The Price of Life: Marie Jalowicz Simon’s Underground in Berlin.

Simon, Marie Jalowicz. Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany. 2014Trans. Anthea Bell. Back Bay Books, 2015.

Just over a year ago, I reviewed David R. Gillham’s City of Women, a novel set in wartime Berlin. Marie Jalowicz Simon’s work takes us into that same world, but it is not fiction. On 22 June 1942, the young Marie Jalowicz removed from her clothing the yellow star identifying her as Jewish and began life as a “u-boat,” a person hiding under the radar, I use the cliché advisedly, of the Nazi authorities. Underground in Berlin is her memoir of that time, transcribed from tapes that Marie Jalowicz Simon recorded as she neared the end of her life decades later at the urging of her son, historian Hermann Simon. In his forward to the book, Hermann Simon tells us “The clarity of structure [in each of the seventy-seven tapes that he made of his mother] was remarkable” (xi). Although Marie Simon died on 16 September 1998, Hermann Simon felt unable to deal with the transcript of the tapes for some years. Ultimately, however, the writer, Irene Stratenwerth, with whom Hermann Simon had worked on many other projects “turned the transcript into a self-contained text” (xii) which became the manuscript of Underground in Berlin.

As gripping as any spy novel, Underground in Berlin differs in its relationship with its reader from fiction only insofar as the reader knows the outcome of events since he or she is reading a memoir and has read the Forward. Simon’s recollections reveal her younger self to have an instinct and a will for survival. Some of the lengths to which she was prepared to go and activities she was prepared to endure, especially the commodification of her body, may seem to us from the comfort of peacetime, to be absolutely unendurable.

What may also be extremely disturbing to some readers is what these memories reveal about the very mundanity of the administration of exploitation, segregation, deportation, and attempted ultimate destruction of Germany’s Jews. Possibly disturbing, too, is the way Simon recalls how so many of her friends and associates seemed to accept what was happening to them: packing their rucksacks in preparation for deportation, making the arrangements to leave their homes. The young Marie Jalowicz was not prepared to submit quietly to her own destruction. She lied, she cheated, she relied on trusted friends; she moved from one hide-out to another, living for several years with a borrowed identity. Most of her time was spent in Berlin, though for a time she was in Magdeburg and attempted escape through Bulgaria. At times, she even lived with fervent Nazis who were unaware of her Jewishness. If this work were  fiction, we would see in Marie Jalowicz a youthful heroine embarked on a picaresque voyage through the hidden world subsisting in the shadows of the Nazi state. The way she eluded two Gestapo men while clothed only in her petticoat (92-94) could be an episode from a farce if it were not for the fact that had Marie gone with them she would have been on her way to death.

Marie Jalowicz Simon reveals her younger self as resourceful and determined. Her words contain little that can be construed as self-pity and offer an extremely interesting insight into life in war-time Berlin as well as constituting a testament to the human capability for courage. I found the book very hard to put down.

You will also find this book published by Clerkenwell Press with the Title Gone to Ground.

Afterthought on an “Afterword”: Hermann Simon’s “Afterword” concludes the book and tells us what happened to his mother after the war. She went to university, married, and became a full professor at Berlin Humboldt University. What I would have liked to have seen included in this Afterword was a little more explanation of Marie Jalowicz Simon’s response to the post-war era. Hermann Simon tells us that his mother joined the Communist Party on 15 November 1945 and after the merger of the Communist and Social Democratic Parties in 1946 was a member of the Social Unity Party of East Germany (351). He tells us that “West Germany was never a viable alternative for her. Yet the huge political changes after the fall of the Berlin Wall made her uneasy” (351). Herman Simon quotes Gerd Irrlitz’s obituary in which he identified Marie Simon’s “expertise and courage in defending the truth,” and called her one of those who “withstood doctrinaire impositions, and who taught and exemplified the ideal claim of a new society rooted in solidarity against the ideal claim of a new society rooted in solidarity against the distorted image of the illiberal, authoritarian social state” (qtd. Simon 351). Hermann Simon also recalls that his mother felt that “all Utopias ending in -ism, socialism and Zionism alike, had failed” (351). So just how did she navigate the politics of East Germany? It would be interesting to know.






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“A Mysterious Buzz.” Fatal Leaps in Bradley Somer’s Fishbowl.

Somer, Bradley. Fishbowl. St. Martin’s, 2015.

This novel, (is it a novel?) is the not so tragic story of Ian the goldfish who takes a “perilous plunge from his bowl on the twenty-seventh floor balcony” (5) of an apartment building, the Seville on Roxy. It is also the story of Garth the construction worker who labours just up the road from where he lives alone on the top floor of the Seville on Roxy. Then there’s his neighbour and fellow worker Danny, who lives lower down in the building with his girlfriend Petunia Delilah who is heavily pregnant; a little way down the corridor is Claire the shut-in who makes her living saying rather interesting things to lonely men over the telephone. It’s about Homeschooled Hermann who lives on the fifteenth floor with his grandfather and finding “the consciousness that he recently misplaced” (44), “hold[ing] a life in his hands and see[ing] a life in his mind” (229). It’s the story of “the Villain Connor” (16), Ian’s owner (?) carer (?), a graduate student and his girlfriend Katie whose relationship is complicated by “the Evil Seductress Faye” (16).

What would have happened to all these people, including Ian, if Jiminez the building supervisor had not “dare[d] to disconnect the blue wire” while leaving “the red wire attached”? (65).

You can no doubt tell from my somewhat detailed quotation, taken primarily from chapter headings, that the work’s tone is not a little hyperbolic. Yes, this is a comic novel. Or is it? Its conclusion isn’t exactly traditional, but one does leave the novel satisfied and with a positive view of the world. I’m afraid I cheated and checked the ending before I came to it; I wasn’t sure I could cope with an ending that seemed at the beginning of the work to be doomed to be somewhat morbid. It isn’t. Despite the fact that within its pages the reader sees birth, death, loneliness, fetishism, truth, deceit, courage, and fear, in other words “the spirit and chaos of life (4), the overall tone of the work is if not exactly optimistic then life affirming.

Fishbowl celebrates the paradoxes of life, the very ordinariness of individual absurdities, the possibilities for joy, and universality of experience. It also draws our attention to the strangeness of time. It takes us fifty-five chapters to get from the beginning of the book to the end and a few hours to read it. The work covers a span of half an hour. It takes Ian four seconds to make his descent. The story, for want of a better word is longer than the time it relates. But then perhaps time is a curve, a wave rolling back upon itself as memory takes us back, something we can manipulate as we manipulate narratives. Narration plays with time. Narration creates fiction to tell truths. Fiction manipulates point of view

Fishbowl engages with some very thought-provoking ideas indeed but does so with a lightness of touch that saves it from being overly self-conscious.






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The “Better Spirit”?: Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent

Sackville-West, Vita. All Passion Spent. [Hogarth, 1931] Introd. Victoria Glendinning. Virago 1983.

All Passion Spent may well be Vita Sackville-West’s best-known work. I can’t lay claim to any familiarity with her work, so I could be wrong, but I have a nagging suspicion that, outside the world of English Departments, Sackville-West is probably better known today as the friend of Virginia Woolf, as the restorer of Sissinghurst and creator of the gardens, and for living a lifestyle still considered somewhat unconventionally independent for a married woman than she is known for her novels. I remember beginning The Edwardians. I don’t remember finishing it; neither can I remember whether I didn’t actually finish it or whether the story and characters didn’t remain with me. This is not the case with All Passion Spent, Sackville-West’s story of the widowed Lady Shane’s removal from Mayfair to Hampstead and of the quiet life she lives there

In Lady Shane, Sackville-West creates a very sympathetic character: the widow who, despite the reiterated concerns of her adult children, does precisely what she wants, even banning her grand and great-grandchildren from visiting her. She becomes friendly with men from outside her own class and lives a quiet life in a place still almost rural where she is looked after by the French maid Genoux, who has been with her since she was a young bride. Today, perhaps, we are a little uncomfortable with the idea of the elderly Genoux still working. Where is her retirement pension? Who is looking after her in her own old age? Of what opportunities did a life of service rob Genoux? Of what opportunities did marriage rob Lady Shane? All those years spent with her husband, who eventually became Viceroy of India, a life of privilege, but a life of dependence, a life of submerging any desires of her own to her responsibilities to her husband and children: of what did they rob the young woman Deborah? Of her dreams to be a painter? Of freedom?

Should we see the novel as a critique of marriage? Is it a “feminist” novel? Certainly, it opens itself to the opportunity for feminist analysis. However, in her introduction to the Virago edition of the novel, Victoria Glendinning suggests that Sackville-West “redefines feminism negatively” a kind of “separatism . . . the deadest of dead ends (xiv). Nevertheless, the novel does raise questions about societal expectations placed on women and on how women live.

What is actually more important in the novel is Sackville-West’s celebration of the life of the mind. At the end of the novel, Lady Shane recognizes something of herself in her great-granddaughter Deborah who has just broken off an engagement. Deborah likes the “scattered, lonely people . . . [who] recognise each other as soon as they come together” (286). Speaking through Lady Shane’s thoughts, Sackville-West asserts her own view: Talent is not so important as the desire to create. “Achievement was good, but the spirit was better. To reckon by achievements was to make a concession to the prevailing system of the world; it was a departure from the austere, disinterested, exacting standards that Lady Shane and her kindred recognised” (289).

Lady Shane recognises and for most of her life accepts the standards of her milieu. In her widowhood, she gently escapes them. While I’m not sure I entirely agree with Sackville-West’s eschewing the term feminist, I do appreciate her acute vision. Her depiction and understanding of the Holland family and of the dynamic between the siblings is masterful. What the siblings don’t quite realise is that their mother has always been what today we might call her own person even as she appeared to move quietly in her husband’s shadow. She had loved her husband “to the point of agony” (182) and understands that she and her husband were “two halves of one dissevered world” (184).

However, the world in which All Passion Spent is set has shifted somewhat on its axis. The novel does raise issues with which we contend still today, but the society and the hierarchy it describes and does not really critique—and why should it?—has changed, not completely perhaps but to a certain extent. Sackville-West writes of the world she lives in and knows. On a very mundane level, just think of what Hampstead is today. However, people are still individuals with their idiosyncrasies and quirks, and families are still families. The attitudes of her children towards the widowed Lady Shane are recognisable still whether a family is wealthy or not. Adult children still tend to forget that old age does not necessarily mean dependence; that a gentle disposition does not necessarily mean incompetence. We still experience tensions between a life focussed on material and social achievement and a life of contemplation and dreams. One of the aspects of the novel that pleased me most was Sackville-West’s sensitive portrayal and understanding of the octogenarian point of view.

Earlier, I commented that All Passion Spentis probably Sackville-West’s best-known novel; further, many critics believe it to be her best in terms of style and construction. I took a quick look at what other works were published in 1931; you may be interested in doing the same ( All PassionSpent stands out somewhat in that list as a work that is as interested in the possibilities of the novel form as in the plot and characters of the work. Sackville-West’s use of indirect discourse, especially in the second section of the novel, is masterful in manipulating point of view. She is not as challenging of the form as her friend and contemporary Virginia Woolf, but All Passion Spent is a modernist novel.

Perhaps this novel is a book of its time, but that doesn’t mean it is dated. All novels are of  their time. Some speak to us of the things that don’t change; All Passion Spent is one of them.













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Leaving Home: Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox

Feldman, Deborah. Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Simon and Schuster, 2012.

The only child of a mother who left the community and of a mentally challenged father unable to care for her, Feldman was raised by her paternal grandparents: the grandmother the lone survivor of a family who had perished in the holocaust and the grandfather a respected student of the Torah. Feldman tells us that she “had to believe everything . . . [she] was taught, if only to survive” (47). Her world was the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There, she went to school, but there was no expectation that she would go to college. Decisions were made for her, by her Aunt, by her grandparents. Her upbringing focussed on moulding her to be a good Hasidic woman, to face her ultimate destiny to be good Hasidic wife. However, while her upbringing may have given a good grounding on keeping a strictly kosher kitchen, it kept her completely ignorant of the design and workings of her own body. As she prepared for her marriage at seventeen, her “discovery” that her “body had been designed for sex” was “shocking,” and her “body rebelled against this change” (153).

Unorthodox recalls Feldman’s time in a community whose understanding of what it means to be Jewish is particular, exclusive, and for Feldman ultimately intensely restrictive. As a child, she escaped into books borrowed from the public library and hidden under her mattress. There at one time or another reposed both Anne of Green Gables and the stories of Sholem Aleichem, who despite his writing “in the holy language of Yiddish” (45), was “forbidden” because he was “an apikores, a so-called liberated Jew” (45). Later, forbidden literature would be replaced under the mattress by the jeans she wore to class at Sarah Lawrence. While her husband thought she was studying bookkeeping and marketing and things like that” (222-223), she was actually reading Wordsworth.

While I appreciated the personal tone of Feldman’s writing, I can’t decide exactly how I respond to her heavy reliance on the use of the present tense. On the one hand, the present makes things immediate; on the other, it seems a little contrived when describing the past. However, Feldman’s conversational style draws her close to her reader eliciting empathy. Her memoir is a very moving book especially in the way it reveals the tensions Feldman experiences between her love for her grandparents and her discomfort with her situation; with her respect for her heritage and her need to be free of the Satmar way of upholding tradition.

Unorthodox offers a window into a world of which most of us will never be a part, which at times may well seem incomprehensible. The book offers a glimpse into a community whose practices for those of us who live outside that community may well also raise many questions about how we define and understand individual freedom.





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Life in a Setting Sun: Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa

Godwin, Peter. Mukiwa. A White Boy in Africa. 1996. HarperPerennial, 1997.

Just after I started work for a large firm of London solicitors in the summer of 1969, a frisson of excitement rippled through the office because one of the typists was emigrating to Rhodesia. From the mail girl to the senior partner, we were all intrigued about how she was going to manage it, given that Rhodesia was something of an international pariah and the subject of United Nations sanctions. The two women with whom I shared an office—the South African widow of a man from Essex and a young woman my own age whose family had left Northern Rhodesia on its independence as Zambia in 1964—were particularly interested. From 1964 to late 1965 when Southern Rhodesia’s leader Ian Smith unilaterally declared his country’s independence, Rhodesia and its leader were rarely absent from British news media. Opinion on Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) was not a little divided with Smith being seen as everything from a stalwart defender of imperial values, a misguided fool, a man out of touch with the mood of the times, a racist, or all of the foregoing and more. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Rhodesia, but how well those sanctions worked is still subject to debate. What they meant for my co-worker who desired to move there was that she had to arrange her travel as though she were actually going to South Africa. She was also going to a place at war.

This is the background against which Peter Godwin grew up, went to school, and was conscripted to serve as an officer in the Rhodesian police during the Bush War. After university, he practiced law for a short time in Harare realising that “in the new Zimbabwe, just as in the old Rhodesia, innocence was no guarantee of freedom” (338). Since he was still working on a doctoral thesis and needed to support himself, he became a stringer for several news media and it was ultimately his articles for The Sunday Times that led to his being “declared an enemy of the state, persona non gratain . . .[his] own home” (385).

Mukiwa recalls Godwin’s relationship with the land of his birth from his childhood to the time when he was able to return to Harare years after he fled on being forewarned of his incipient arrest. In the Preface, Godwin explains that the characters he recalls “are a mixture of actual people and composites.” Especially when covering the years of the war, he wants to shield those he writes about “from intrusion” (Preface).

I found Mukiwa a completely fascinating book. Some of this fascination is rooted in its focus on a time and events that I remember. However, I was an outsider. How different Godwin’s experience of the sixties and seventies is from my own. Ian Smith, UDI, and the war(s) in Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe were but disturbing headlines to me; they were the vivid backdrop to Godwin’s life. What is very clear in Mukiwa is Godwin’s love for the place that he realises too late is “the home . . .[he] never knew . . . [he] had” (Preface) and the terrible divided loyalty experienced by those who have had to leave the places and people they love because it is no longer safe for them to remain.

Since Mukiwa,Godwin has written further about his family in Zimbabwe in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, (2006), and in his 2011 book The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe the title of which tells us much of what we need to know about its contents. Today, Zimbabwe remains often in the news.

What Godwin’s work does is underscore how the political affects the personal. What is recorded in the newspaper headlines and what we see on BBC World News and CNN is not so removed from us. When I see reports from the streets of Harare or read a book like Mukiwa, I find myself remembering that young co-worker of mine who went off to independent Rhodesia almost fifty years ago. Did she stay? Where is she now? What were her motives then, and how does she feel about them now?





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Greetings to all who celebrate the Summer Solstice

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A Respectable Life? Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life

Scurr, Ruth. John Aubrey: My Own Life.Vintage, 2015.

You are probably aware of John Aubrey’s Brief Livesand of Anthony Powell’s John Aubrey and His Friends. Anyone reading about Restoration England is also fairly used to coming across references to Aubrey whose life spanned what for me is a particularly interesting period of English history: 1626-1697.

Born in the second year of the reign of Charles I and dying while William III was on the throne, Aubrey witnessed not only the major political shifts that ultimately led to a constitutional monarchy but also a period when natural philosophy was developing into what today we would call experimental science. A member of the Royal Society, Aubrey was a fascinated participant in that development, who wrote somewhat copiously on several topics, though little was published in his own life time. However, he is quite justifiably often thought of as one of Britain’s first antiquarians. Aubrey wanted to ensure that things weren’t lost, that the past was understood.

In this book, Ruth Scurr has collated material from many sources to “construct…” (12) a diary. She concludes the introductory passage to her work, titled“England’s Collector,” by asserting that her “aim has been to write a book in which he is still alive” (13). She is successful, and her work presents us with a sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful man with a gift of friendship. More than that, it also presents us with a view of life as lived in the late seventeenth century. One gleans information about how parcels and letters were delivered, for example, or how laundry was handled. What would Aubrey make of our overnight delivery services? His concerns about plagiarism strike a highly contemporary chord, as do his concerns about debt and the problems of civil litigation. Of great interest to me also were the early sections covering Aubrey’s life as a student at Oxford and shortly thereafter that give some insight into how people carried on during the days of the Commonwealth under Cromwell. I was also very interested in how Aubrey’s writings throw light on seventeenth century attitudes towards love and marriage. Aubrey never married. When he did consider marrying, it appears that his motives were possibly primarily financial. None of his pre-marital negotiations came to anything, and one resulted in some of the law suits that precipitated him into poverty. However, he was no celibate and suffered a venereal disease.

I would certainly recommend this work as a useful resource for anyone interested in the period. For the student, it includes a list of the people in Aubrey’s life, a chronology, detailed notes, and a very comprehensive bibliography. For the general reader, it provides a thought-provoking introduction to a time and a lively, intelligent man.

The photos are of Avebury Ring and Stonehenge. Aubrey is credited with being the first to understand the significance of Avebury and of realizing the antiquity of Stonehenge.

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