Gone to Ground, by Marie Jalowitz Simon

Jewish Chronicle, April 8th 2015

 

Towards the very end of her life, in 1997, Marie Jalowicz Simon, a highly respected East German philosopher and philologist, began to talk for the first time about her life as a young Jewish woman who managed to survive the war by going underground in Nazi Berlin. Her son Hermann recorded 77 tapes of her account, whose details of people, places and dates are not only remarkably accurate but also incredibly immediate, as though she were recalling what happened just last week or last year.

Like Hans Falada’s Alone in Berlin, much of Gone to Ground takes place against the background of ordinary, working class Berlin. After she persuades her boss at the Siemens factory, where she has been working as a slave labourer, to fire her (she cannot resign) Marie manages to slip through the bureaucratic net and make herself disappear from official Berlin registers. She finds herself dependant on the kindness of ordinary people, some of them criminals, dealers, working class men and women, busy just trying to get by in wartime, some ambivalent about Hitler and even anti-Semitic but still prepared to help a young, desperate, starving woman.

In episode after episode, with extraordinary, spirited defiance and often almost foolhardy bravery, she outwits policemen, Gestapo officers and informers. She attaches her yellow star to her coat with loose stitches, ready to tear it off once she gets beyond her neighbourhood to parts of Berlin where she would not be recognised, then to stitch it back on with a needle and thread that she kept in her pocket when she returned home. She is ready to sleep with men if it means securing a roof over her head or some other form of protection, going so far as to get engaged to a Chinese man, only breaking off the engagement when she fails to secure the papers necessary to emigrate to China. When she slips past two Gestapo officers dressed only in her petticoat early one morning and finally becomes a ‘U boat’, as those who went underground during the Nazi period called themselves, she acknowledges that her escape means that her landlady and friend Frau Jacobsohn, along with her husband and son, are now certainly condemned to death. But she understands that to stay alive she has no choice but to behave with dubious morality: ‘It is no use behaving normally in an abnormal situation.’

The tone of her testimony is remarkable, unsentimental and yet often infused with unexpected empathy for so many of the people with whom she crossed paths (her son Hermann has carefully trawled through many archives to verify the details and found that her descriptions were almost always accurate). Some of what she describes of those terrible times seem almost unbelievable, like risky adventures taken straight from a ‘boys own’ story, and she acknowledged, in a lecture given in 1993, that ‘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.’ What makes this book so striking is the steady voice, beautifully rendered into English by Anthea Bell, of a spectacularly resilient, resourceful and singularly brave woman.

 

 

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