She Used Absurd Means To Save Herself in the Absurd Times of Nazi Germany
Marie Jalowicz Simon was 11 years old when Hitler came to power, early in 1933. Some 400 Nazi decrees later, her friends and family were being transported from Germany; and by May 1943, Berlin was declared Judenrein – clear and cleansed of its Jews…
On June 22, 1942, 20-year-old Berliner, Marie Jalowicz made an extraordinary decision. As she witnessed the Nazis deporting her friends and family, she resolved to do whatever she could to survive outside their grasps. She found a way to fool the Gestapo when they came for her, flitted fearlessly to and from Berlin during periods of hiding outside the city and declared unashamedly that she could not identify with the mindset of a community resigned to going meekly to its death.
Simon was one of 1,700 ‘U-boats’, German Jews who survived the war submerged below the surface of daily life.
In 1942, Simon, a twenty-year-old Jewish Berliner, made the extraordinary decision to do everything in her power to avoid the concentration camps. Once she decided to take off her yellow star after fleeing the Nazis in 1942, Simon began her nomadic existence. She had lost both her parents before the mass deportations took place. Her mother died of cancer in 1938 and her father, who was no longer able to practice as a lawyer, in 1941. Food was scarce as she constantly sought refuge, which would usually last from a few nights to a few weeks.
On 22 June 1942, Simon woke to find a Gestapo officer standing by her bedside. “Get dressed.”
“We want to ask you some questions. It won’t take long, and you’ll be back in a couple of hours,” they said. “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.”
In a moment of inspired improvisation, the 20-year-old Berliner managed to distract first the Nazi official in her bedroom, then his colleague waiting at the bottom of the stairs, and escaped back into “submerged” illegality as a Jew in Nazi Germany.
With the help of her friend, Marie fled.
“She thought it is only possible for her to survive not in her former neighbourhood. It must be a place that is for her completely for her unknown,” her son Hermann Simon said.
The frightened young girl chose the lonesome allotment garden behind a Berlin tenement block to abort her child. The child was an impossibility if Marie Jalowicz wanted to survive in Nazi Germany. She had managed to flee the Gestapo before she could be deported to a death camp. She was “submerged” out of sight in Berlin. For Marie, giving birth to her child was an impossibility—so was an abortion. At the time, any Jew caught performing one was to be executed. She was able to find a doctor who gave her a drug that induced a premature birth three months into her pregnancy. The pregnancy was the result of a brief affair with another fugitive. Marie took the drug in the garden while she sobbed on a bench while her body writhed in pain. Marie’s tiny baby was wrapped in a newspaper and a friend buried it under a plum tree.
When she was asked about the experience nearly 50 years later, she said “Moral doubts? I had none. I wanted to live, and that was that. But I was sad. It was a boy.” Marie continued living her life under the swastika.
So she wouldn’t be recognized, Marie Jalowicz went underground, moving around the city to survive — staying with sympathetic Germans whom Simon describes as on the fringe of German society: “Prostitutes, poor people, really outsiders. Not the so-called normal people.”
Some of them treated her decently. They chose to ignore the fact that Marie was a Jew and in exchange she helped them — standing in lines for rations or cooking and cleaning. Others exploited her. She recounts in matter-of-fact tone how time and again she had to endure sexual assaults. Her son describes it as part of the price she paid for survival.
In the years that followed, Marie took shelter wherever it was offered, living with the strangest of bedfellows, from circus performers and committed communists to convinced Nazis. As Marie quickly learned, however, compassion and cruelty are very often two sides of the same coin.
So when two Gestapo officials came to arrest her at 6 am that June day, she managed to distract them both and leave the building, wearing only her petticoat. From then on she went “to ground,” becoming one of the Untergetaucht or submerged, also referred to as “U-boats,” — a name given to the 1,700 Jews who disappeared and survived the war by living illegally and in hiding.
Jalowicz’s fierce determination, resourcefulness, high intelligence and skill at improvisation aided her survival. She lived in Berlin under an assumed identity, endured starvation, rape, as well as difficult, but convenient relationships including one with a syphilitic Nazi who claimed he could “smell Jews a mile off.”
Jalowicz moved between some 20 safe houses, under the constant pressure of denunciation.
After the war, Marie Jalowicz Simon (she married in 1948) refused to speak of her wartime experiences, except for the odd aside. Her son understood that she had spent the war underground in Berlin but otherwise knew no detail of her incredible experiences. She fobbed off every attempt to get her to write her memoirs. Then, on Dec. 26, 1997, he turned on a tape recorder and ordered her to talk. She proceeded to do so. He expected rambling reflections but got instead a perfect day-to-day account of her war. Her meticulous reconstruction took nine months. Then she died.
Simon’s story reads not like the reminiscences of an old woman but rather like a young girl’s matter-of-fact account of what she did yesterday. That said, there are frequent instances of delightful aplomb typical of an elderly woman who doesn’t give a damn what people think. Young girl and old lady together tell a story of immense vitality and insight.
Simon had one massive advantage in her quest to elude capture: She was enormously smart. Her intelligence, instincts and wisdom allowed her to outwit anyone who meant her harm. Life underground was a creative act: She not only had to evade capture but also find ways to survive while maintaining the pretense that she did not exist. If she sensed compassion, she cultivated it. If she detected venality, she ran.
Simon took to heart the advice of a friend: “In absurd times, everything is absurd. You can save yourselves only by absurd means, since the Nazis are out to murder us all.” Normal rules did not apply. Morality and scruples were inconvenient obstacles to survival. Thus, she felt no compunction about bestowing sexual favours in exchange for food or shelter. “What does it matter?” she thought. “Let’s get it over and done with.”
Simon watched as a barkeep sold her for 15 marks to a man mysteriously nicknamed “the rubber director, she was desperate for a place to sleep. The barkeep pulledSimon aside before she left with the man. Her fabricated backstory was simple; she just couldn’t bear to live with her in-laws anymore. But, the barkeep added, her new patron was also “a Nazi whose fanaticism bordered on derangement.”
Marie had reasons to be alarmed beyond the man’s avowed Nazism. The “rubber director” earned his nickname from his wobbly gait, and Marie once heard that people in the late stages of syphilis “walked as if their legs were made of rubber, and they could no longer articulate properly.” The man walking her to his house was stumbling over his words. And she was to sleep with this man, just to have a place to hide.
They arrived at his apartment, and the man showed off his wall-to-wall collection of aquarium tanks. He recalled the time when he was in a sanatorium and made a matchstick model of Marienburg, dedicating it to the Führer. He showed her an empty picture frame. Marie recalls:
“Any idea what that is?” he asked me, pointing at it.
“No idea at all.”
Even if I’d guessed, I would never have said so. Finally, he revealed the secret: he had acquired this item by complicated means and at some expense, as he told me, closing his eyes. It was a hair from the Führer’s German shepherd.
They sat together and Marie listened to his Nazi rants, growing increasingly uncomfortable until she changed the subject back to the fish. And then she got extraordinarily lucky: “With bowed head and tears in his eyes, he said he was afraid he must disappoint me: he was no longer capable of any kind of sexual relationship. I tried to react in a neutral, friendly manner, but I was overcome by such relief and jubilation that I couldn’t sit still, and fled to the toilet.”
Then there was Willi the communist. Arriving with her suitcase, Marie was grateful for shelter at the house he shared with his sister in a working-class district of Berlin. Then he came into her room on the first night. “He stood at the end of the bed,” she recounted. “This lanky man with the crumpled face and a far-too-short nightshirt, babbling a few obscenities. The rest you can imagine. I could neither hit him or send him away so I let it happen to me.”
For eight years Marie and her family had witnessed Hitler’s rise to power: Jews, wearing the legally mandated yellow stars on their coats, were first excluded from many professions and public places, and then many were sent to do forced labor. Marie’s mother, who had been sick with cancer for a long time, died in 1938; her weary, lonely father in early 1941. Before her father’s death, Marie worked with 200 other Jewish women at Siemens, bent over lathes, making tools and weapon parts for the German army. She befriended some of the girls, and they rebelled when they could: singing and dancing in the restroom, sabotaging screw and nut manufacturing. When her father died, she convinced her supervisor to fire her, since Jews weren’t allowed to quit. She lived off the small sum she received from her father’s pension.
In the fall of 1941, about a year before her incident with the “rubber director,” Marie watched her remaining family and friends receive deportation orders to concentration camps for certain death. Her Aunt Grete, one of the first to be sent, begged Marie to come with her. “Sooner or later everyone will have to go,” Grete reasoned. With much difficulty, Marie said no. “You can’t save yourself. But I am going to do everything imaginable to survive,” she told her aunt.
And so she went to great lengths to protect herself. Marie removed her yellow star and assumed the identity of a close friend, Johanna Koch, 17 years older than Marie. Marie doctored Koch’s papers with ink-erasing fluid and forged an approval stamp by hand, exchanged the photo on the ID card, and called herself Aryan. Sometimes, her deception also led her to take lovers and boyfriends as a means of survival.
On the eve of World War II in 1938, Marie and her father were living with friends, the Waldmanns. Marie’s father and Frau Waldmann had a fling, and 16-year-old Marie took it upon herself to sleep with Herr Waldmann, to lessen the chance that he would turn Marie and her father out on the street in anger.
Later, hoping to emigrate to Shanghai, she found a Chinese man living in Berlin who agreed to marry her: “Privately I thought: if I can get a Chinese passport through him, that would be excellent, but this isn’t a relationship that will come to anything.” But even after applying for marriage, and making up a story about being pregnant, she couldn’t get permission from the mayor’s office to marry him.
While hiding in the apartment of a friend’s cleaning lady, Marie met a Bulgarian named Mitko, a neighbour who came by to paint the place. The two instantly became fond of each other and planned to marry. Marie makes it to Bulgaria with Mitko, and he finds a corrupt lawyer who might be able to make her stay in the country legal.
“You are here with this enchanting lady from Germany?” [the lawyer] asked my lover.
“I could use her as a governess for my little boy! The papers wouldn’t cost anything, if you take my meaning?,” he winked in a vulgar manner.
Mitko, a naive but decent character, was indignant at this improper suggestion. “We can do without your services,” he said brusquely, and he stood up and left.
“As you like,” the lawyer called after him. “We’ll see what comes of this.”
The lawyer turned them in to the Bulgarian police, and Marie was sent back to Berlin alone. Mitko stayed behind with family, weary from weeks of going to great lengths to protect Marie and himself. Upon her return, she was asked to wait for the Gestapo to approve her “unusual passport.” She narrowly escaped the Gestapo by pretending to run after a thief. That night, with nowhere to stay and in need of a bathroom “for the full works,” she relieves herself on the doormat of a family with a “Nazi ring” to its name.
Marie’s story tells the gloom and anxiety of being alone in wartime Berlin and the struggle to survive on her own. Her will and wit echo the determination and optimism of other accounts of the Holocaust, like those of diarists Viktor Frankl and Anne Frank. But the scenes of sexual commerce and gender politics illuminate an untold reality of surviving as a Jewish woman in the Berlin underground. Marie relays these stories, in which sex is a means of staying alive, a transaction, with evenhandedness, with a sense that it was all worth it.
It’s not just bedfellows who help her. Marie finds refuge with non-Jewish friends committed to protecting her, with people her father knew, and with other Jews struggling to live in Berlin.
From April 1943-45, however, she lived in a rented apartment in the Kreuzberg area of the city with a Nazi and Gerrit Burgers, a Dutchman, with whom she shared a room. For some of the time it was a congenial relationship but, when angry, Burgers would beat Jalowicz with his boot. Yet she realized any injury could be used to her advantage as it helped make her inconspicuous in the working class environment she had found herself.
Gerritt Burgers, the “crazy Dutchman” who brought Marie to his apartment and told his landlady, a Nazi supporter named Frau Blase, that
“he had found a woman who was coming to live with him at once. I would keep house for him, and he said I was also ready to lend Frau Blase a hand at any time. Since I was not racially impeccable, it would be better not to register me with the police, he added casually. That didn’t seem to both the old woman, but she immediately began haggling over the rent with Burgers.”
So begins another situation in which Marie is treated as a good to barter. When the landlord gets mad at Burgers for making a mess, she threatens to call the Gestapo on Marie. When Burgers sees Marie reading, he hits her with his shoe, and tells her, “You’re not to read when I’m at home. You’re supposed to be here just for me.” She’s angry, but she sticks it out; she must. They get used to each other.
For as long as Marie lived in the apartment, the supposed wife of a near-stranger, her life is semi-normal, and she benefits from the exchange of her work and pretend love for the company and safety. Frau Blase and Marie share food, and Marie runs errands. Blase shares her life story, talks about her difficult marriage, the death of her son. Marie develops an ambivalent attachment: “I hated Frau Blase as a repellent, criminal blackmailer with Nazi opinions, yet I loved her as a mother figure. Life is complicated.”
To know your mother was raped multiple times and obliged to suffer unspeakable humiliation to survive the Holocaust is bad enough. To hear her tell the story chapter and verse and then relive her painful experiences while assembling them into a book must be excruciating.
But that is what Hermann Simon did to honour his mother, Marie Jalowicz Simon, who led an extraordinary few years in her native Berlin during the War.
A controversial figure who was extremely free-thinking for her time, Simon stayed on in Berlin after the war and became a Professor of Philosophy. Anything but assimilated, she clung ferociously to the Jewish way of life in which she raised her son and daughter with her husband, Heinrich Simon: “She was never going to marry a man who wasn’t Jewish,” says Hermann of the many resolutions Marie made as she walked barefoot, dragging her few possessions in a handcart, back to Berlin free and proud after the city was liberated.
She had spent the past three years enduring the unwanted attentions of men who took advantage of her. But she was astonishingly pragmatic: “I was visited by a sturdy, friendly character….I didn’t mind too much,” she says of the Russian soldier whose label “my fiancee”, pinned to the door of her room after taking his pleasure, kept out fellow soldiers with the same intent.
Simon, was 75 and seriously ill when her son approached her to make the tapes: “I’m quite sure she knew that she did not have long to live, and I had a strong feeling that she wanted to tell her story while she could,” he says
But did the son not wince at all the graphic detail, which included at least one lesbian encounter? “As a historian, I was able to distance myself from the content and place myself in that role first and foremost, not so much in the role of a son,” explains Hermann, a specialist on the history of Jews in Germany.
“The revelation of the intimate facts my mother spoke of was not so hard for me to hear because it was within the context of her struggle to survive.”
Marie credited her survival as much to the kindness of a few “good” Nazis she encountered – like the foreman at the Siemens factory where she took satisfaction in performing “many small acts of sabotage” during forced labour – as to the many anti-Nazis who took her in at enormous danger to themselves. Knowing forced labourers were forbidden from resigning, the foreman agreed to fire Marie when she explained she needed to plan how to save herself from deportation.
Of course it helped to be young and beautiful, and Marie was genuinely in love with Ernst Wolff, the Jewish lover 30 years her senior who was taken by the Nazis, and for a while with Dimitr Tchakalov, a Bulgarian she met in Berlin and with whom she fled to Sofia, originally intending to continue beyond the Bulgarian border to Turkey and then to Palestine.
But one of the extraordinary twists in Marie’s story is that she returned instead to Berlin, her strong city accent helping her to blend into the crowd. She walked the length and the breadth of the city streets from 1938 onwards, preparing herself for a life in hiding by ripping off her Jewish star whenever she was in a neighbourhood where she was unknown, and keeping a threaded needle in her pocket to sew it back on within seconds before returning home.
Herrman felt it vital to flesh out the snatches of fascinating facts Marie dropped into conversation with him and his late sister Bettina. “She would talk about how she had survived from time to time, but often we didn’t know why she told a story, and I found it frustrating that I knew so many other people’s stories in detail but not of how my mother survived. I imagined that it would be extraordinary, because she was very strong-willed, with a razor-sharp intellect and an extraordinarily clear memory.”
Marie first submitted to unwanted sex as a schoolgirl of 16 in 1938, the only child of a family already dispossessed: “If we didn’t want to be turned out on the street…I must do something – which meant making myself available to the woman’s husband,” she says of their Jewish landlords. “I had some sexual experience already, and I thought: what does it matter? Let’s get it over and done with.”
With the handsome Bulgarian who wanted to take her home she slept willingly, got pregnant and induced a miscarriage to make herself ready to flee the country. She got out of Germany with the help of a family friend who lent her own identity for the duration of the war, but fell out of love and ended up back in Berlin. After a few months of moving from one hiding place to another, the Jewish doctor Benno Heller who saved many Jews arranged for a Dutchman to take Marie in as his “wife”; she spent the last two years of the war in plain sight, living as a non-Jewish housewife.
Marie clung fiercely to her religion, secretly saying kaddish for her friend Fritz Goldberg, also living openly in Berlin, when he was taken by the Nazis. Poignantly, she named the bench where they used to meet and talk for Weissensee, Berlin’s Jewish cemetery, where she silently said memorial prayersIn the years since her death, Marie’s son, Hermann, has been transcribing and fact-checking the tapes, and found that his mother remembered with near-perfect clarity the wealth of names and details of her life in Berlin. Remarkably, his mother’s recollection and descriptions were invariably correct. But why did she wait decades before talking?
“Sometimes she said to me that it takes 50 years to speak about all this [and when I do] I will tell the whole story and I will tell the truth,” says Simon. His mother, he said, was a person who lived in the present and managed to compartmentalize this early period of her life.
“After the war, after the liberation, her liberation, came a new life and she wanted to put this chapter of her life behind her. She did not make a profession out of being a survivor. Never,” says Simon.
Jalowicz had a successful career as a professor of literary and cultural history of classical antiquity at Humboldt University of Berlin and married Heinrich Simon, an old school friend and fellow academic, with whom she had two children.
Her son Hermann was born in 1949 and his sister Bettina in 1952. But Marie never forget those war years when her life was on the line every day. Many who had helped her ended up in the death camps and she was “skin and bone” at the end in 1945. There was one last ordeal too. The Russian troops mass-raped the women of Berlin and Marie was “naturally” among the victims. Luckily she befriended a soldier who put a note on her door saying she was his “bride” and was to be left alone. She was not molested any more.
And into her son’s tape recorder half a century later she left these haunting words: “I was so thin the wind blew me forwards. I had no watch, no idea of the time of day or night. But I was alive.”
As a mother, Simon says, “she was normal. I had a wonderful childhood,” although in retrospect he thinks that perhaps there were aspects of her traumatic past that never quite left her. He recalls that she was very angry if somebody came home late, it made her quite nervous, and he wonders if this reaction was in some way related to her wartime experiences.
Marie Jalowicz Simon’s story has a happy ending. Her old school friend, who had emigrated to Palestine, returned to Berlin and married her after the war, they had distinguished academic careers and two children. Sadly, Hermann’s sister predeceased her mother, dying of an incurable illness.
Marie took time to be brutally waspish about her Berliner intimates, and found humour in her encounters with them – make no mistake she paid a high price for making free with her body. “I was not shocked that she had to sell herself to survive,” says her son of the “difficult” facts he persuaded his mother to reveal, “but it did make me very sad that she was at the mercy of so many unscrupulous individuals at such a young age.”