November 24, 2015 12:55:18 PM
We have no dearth of books about World War II, but first person accounts have by this time naturally all been completed. But not quite. Here is an amazing one: Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman's Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany (Little, Brown) by Marie Jalowicz Simon. It is translated by Anthea Bell, and given a foreword and afterword by the author's son, Hermann Simon, who explains how the book came to be. His mother died in 1998, and he had worried that although he knew bits and pieces of her story, the full account might never be known and never be presented to others. Like many who had been through the war, she had a reluctance to talk about it. "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." His mother went on to make 77 tapes, the narrative interrupted for times she had to be hospitalized. It was completed only a few days before her death. He could not face working on the tapes immediately after his mother's death, but eventually a transcript of all the tapes was made, and the text edited, and finally here it is, a harrowing and inspiring story of survival.
Marie was eleven years old and living with her middle-class Jewish family when Hitler took power in 1933. Her mother died in 1938, and her father died in 1942 after a long illness, leaving her alone, a twenty-year-old young woman in Berlin. She had been drafted into forced labor, making arms for Siemens, and she began to hear about deportations to concentration camps. Throughout her story, people she knew disappear, snatched into oblivion by the Nazis. Marie was able to get by because she was wily, and was willing to do whatever would better her chances for survival, but also simply because she was extraordinarily lucky. In June 1942 the Gestapo came for her. She woke to find a man in civilian clothes standing by her bed. "'Get dressed and ready to go out. We want to ask you some questions. It won't take long, and you'll be back in a couple of hours.' That was the kind of thing they always said to prevent people from falling into a fit of hysterics, or swallowing a poison capsule, or doing anything else that would have been inconvenient for the Gestapo." She was able to act naive and to say she needed to dress and to get something to eat, only to escape to the street and pull off the yellow star from her coat. She was to be in hiding, sometimes in plain sight, until the Russians came.
She depended on her own wits, but also on the willingness of others to help. It is surprising how often the helpers were themselves Nazi sympathizers or anti-Semites. These were people who condemned the Jewish populace, but made a distinction in dealing with Marie the individual. Luise Blase was at one point her landlady, and provided assistance to Marie at different points during the war. Marie sums up, "I hated Frau Blase as a repellent criminal blackmailer with Nazi opinions, yet I loved her as a mother figure. Life is complicated." Of course she could rely on help from communists or resistance fighters. Johanna Koch gave Marie her identity card to use, and Marie was grateful, but the gratitude is ambiguous because of Johanna Koch's own self-interested form of help. "She wanted me to be poor, dependent and in need, so that she could caress and console me." This want was so strong that Koch dreaded the victory by the Allies for a special reason: "When the war ended, so would my dependence on her. The splendid role of resistance heroine that this shy woman from humble origins had been playing for years would be over."
There are so many surprises that come from Marie's unique attitude and viewpoint. She deliberately went out exploring the city of Berlin with her friends, finding that older people stared at them and said, "What a shame. Fancy those lovely girls having to wear the Jewish star!" She would purposefully ask questions of policemen, and introduce herself as the law demanded: "I am a Jewess, place of registration Berlin, registration number so-and-so. May I ask a question?" The policemen tended to be surprised by her introductory statement. "You mean there's a law like that? Well, I'll be blowed if I ever heard the like of it!" would come the response, or "Come on, there's no such thing. What was it you said again?" or "And saying all that stuff is supposed to be the law?" Marie found that this was a pattern; typical Germans might or might not harbor anti-Semitic cliches, but there was ignorance, at least initially, about the oppressive regulation of Jews. She would use that insight during her life underground.
One of the ways she survived was using sex. A friend told her, "In absurd times, everything is absurd. You can save yourself only by absurd means, since the Nazis are out to murder us all." Absurd means included giving sexual favors in exchange for security, shelter, or food. Her attitude was, "What does it matter? Let's get it over and done with." At one point, she was dependent upon an old man who directed a rubber plant. He was a rabid Nazi who proudly showed her a prized possession. It looked like a framed picture with nothing in it, but the glass held a hair from Hitler's German shepherd. "Why, that's wonderful," she told him. At one point she attempted a sham marriage with a Chinese man, thus to gain a Chinese passport. She spent two years acting as the wife of a Dutchman who was a guest worker. He provided the appearance of normality to her, and she provided housekeeping and sexual initiations. And when circumstances dictated that they had to part, she writes, "And so we went our separate ways. 'Goodbye, the war will soon be over!' we told each other, adding, 'See you again after liberation.' It couldn't have been a less dramatic parting. If one of us had gone off to buy a loaf of bread, expecting to be back a few minutes later, it would have been just the same." Time and again she thinks, "It is no use behaving normally in an abnormal situation."
Included here are her descriptions of terrifying bombing raids from the Allies, beatings, rapes (including after liberation by the Russians), and Nazis who simply had a bureaucratic indifference to such things as phony identification papers. She often got by with sympathetic Germans on the fringes: "Prostitutes, poor people, really outsiders. Not the so-called normal people." The two vital parts of this unforgettable memoir are the young woman who used her good luck and good sense to survive, and the elderly woman who tells her story frankly. Neither of them give a damn about propriety. After the war, Marie had a fulfilling academic and family life, and seems to have taken the lessons of the time to heart. After one of many instances of kindness to her, she reflects, "I decided, then and there, that if I survived and was still a decent human being, I would try all my life to listen to people and see whether they needed me. For it sometimes takes only a few words, a small gesture at the right moment, to help someone in need to recover."