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.
1You 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.