The Good Swimmer

Chloë Daniel

  • Gone to Ground: One Woman’s Extraordinary Account of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany by Marie Jalowicz Simon, translated by Anthea Bell
    Clerkenwell, 350 pp, £8.99, February 2016, ISBN 978 1 78125 415 8

The German word for ‘submerged’ is untergetaucht; it’s also the original title of Marie Jalowicz Simon’s memoir, which has been published in English as Gone to Ground. The term has come to be used of the 15,000 or so Jews who attempted to remain undiscovered in Nazi Germany during the war – they called themselves ‘U-Boats’. Half of them were in Berlin, and of those only 1700 would make it to the end of the war. ‘You are going to be the only one of us to survive,’ Jalowicz’s friend Nora said as they walked home from a birthday party early in 1940. She was right. Jalowicz didn’t talk about her experiences for a long time – ‘There’s a lot,’ she said, ‘one can’t talk about until half a century later.’ In 1997 her son put a tape recorder in front of her: ‘You’ve always been meaning to tell your story – go ahead.’ Their conversations filled eighty cassettes, and Gone to Ground, a bestseller in Germany, was the result.

Jalowicz was an only child whose conception was ‘a great surprise’ to her parents. Her father, Hermann, was the son of a Russian immigrant and worked as a lawyer. Her mother, Betti, who had secretly followed her brothers’ law studies after not being allowed to sit the school-leavers’ exam, ran her husband’s office. Her parents were both born and raised in Berlin, in the predominantly working-class Jewish district of Mitte. Marie was sent to a local primary school in Heinrich-Roller-Strasse: ‘I was to learn the social environment there,’ Jalowicz recalled, ‘along with its Berlin dialect, and learn also to assert myself in those surroundings.’ Although the family kept kosher they sometimes ate Wiener Würstchen in restaurants because they ‘lived in the city of Berlin, not in some Polish ghetto’. Jalowicz’s mother died of cancer when she was 16, something she says little about, although according to her father’s diary she slept in her mother’s bed until the end. She was 17 when the war started. During her adolescence, increasingly systematic persecution had reduced Berlin’s Jewish population from 163,000 in 1933 to 75,000 in 1939. At school, she saw a teacher ‘being prevented from entering the classroom’, and classes became crowded as Jews were expelled from other schools; one of her uncles starved to death because he refused to break kosher.

After her father’s death in March 1941 from what seems to have been malnutrition, Jalowicz began having a dream in which ‘we were both running along a paved road with pursuers behind us.’ Her father was wearing slippers which kept getting stuck to the ground and told her to run ahead. She took it as an indication she was ‘free to go my own way’. She got herself signed off sick from the Siemens factory in Spandau on the other side of the city, where she had been sent to work along with two hundred other Jewish women. Then ‘I plucked up my courage: “I want to leave this job,” I said, “But as I am doing forced labour I can’t give notice.”’ She asked to be dismissed. She was then sent to work at a mill, where she went to the overseer and told her a nervous condition was making her hopeless at her job. Again she asked to be sacked, and again they agreed. At this point, deportations to the east had already begun:

Aunt Grete was among the first to receive a deportation order in the autumn of 1941. The days before she was taken away were bad. A woman I knew advised me to go with her, saying that we young people must look after our older relations in the concentration camp. Even then, however, instinct told me that all who went there were going to their deaths.

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