Gone to Ground: submerged in in a war-torn city

Gone to Ground: submerged in in a war-torn city

Modern Traveller takes a literary journey into wartime Berlin, reading Marie Jalowicz Simon’s remarkable memoir.


Saint George’s Bookshop in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district is a treasure trove. It was here, after a long afternoon of ambling about in the sunshine, soaking up this striking, kaleidoscopic city, that I picked up Marie Jalowicz Simon’s remarkable memoir.

Drawn from the collection of seventy-seven tapes which Simon recorded at the request of her son, Hermann, towards the end of her life, this volume recounts Simon’s extraordinary tale from childhood to her time in hiding — as a young Jewish woman — in Second World War Berlin.

This is a tale of miracles and of chance — chance which, as Hermann claims that his mother believed, kept her alive as she struggled to find shelter with an assortment of complex characters.

Luck, on its own, however, would never have been enough. Marie Jalowicz relied of course on the kindness of strangers, of old friends and of new acquaintances. She was subject, too, to unfortunate exploitation at the hands of the desperate, the twisted and the at-times-unhinged.

Few would be strong enough to survive moving from place to place under cover of darkness, uncertain of what the next morning might bring; the constant state of fear; the reliance on too-often unsavoury characters and the need to exact one bargain after another in order to ensure (to the extent to which anyone could ‘ensure’ anything in war-ravaged, Nazi-ruled Berlin) that one continued to live.

Marie has the necessary courage in spades. She is clever, quick-witted, and readily adapts herself to one difficult situation after another, as she takes refuge in the homes and households of ordinary Berliners.

She is infinitely patient and willing to put up with almost anything which comes about as a result of her penniless, persecuted situation. All this, on top of the realities of war faced by all of the city’s citizens: lack of food and warmth, a shortage of supplies of all kinds — and of course the growing threat of air raids and bomb damage as the Allies march ever closer.

Orphaned early in the war, Marie decides resolutely that she will not allow herself to be deported, like much of her family and many of her friends, but rather will go into hiding in the city in which she was born.

In doing so, she makes an extraordinarily brave decision: to become one of the so-called ‘U-boats’ about which much has emerged in the post-war years: Jews who took on another identity and descended into the depths of Berlin’s shady underworld in order to survive, accepting that they would strike almost any deal in order to do so.

In this, Marie is unlike most of her companions at the Siemens factory where she works as a forced labourer in the early 1940s — Jewish women and girls who gossip and make the best of it, but who await their orders for deportation, accepted as a foregone conclusion. Few of them make it through the war. She eclipses, too, her extended family: her aunt Grete, for instance, who tidies her apartment as she prepares to board the designated train East, leaving Marie a handwritten letter instructing her to be good.

Marie’s testimony brings to light what life was like in working-class Berlin during those tough and turbulent war years. She recounts the joy of a hot bath; the endless boredom of sitting on a wicker chair for days on end as she hid in one elderly woman’s apartment, turning the pages of filthy leaflets with knitting needles; the fights to remain sane and fair and moral in the face of such horrors; the frustration of standing in queues to exchange food ration tokens for a few meagre provisions.

Her account also credits ordinary, everyday heroes. It seems that generosity was to be found at the hands of the working classes — not with the wealthy elite, themselves part of the authorised system of injustice.

We meet the bossy, red-haired Communist Trude Neuke, for instance, who pledges to save the life of a daughter of a Jewish lawyer — because her humanity trumps her political beliefs.

The simple Johanna Koch also features frequently: a rural woman who lends Marie her identity for three years, in part due to her relationship with Marie’s deceased father, her honest desire to do the right thing, and the sense of importance such sacrifice brings. She has terrible difficulty returning to life after the war, and in seeing Marie helped too much by anyone else during it.

We are introduced, too, to the gynaecologist Dr Benno Heller, who saved life after life by calling in favours with his patients to find hiding places for Jewish men and women, who has a complex relationship with Marie but whose aid she relies upon more than once. Heller is eventually betrayed by a Jewish woman who, tired of hiding, turns herself in to the authorities, preferring to find herself in a concentration camp than seeking refuge in the streets of that harsh, forsaken city.

Marie’s account is honest, a sharp critique on the human condition: there are no flawless heroes, no perfect victims, nor truly damned villains. Kurt, the SA son of her elderly landlady, never breathes a word about her secret. An eccentric performing artiste, Camilla, who rants and raves, pulling Marie’s hair in her rages, invites her to return to her home the following year: provided that they are both still alive. An enormous man, a fanatical Nazi with a framed hair belonging to Hitler’s dog, allows Marie to stay with him for a few days — until he begins to suspect that there might be more to her than he has been led to believe.

This extraordinary young woman survives through her own resourcefulness, her intelligence, and her refusal to give up at any point. Her memoir is a rare and precious insight into life in the Second World War from the point of view of a woman.

Staying in Berlin after the war, she enrolled at the University, married a school friend, and spent her life as a university professor. Her son Hermann attests that few of Marie’s students knew of her trials in the 1930s and 1940s. Like so many of her generation, it seems that she did not want to speak of them.

Her memoir is a powerful testimony to one woman’s bravery in the face of great injustice, to an undiminished commitment to truth, to the courage of a whole host of ordinary people — many of whom did not survive to see the end of the war — and an impetus for readers to question what they might expect of themselves.

Few, I should think, would resist as fervently, through the mere fact of their survival, as Marie Jalowicz Simon did.

Marie Jalowicz Simon’s Gone to Ground was first published in 2014 by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH. Anthea Bell’s English translation was published by Profile Books Ltd, London (2014). 

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