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.

One day the postman arrived at her apartment with a letter for her neighbour and Jalowicz told him the neighbour had been deported. ‘Oh, then I know what I have to write,’ the postman replied. ‘Gone east, no known address.’ The postman then inquired about a Marie Jalowicz, for whom he also had a letter – from the envelope in his hand, she recognised it as a summons from the labour exchange – and she told him: ‘You’d better put the same on it: gone east.’ It worked. Her name was crossed off the exchange’s index. This small act of defiance led to more: Jalowicz stopped wearing the star all the time (it became compulsory in 1941); she would put it on only when she was close to home and might be recognised. ‘In the winter of 1941-42 the threat of danger settled round my neck like a noose and kept tightening,’ Jalowicz says. ‘Fear had me in its clutches. I wanted to save myself, but I had no idea how.’ At 6 a.m. on Monday, 22 June 1942, a man in civilian clothes leaned over her bed with an arrest warrant. ‘I assumed a silly grin,’ she remembers, and ‘lapsing into a Berlin accent’ told him she couldn’t leave until she had eaten a piece of bread, which she had to get from a downstairs neighbour. To the man guarding the front door, she pretended to be someone else and told him she had been locked out of her own house by her child. She flirted with him until he sent her on her way with a tap on the bottom.

She got to the end of the road by herself; from that point on, she was dependent on others. She explained her predicament to the first man she met, who lent her his jacket, gave her a piece of string with which to tie her hair back and escorted her to the house of a family friend. This was the first of many acts of kindness, but not all those who came to Jalowicz’s aid over the next three years were selfless: some wanted something – free labour, sex, eternal gratitude – in return. But low-level resistance – feeding and hiding people, carrying flyers in prams – was common in Berlin. In this city full of former social democrats and communists, it was possible to find people who would help despite the danger.

Johanna Koch worked in a launderette and had been fond of Jalowicz’s father; now she became Marie’s most steadfast supporter. Koch took Jalowicz in on her first night underground, shared her meagre weekly rations with her and, later, lent Jalowicz her identity so she could escape to Sofia with a Bulgarian labourer she had fallen in love with. But the relationship wasn’t straightforward. Koch was jealous of others who helped Jalowicz and often complained about the sacrifices she had made.

After a few nights with Koch, Ernst Schindler, a friend of her father’s who was protected by his marriage to a non-Jewish woman, found Jalowicz a place to stay with his former cleaning lady. Ida Kahnke, who worked as a toilet attendant, was pleased to have the ten marks Schindler paid her to put up Jalowicz, and it was at her house that Jalowicz met Mitko, the Bulgarian. She soon moved on to lodge with a Frau Schulz, who realised that Jalowicz was pregnant – by her previous lover, Ernst Wolff, whom she had met at synagogue. This prompted the first of many visits to the Jewish gynaecologist Benno Heller, who was also protected by a non-Jewish wife. The foetus was delivered into an old bucket in a summerhouse belonging to friends of Schulz. Koch buried it under a plum tree.

In September 1942, Mitko asked Jalowicz to go with him to Bulgaria. Others around her, including Wolff, were assiduously preparing for their deportation. It was Wolff who procured for her a forged version of Koch’s identity card, through his cousin Herbert Koebner, a former director of a dental clinic now operating a clandestine family forgery business. Jalowicz still had to get a passport, a visa and a train ticket: things that were ‘hard to procure in the middle of the war’. Koebner’s plan was that Jalowicz would play the part of a canteen manager travelling on an order made out at a Luftwaffe command post in Warsaw (the Koebners’ neighbour, who was posted there, stole a blank order form), far away enough, they hoped, for the request not to be checked. And it wasn’t. Going via Poland would have been simpler, because it was occupied by the Nazis and so required no visa, but Jalowicz couldn’t bear the idea of passing ‘a concentration camp in broad daylight, a place where my own people were being killed’. So Koebner planned a route through Vienna and Zagreb: she got a visa from a nervous Croatian embassy official in Grunewald, and a train ticket (at the second attempt, the first having aroused suspicion) from a clerk ‘with no more fuss than if I were buying a tram ticket from Schönhauser Allee to Pankow’.

Mitko and Jalowicz travelled to Sofia and then, feasting on grapes along the way, to the supposedly less dangerous town of Tarnovo in the north, arriving in time to witness the ‘attempted’ introduction of the Jewish star in Bulgaria, ‘a curious and unique spectacle, resisted by the entire nation’. Despite this, Jalowicz was denounced in Tarnovo by a Bulgarian lawyer after she rejected his offer to ‘use’ her as a governess to his boy. So she had to return to Sofia to be questioned by Hans Goll, the German official responsible for the employment of Bulgarian workers in Germany. Goll, ‘regarded as a decent man and a firm opponent of the Gestapo’, understood the situation and covered for her, aranging a real German passport in the name of Johanna Koch and safe passage to Vienna. On saying goodbye, he gave her an envelope: ‘If you get a telegram … leave the ship in Budapest … Open this only if you have to disembark in Budapest, and go to the address you will find inside. They will help you there. If you don’t receive a telegram, stay on board and burn this envelope.’ The telegram didn’t come, but the Gestapo carried out a routine check in Vienna. When they went off to phone the police to cross-reference her (forged) papers, Jalowicz sowed confusion by telling some soldiers nearby that her bag had been stolen by Bulgarians and if they wouldn’t chase the culprits she’d do it herself. She darted to the station and boarded the direct train to Berlin, where she shared a compartment with some Austrian soldiers who shared their bread, butter and cheese with her. Luck played its part.

Back in Berlin, in November 1942, she turned again to Benno Heller, who, given his willingness to perform abortions, had many favours owed him. For the next six months, he organised safe places for Jalowicz to stay, the price of which was having to be told about her faults: she was too proud, too intellectual to do the jobs her hosts required of her. When she argued back, he hit her. (Eventually, ‘a non-swimmer’, a Jewish woman not well suited to being submerged, handed herself over to the Gestapo and denounced him.) The people Jalowicz stayed with, sometimes for two weeks, sometimes for longer, were essentially ordinary Germans. Karola Schenk, who had run away from her prosperous Bavarian family to join the circus, seduced her, cooking her mutton and kale and kissing her all over after soaping her back in the bath. Gerda Janicke agreed to put her up in the working-class district of Neukölln as long as she acted as a nurse to Janicke’s grandmother – a role Jalowicz hated. Schenk’s sister-in-law Camilla Fiochi, a trapeze artist, harboured Jalowicz for a while in her ‘pretty villa’ in Zeuthen to the south-east of Berlin before throwing her out when some jam went missing. She then stayed with Karl Galecki, a syphilitic fanatical Nazi to whom she had been sold, by someone in Heller’s network, as a common-law wife (fortunately he was uninterested in sex). Escaping Galecki, she returned to Zeuthen, where she met Trude Neuke, the mother of Fiochi’s trainee, Inge, the one who had really been stealing the jam and let Jalowicz take the blame for it. Neuke was a communist and appalled at her daughter’s actions. She vowed solemnly to ‘take responsibility for saving your life from our common enemies’: a vow which became a lifeline for Jalowicz after Heller’s arrest in February 1943. Neuke arranged for Jalowicz to live with her sister for six weeks and then set her up with a ‘crazy Dutchman’ called Gerrit Burgers. From early 1943 until almost the end of the war, Jalowicz lived with Burgers and assumed ‘something like a normal life’.

Until she moved in with Burgers, Jalowicz rarely had enough to eat and often spent hours at a time sitting still or pacing the snowy streets until dark so her movements wouldn’t be heard by neighbours. At one point – ‘the lowest point of my life’ – she was sick with a bladder infection:

I couldn’t contain my urine. When it happened I was in the dairy, fetching milk for Frau Janicke. A pool formed beneath me. I don’t know whether the other people there noticed anything, but I couldn’t help it. I thought, desperately, the enemy is doing all this to us. Perhaps such repellent things are actually easier for others to understand than piles of corpses, than the really great crimes of human history.

Despite such trials, she remained alert and capable of thinking of things other than the horrors of her situation. During her affair with Mitko, she taught herself Bulgarian. She allowed herself to steal butter thanks to a rule she drafted in her head, calling it the Reich Law on the Theft of Victuals as Applied to Those Who Have Gone to Ground. Later, living with Burgers, when her circumstances had slightly improved, she reasoned away the black eye she had received from him as helping her blend in with working-class Berliners. Listening to Burgers’s landlady rave about Hitler, she made notes on her use of Berlin dialect. She told herself that when the war was finally over, she would apply to university. She observed Jewish rites, using them almost as meditations, reciting prayers silently in her darkest moments. Her life wasn’t without pleasure: fear of capture didn’t stop the grapes in Bulgaria tasting sweet, and a friend leaving a single flower on the table for her was reason enough for happiness.

*

Stalingrad in February 1943 was the turning point. As Allied victory became more likely, Jalowicz became more hopeful of survival. Most people by now believed there were no Jews left in Germany – and if there were, what did it matter? The war was too close. As the Soviet army neared the city, incendiaries fell night and day; no one had enough to eat; bombed-out families moved from one apartment to another; the sick went untreated because the doctors were at the front. Jalowicz’s experience was now every Berliner’s experience:

There was no subject of conversation but the war in the long queues … and I too was exhausted by constant lack of sleep, with my nerves on edge. I shared the fate of all the people of Berlin, yet at the same time I didn’t share it. For unlike almost everyone else, I was not afraid of what was coming, I hoped for it.

Sometimes Jalowicz noticed other Jews who had also gone to ground. ‘When I saw someone in the street whom I knew from the old days, we usually made swift eye contact agreeing not to show it. Later I counted these meetings, and in all I had met 22 other people in the same situation as me.’ In the streets, old men now openly mocked the Nazis and didn’t get into trouble.

At the end of the war Jalowicz, having parted ways with Burgers after being bombed out twice, was staying with Johanna Koch in her summerhouse in a northeastern suburb of Berlin. She welcomed the liberating Russians without joy, and even Koch, an anti-fascist, lamented Germany’s defeat. Jalowicz and Koch were both raped, but the mark left by the soldier on the summerhouse door, a sign that they had been visited, protected them from further violations. Jalowicz returned to the centre of Berlin barefoot, pulling a handcart with her few possessions, like Mother Courage. On her way she made a mental list of the things she would no longer do:

I wasn’t going to spit, because that was uncivilised. I was never going to sit in a wicker chair again. I was never going to marry a man who wasn’t Jewish. I’d rather be on my own than with a partner who didn’t have any higher education. I would be honest, as my parents and my other forebears had always been honest. I wasn’t going to be on familiar terms with any Tom, Dick or Harry, as you usually were in bars. I was never going to be rude about the Germans again without differentiating between them. I was never going to be unjust and ungrateful to people like the Kochs, who had helped me. And so on.

Berlin was flattened but public transport still ran; people worked in offices; there was a property agency for finding apartments. Walking in the city, Jalowicz met old friends such as Edith Rödelsheimer, a musicologist she had known at Siemens, who had spent the war hidden with her husband in another summerhouse. Jalowicz managed to find an apartment close to where she grew up; battle-weary yet feeling at home, she was determined to stay in Berlin. She enrolled at university to study philosophy and sociology and began writing to her schoolfriend Heinrich Simon, who had emigrated to Palestine just in time but would return to Berlin in 1947. They married in March 1948 and Jalowicz gave birth to a son, Hermann, a year later. She earned a doctoral degree in February 1951, had a daughter, Bettina, in 1952 and became a professor of the literary and cultural history of classical antiquity at the age of 51. She retired in 1982 at the age of 60 but remained active in the university for the next decade. She stayed in contact with Neuke, who lived nearby and never stopped calling her ‘Hannchen’ (the diminutive for Johanna, the name on her false passport). In 1994 Koch died and left her the summerhouse, but Jalowicz never went back. She left it in turn to her son with the proviso he had to sell it immediately.

How much ordinary people knew and to what extent they were complicit in the persecution of the Jews are questions often asked of this period of German history. We can’t know for sure, but we can make inferences from Jalowicz’s account. She and her fellow forced labourers at Siemens sensed that the Nazis intended to kill them. They looked longingly after one woman who had managed to emigrate at the last moment, sweeping off the factory floor in ‘a pale, elegant dust-coat and a very ladylike hat’. Jalowicz was frustrated by acquaintances who packed their bags and put their possessions in order when the deportation orders came, and was thrilled by the open resistance to Jewish persecution in Bulgaria, where both Jewish and non-Jewish professionals took to the streets to protest, schoolchildren protected their Jewish classmates and policemen ripped compulsory stars from children’s coats in disgust. In Germany, there was no such protest. In 1933, Jews made up less than 1 per cent of the German population, in Berlin 4 per cent. Where I live now in the old east of Berlin, the streets are flecked with golden cobblestones – Stolpersteine or ‘stumbling blocks’ – engraved with the names of German Jews, former residents of local buildings, who were deported and murdered. Stolpersteine are still not permitted in Munich.

Late in the memoir, the war now clearly ending, Jalowicz describes a spring day with Koch at the summerhouse, which was next to a prison camp:

One day the windows of the nearby houses were all open to let in the early spring air, and that song rang out of the living rooms from all sides. Then, however, the screams of the tortured inmates of the prison camp were also heard – and all the windows closed at the same time as if by prior agreement … Those were the same people who claimed, later, not to have known any of what was going on.