Marie Jalowicz Simon was 11 years old when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933. By 1939 a whole system of laws were enacted in order to exclude Jewish people from everyday life; stopping them from going to schools, education and work; excluding them from society until they were transported from the country and murdered in their millions.
Many Jewish people fled the country and what is fascinating about this book is that Marie chose as a young Jewish woman to stay and survive underground until the war was over and the country liberated. It was not until 1997, at her son’s prompting that she finally told her story. Why did she wait so long? She says; “If I tell you something then it has to be the truth, and there’s a lot that one can’t talk about until half a century later.”
Marie, was one of the U-Boats; the name that the people who went underground in the Nazi period gave themselves. She was born in Berlin to a well-off middleclass Jewish family; her father was a lawyer and her mother worked alongside him in the legal practice. As the only child she was the centre of their attention but was brought up with a social conscience; her parents chose to send her to an elementary school in a working class district; “I was to learn the social environment there, along with its Berlin dialect, and learn also to assert myself in those surroundings.” But in 1933 she witnessed the arrest of her Jewish mathematics teacher Frau Draeger; she was the only child in the class who did.
In 1940 Marie, alongside other Jewish women, was forced to work in the armaments industry. It was boring and tedious piece work but the workers banded together to share out the work so that everyone got the same, low rate for the job. And even under these terrible conditions where they were constantly watched the workers organised a way of sabotaging the armaments. Some of the German workers had been involved in social democrat politics before the Nazis took power and protected and supported Marie and the other Jewish women workers.
It was at the factory that Marie came into contact with working class skilled men, very different from those that she grew up with, and she learnt about class consciousness; “The men we met here were not really anti-Semitic; they were perfectly nice.” But it was more about the class of these men who; “had nothing against starving young girls who worked hard, just as he had worked hard himself.”
By 1941 both of Marie’s parents had died and members of her family started getting deportation orders and a woman she knew advised Marie to go with her aunt to look after her in the concentration camp. But Marie knew, like other Jewish people by that time, that a deportation order meant a death sentence. She couldn’t say this to her aunt, but thought; “I could hardly say; You can’t save yourself. But I am going to do everything imaginable to survive.”
One of the most startling episodes in the book is 22 June 1942 when the Gestapo turned up at 6am to arrest her. Marie was still in bed and was ordered to get ready to go with them. She knew it would mean deportation so she pretended to be half-witted. In her petticoat she pleaded to go and get something to eat, taking with her handbag and a glass bottle to attack the Gestapo officer at the front door. She managed to get past him and ran into the street and found an elderly labourer who, after hearing her story, gave her his coat to put on and escorted her to the apartment of family friends.
Her landlady had kept the Gestapo talking whilst Marie escaped. She was lucky and was not arrested at that time but in March 1943 her whole family was deported and murdered.
For the next 3 years Marie learnt how to survive underground; “I must tread carefully and adjust with lightening speed to the habits and lifestyles of anyone who took me in. I depended on the help of other people, and I mustn’t tread on their toes.”
She was lucky; she didn’t look particularly Jewish, she was young and pretty and in many situations she used her quick wits to escape being scooped up by the Gestapo. She wasn’t alone and later on she met many other Jews who had gone underground and escaped being caught.
It was the resistance who kept Marie safe, made up of women such as Anne; “she had the thick legs of the Aerneckes, legs on which they bravely stomped their way through life as committed communists, uncompromising anti-Nazis and kindly human beings.” Marie was lucky that she was living in Berlin that had a history and network of people who had fought the Nazis prior to them seizing power and were prepared to keep on doing so throughout the 1940s. 1700 Jewish people survived the war, no doubt like Marie, helped by the resistance and individuals like the anonymous elderly labourer who shielded her from the Gestapo.
Not surprisingly after the war ended Marie went to live in the Russian sector of the divided Berlin. She joined the Communist Party in 1945, married and had two children, and became a professor of classical antiquity.
At the end of the book her son quotes Marie explaining why she survived; “The survival of every one of those who went on the run from the Nazis rests on a chain of chance incidents that can often be called almost incredible and miraculous”.
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