. It was then I realized that Arthur was acting a part, only you never knew where his joking ended and he was serious again.

The apartment in Rosenthaler Strasse was also the scene of many family stories that were told only surreptitiously. One of them was about my aunt Ella, and happened when I was still a small child.

At the turn of the century she had been sent for a few months to Boldera near Riga, where one of the Wolkowyski family's country estates lay. She must have been a pretty, amusing young woman then, and it was high time for her to marry. In Riga she met Max Klaczko, and they married soon after that. It was only later that she realized he was a terrible psychopath, always grumbling and finding fault, a man who would make her life hell.

Ella and Max Klaczko once came to visit in Berlin, bringing their daughter Edit. While Ella was happy to be back in her familiar childhood surroundings in Rosenthaler Strasse, her husband went off on his own to see the city. One evening in the year 1926 he stayed out for a long time. When the family had begun worrying about him, the doorbell rang. A police officer stood there, and told Ella, with the usual set expression of sympathy, "It is my sad duty to inform you that your husband has had a fatal accident in crossing the road near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church."

The story goes that Ella uttered a cry of joy, flung her arms round the policeman and performed such a wild dance with him that he could hardly keep his footing. After that, he had to be paid handsomely to keep his mouth shut—while he kept assuring everyone that he was not corrupt. Even Uncle Arthur, who had been broke all his life, offered, "Shall I contribute something? It's a tidy sum."

A few days later, Ella Klaczko could feature as the perfect example of a grieving widow, not just to outward appearance but in her general attitude. And indeed, her situation was wretched; her husband left her his typewriter shop in Riga, and nothing else but debts. All Ella possessed were a few typewriters, with which she opened a typing and translation bureau in her apartment.

My mother often told me about the delicious things she had eaten when she, too, went to spend a few months on the Boldera estate. Sometimes we went to a Russian delicatessen in Charlottenburg. I always loved to go shopping for these good things. Particularly choice tea came in boxes with gold decoration and a strange inscription. "Why is there a back-to-front R here?" My mother explained that it was a Я, pronounced "ja," which means yes in German. So I got to know the Russian alphabet.

We sometimes bought sugared klyukva, cranberries, thickly covered in icing sugar. You nibbled them while drinking tea. Or kil'ki—sprats in oil—and grilled peas, with a slightly smoked flavor. I don't know whether all these things really tasted so good, or whether I was just enchanted by their exotic aspect. My mother told me how in her own childhood she could tell from the smell in the front hall of the apartment whether visitors from Russia had come. The smell of Russian leather given off by their heavy coats could be picked up even in the stairwell; it evoked that special, intense French perfume Cuir de Russie. She felt those odors were promising—they promised that soon there would be delicatessen to eat. Our relations from Riga also brought us special delicacies from there, for instance kalkun, stuffed turkey. My mother waxed enthusiastic because it reminded her of her childhood, and I liked the taste too.

Soon after my sixth birthday I began going to elementary school in Heinrich-Roller-Strasse. It was 1928, the time of mass unemployment. Many very poor people lived near the catchment area of this school. All the same, my parents did not want to send me to an exclusive private school. I was to learn the social environment there, along with its Berlin dialect, and learn also to assert myself in those surroundings. At the same time, however, they wanted to limit my contact with that world.

The first day at school; Marie Jalowicz in 1928, aged six.

For many years my father took me to school every day. Our morning walk together, and the good conversations we had, strengthened the bond between us. I was collected from school by my nanny, Levin. As soon as I got home I was stripped and washed from head to foot. My clothes were either put in with the laundry or hung up to air, and I wore a fresh set: apparently I had taken on the typical, musty smell of the school.

I skipped the third year. Even before 1933, my parents had a pressing sense of inner uneasiness, and wanted me to get through my schooling quickly. Like my mother and my aunts before me, I changed to the Sophien-Lyzeum elementary school. The three years that I spent there did not mold my character in any particular way. What impressed me most was the arrest of our mathematics teacher Frau Draeger.*


  • "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
Sep 8, 2015
Page Count
384 pages
Little Brown Spark

Marie Jalowicz Simon

About the Author

Marie Jalowicz Simon was born in 1922 into a middle-class Jewish family. She escaped the ghettos and concentration camps during the Second World War by hiding in Berlin. After the war she was full professor of the literary cultural history of classical antiquity at the Berlin Humboldt University. Shortly before her death, her son, Hermann Simon, director of the New Synagogue Berlin Foundation-Centrum Judaicum, recorded Marie telling her story. He acts as a spokesperson for Underground in Berlin.

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