LONDON — 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.
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. Yet, after the war Jalowicz spoke little about her experiences, only opening up when in 1997 her son Hermann Simon put a tape recorder on a table in his parents’ apartment and invited her to tell her story.
She recorded 77 tapes, the last of which was conducted in a hospital only a few days before her death on September 16, 1998.
Jalowicz’s memoir “Gone to Ground” is the culmination of tape transcriptions turned manuscript by Simon, a historian and director of the New Synagogue Berlin – Centrum Judaicum, and writer/journalist Irene Stratenwerth. The book is a German bestseller and was recently published in English.
Devoid of self-pity, it is a breathtaking read – at times feeling like a verbal stream of consciousness but never straying in its unflinching directness, clarity and brutal frankness.
Simon, in London ahead of the book’s English publication, says it took him 15 years to put the work together. There were periods when the project lay fallow but as a historian he was meticulous in his research and followed up all the people that his mother had mentioned, as well as cross-referencing every detail to ensure accuracy.
‘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’
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.
Son Hermann Simon has spoken to many of Jalowicz’s former students, none of whom were aware of her past. When he was a child, he did not ask his mother any questions about it, but is unsure why and suggests that, “perhaps [she] wasn’t a person to ask.”
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.
Once she decided to take off her yellow star after fleeing the Nazis in 1942, Jalowicz began her nomadic existence. Jalowicz 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.
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.
She took on the false identity of a woman, Johanna Koch, known as Hannchen, who became her protector. Despite this, Jalowicz always felt ambivalent towards her, particularly as Koch proved to be possessive and jealous of anyone else who assisted Jalowicz. Koch and her husband had lived in Jalowicz’s family’s old summerhouse and when Frau Koch died in 1994 Jalowicz learnt that the house had been left to her. The complicated nature of their relationship was such that Jalowicz gifted the house to Simon and his family, on the condition that it was sold immediately.
There are long periods when Jalowicz has no choice but to walk the streets of Berlin, for days and nights. One such desperate episode led her to defecate on the doorsteps of apartments, whose owners had Nazi-sounding names.
Jalowicz would hesitate at nothing if it meant survival. She was briefly engaged to a Chinese man as she thought it might lead to acquiring a Chinese passport. It did not. Another engagement — this time to a Bulgarian — involved an attempt to escape to Bulgaria but Jalowicz soon returned to Berlin, alone, once she realized that it was easier to be invisible in the city than abroad.
Simon compartmentalized his own emotional response when he first learnt about his mother’s experiences. He admits that “the emotions came later,” during the process of comparing the transcribed copy with her sound recordings and says it was difficult for him to hear his late mother’s voice.
The book conveys how she spoke, he says, but what is truly astonishing is Jalowicz’s clear narrative structure. She had spent years refining and memorizing the details in her mind, he says, and the order of her story is completely sequential. Simon writes in his Afterword that Jalowicz could pick up the thread of her story precisely from where she had ended a previous session, which may have lasted for up to 90 minutes.
He says there was a strong feeling, particularly towards the end of her life, that his mother had to tell the story, however difficult it was for her. He believes that it prolonged her life for a couple of months and says that in the end, “she did it and was quite relentless and unsparing in her judgment of the behavior of others, but even more so with herself.”
Obviously we can only guess at what Jalowicz’s response would have been at seeing her memoir in print. But, says Simon, to be published by major publisher Fischer in Germany, and in English and French would have made her, “a small woman, [with] a big voice,” very happy.