Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest book is “Back in Blighty: The British at Home in World War One.”
By Marie Jalowicz Simon
Little, Brown. 366 pp. $28
Marie Jalowicz spent most of World War II sitting in a chair — usually a wicker one. She realized that, as a Jew in Berlin, her best hope for survival was to go underground, to disappear. Her war was a sequence of days; every day she eluded capture was one day closer to the defeat of Germany. Surviving often meant sitting in one of those wicker chairs, in the darkened corner of a silent room. “I sat . . . as if nailed to the spot.”
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.
What resulted is the most extraordinary memoir of World War II I’ve ever encountered. 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 favors in exchange for food or shelter. “What does it matter?” she thought. “Let’s get it over and done with.”
On one bizarre occasion, she found herself dependent upon an old man who ran a rubber plant. A rabid Nazi, he proudly showed her his prized possession: a hair from Hitler’s German shepherd. “Why that’s wonderful!” she remarked. His stumbling walk and incoherent speech suggested the final stages of syphilis. “The Ewes, the Yoose, the Jews must all die,” he mumbled. She nodded. “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. . . . If I had been obliged to share his bed I would indeed have felt myself to be in mortal danger.”
Simon’s recollections provide fascinating insight into the psychology of those willing to help. Some were Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semites who were able nevertheless to draw a distinction between the specific and the general — between Simon and the Jewish multitude. Others were clearly addicted to the endorphin rush that comes from charity — selfless acts of selfish motive. Johanna Koch, who allowed Simon to assume her identity during her life underground, feasted on the relationship this implied. “She wanted me to be poor, dependent and in need, so that she could caress and console me.” For this reason, Koch dreaded an Allied victory. “When the war ended, so would my dependence on her. The splendid role of resistance heroine . . . would be over.”
Simon spent nearly two years as the unofficial “wife” of a guest worker, a Dutchman named Gerrit Burgers. He was sexually inexperienced, emotionally immature and in need of a housekeeper. She satisfied all his needs. He often beat her, yet the occasional black eye provided a badge of normality in a society inured to domestic violence. “It made me inconspicuous.”
“Gerrit Burgers meant nothing to me really,” she admitted in typically laconic fashion. Nothing, and everything, since for a crucial part of the war he provided the security of mundane normality. There came a point, however, when circumstances and safety dictated that they had to part. “And so we went our separate ways. . . . It couldn’t have been a less dramatic parting. If one of us had gone off to buy a loaf of bread, expecting to be back a few minutes later, it would have been just the same.”
Over the course of her time underground, Simon learned how difficult it is to judge people. She saw cruelty, hypocrisy and evil all around her, yet also found goodness in unlikely places. Luise Blase, for instance, provided assistance at crucial moments throughout Simon’s war. “I hated Frau Blase as a repellent criminal blackmailer with Nazi opinions, yet I loved her as a mother figure. Life is complicated.” That complexity taught her an important lesson. “It’s worth not marching in time. And it’s been worth facing all the fear and unpleasantness. Because life is beautiful.”
The beauty of life allowed her to do ugly things of a reassuringly temporal nature. What happened in the war would stay in the war. When the Russians arrived in Berlin, she made a mental list of things she would never do again. “My list was a long one,” she admitted. “I wasn’t going to spit, because that was uncivilized.” “I wasn’t going to be on familiar terms with any Tom, Dick or Harry.” “I was never going to be rude about the Germans without differentiating between them.” The list continues. Finally: “I was never going to sit in a wicker chair again.”