Sunday, June 14, 2015

Underground in Berlin by Marie Jalowicz Simon

This is a fascinating memoir of a young Jewish girl who survived World War II by going underground in the heart of Berlin.  It is based on the tapes she made for her son while in her seventies, describing her childhood before the war and then the war years based solely on her memories.  The book reads much like a transcript which occasionally makes it hard to follow - I found it particularly difficult to keep track of the many people who came and went.  Sometimes I just gave up on trying to remember how a person Marie spoke about had previously played a role in her life - and sometimes she later reminded the reader and sometimes she didn't.  Despite that, I recommend reading the book as it is a first hand account of the war years from a perspective you don't often see (since many of her fellow hidden Jews did not survive).

Marie was born into an upper middle class Jewish family in Berlin.  She was educated and received her high school diploma just as the war was beginning.  Her mother died before the war and her father in 1942.  After that she was on her own, working in forced labour for Siemens, and one day decided merely to remove her Jewish star and hide out - but this was not hiding in the sense of Anne Frank, she moved from place to place and carried on from day to day using a false identity given to her by a family friend.  So in some ways she was hidden in plain view.  It is hard to determine whether she survived due to her naivet√© or her wile; luck or good planning, or some combination of all of these traits.

She was certainly helped by a number of non-Jews:  the aforementioned woman who gave her the identity card.  Marie had a complicated relationship with this woman who made her feel beholden to her, but clearly did provide both refuge and food.  Marie also resented the woman, believing she had merely taken over her family's holiday home - it was only in 1994, after the other woman's death, that she discovered it had in fact been sold to her by Marie's father.  A Chinese man who offered to marry her in an effort to get her safely to Shanghai; a Bulgarian man who also did so and, for a time, was able to protect her in Bulgaria but she eventually was returned to Berlin; a Dutch foreign worker in Berlin who lived with her for many years as a tenant of an old woman who had Nazi sympathies but nonetheless put up with Marie; a family of circus artists who took her in for a time as well as their Communist friends; the superintendent of the building where she lived with the Dutch man; and others.

After the war, Marie stayed in Berlin - she still considered Germany her home and never judged people merely for being German since so many had helped her survive.  This is the story as she told it to her son after 50 years of silence.  It is definitely worth reading to see a whole new perspective on this terrible time.

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