Alone in Berlin: How a Young Jewish Woman Outwitted the Nazis

The memoir of the late Marie Jalowicz Simon recounts the remarkable tale of a Berlin native whose street smarts and charm kept her alive during World War II.

Getty Images

“Underground in Berlin,” by Marie Jalowicz Simon (translated from the German by Anthea Bell), Little, Brown and Company, 366 pages, $28

There is a piquant lack of discretion in this brutally unsentimental memoir of a Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust by hiding in her native Berlin for three years, until World War II ended in May 1945.

Marie Jalowicz Simon was not completely hidden away in the sense of Anne Frank, another great chronicler of the period. And unlike the younger Frank, Simon – who hid from age 19 to 22 – didn’t write her thoughts down at the time, but instead dictated them into a tape recorder in 1998, before her death that September at age 76.

One of the estimated 1,400-1,500 Jews who survived the Holocaust in the German capital, Simon was obviously the recipient of many strokes of luck, but she was also very quick-witted. She remained on her toes for any opportunity to evade the Nazi bureaucracy, including neutralizing its lower-level representatives with tiny bribes or a bit of money or food. And, often, kind words or plain brownnosing worked just as well.

She survived by lodging in the small apartments of various working-class Germans, who willingly took her in for mostly economic reasons – in exchange for meager pay or household help. Sometimes they shared what little they had, and sometimes not.

Simon, an astute observer, perceived additional motives even when people wanted to save her life. For example, she saw that the woman who helped her the most – by providing her with her own identity papers – thoroughly enjoyed Simon’s utter dependency on her.

Most important, sometimes her saviors knew she was Jewish and sometimes they guessed, but they did not denounce her. And so, after the war, when Simon made a list of things she resolved never to do, it included this, “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 who had helped me.”

Courage to be a German Jewish woman

Born in Berlin in 1922, Simon was the only child of a middle-class lawyer and his wife, who managed his office. Her immediate family had roots in Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her extended family practiced a broad range of Jewish religious observance while being integrated into German life and culture. Though secular, Simon was knowledgeable about Judaism and identified as Jewish. Her family celebrated holidays. She knew some Hebrew, and sat shivah for her parents. She had, she wrote in a letter to a friend when the war ended, “the courage to be what I am: a German Jewish woman.”

When her mother died of cancer in 1938, the family’s fortunes had already severely declined due to the anti-Jewish laws. She and her father moved in with another Jewish family, the Waldmanns, who would soon immigrate to Shanghai via the Trans-Siberian Railway. Before they did, her father fell in love with the young woman of the house, and Simon twice slept with the husband, so they wouldn’t “be turned out on the street.” At the end of the memoir, we are told this wasn’t the first time such an arrangement had been made.

In addition to being an important historical document of the Holocaust, the book is a sort of sociological survey of human sexual behavior, due to the author’s frankness. Simon’s revelations of her (and others’) sexual experiences in Nazi Berlin are perhaps the most startling aspect of her memoir, until the penny drops: They express not an aberrant commodification of sex under extreme circumstances, but the role sex plays in life all the time, everywhere – and its exchange value and inevitable relationship to power.

In Simon’s immediate family milieu and among the people who saved her during the entire Nazi period, attraction and exploitation transgressed the boundaries of race, class, nationality and age, not to mention the commitments made in marriage contracts. Sex was often a matter of proximity or convenience. And after the Russian Army entered Berlin in April 1945, Simon was raped by a Soviet soldier (as were an estimated 95,000 to 130,000 German women in the city).

‘Prejudices of our own’

After the Waldmanns emigrated, Simon and her father moved to smaller and smaller quarters. In 1940, she was ordered to work in a Siemens factory, where she found that “all these [German] men were curious about us [Jewish women],” and not only in a prurient way. For example, a Jewish mathematician forced to work at Siemens secretly aided a Nazi Party member – a work supervisor named Stakowski – in his studies. And then he began to bring “sandwiches to work for her, an absolute delicacy at the time From being a fanatical Nazi, he slowly changed to being a harmless fellow-traveler, and that meant a good deal.”

When Simon’s father died of an unidentified illness in March 1941, she tried to continue to receive the small notary’s pension he had been allotted as a veteran of World War I. She accomplished this with flattery, by approaching a secretary in the Superior Court as a person of authority and making the bold gesture of offering to return some cash:

“The young lady probably felt much honored. She was blond, slim, and wore her hair in what was called a Hitler knot. I stood two meters away from her desk, holding the money, and explained. ‘I’m an honest woman. I’m sure no one would have noticed if I’d kept it.’ And very briefly, I described my situation [as the daughter of a Jewish World War I veteran].”

The secretary offered “to win the boss over!” and indeed she did, telling Simon not to let anyone know, because inheritance of the pension was illegal. Simon writes that she thought to herself:

“Not only are our enemies prejudiced against us, we have prejudices of our own against all non-Jews. This young lady was helpful and sympathetic. Why must we be such total strangers to each other?”

Simon sensed that her position at the Siemens armaments factory was precarious, and that the Jews were slated for eventual deportation to the east. (In fact, the Nazis eventually deported the Jewish forced laborers from Germany in February 1943.) She arranged to be fired, as she was not allowed to quit. She used the same tactics of modesty and flattery, combined with honesty, with her supervisor, Schoenfeld, an SS man who agreed to sack her. He then wished her “luck on [her] way through these icy wastes.” To a postman who sought to deliver a registered letter from the labor exchange, no doubt ordering her to another such job, she lied, saying the addressee (that is, herself) had already been deported.

That Simon survived is due not only to her ability to manipulate people and exploit opportunities, but also to the sheer goodwill of others and, sometimes, to the fact that even anti-Semites behave differently in different situations.

Simon differentiates between those who approved of and passively accommodated Nazism and those who actively collaborated. She observes:

“The same Aryan German who hated the rich Jew from the big house like poison – maybe he thought the Jews had once defrauded him over the sale of a plot of land, maybe he fervently wished the man out of the way so that he himself could appropriate the Jew’s living room carpet – that same Aryan German had nothing against starving young girls who worked hard [in the Siemens factory], just as he worked hard himself.”

An anti-Nazi couple, Johannes and Emil Koch (non-Jews, despite the name), provided Simon with the wife’s identity card, which was then forged to suit her. Benno Heller, a Jewish gynecologist who, according to the Nazi race laws, was able to avoid deportation and continue practicing because his wife was not Jewish, also aided her. Heller sent Simon to fixers who profited from brokering fugitives (Jews and ordinary criminals) by matching them to hiding places for a fee. But Heller, who often paid the bribes out of his own pocket, helped so many Jewish women that he was eventually exposed; he was caught in February 1943 and deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His apparent death went unrecorded; there are no traces of him after mid-January 1945.

Simon fell in love with an older Jewish man, became pregnant by him and had an abortion. If arranged coupling meant survival for Simon, she could do that too, with much grace and consideration for her partners, and theirs for her. A proposed liaison with a Chinese student didn’t work due to language difficulties, but she managed to travel to Bulgaria with a Bulgarian worker-fiancé. However, lacking proper papers, she was forced to return to Germany. In the end, she was able to openly cohabit in Berlin with a sometimes abusive young Dutch foreign worker. He called her Frauke, meaning “little wife,” and when the war ended in May 1945, offered to take her to the Netherlands, apparently misunderstanding the nature of their relations.

‘Germans made great sacrifices to help me’

Simon decided to remain in Berlin, where she would later become a professor at Humboldt University, and married an old school friend who had immigrated to Palestine but returned in 1946 to see her, and repatriated the next year. In a letter cited in the afterword to the book, Simon gives several reasons for remaining in Germany, including this one:

“I’d like to defuse the usual argument that pride doesn’t allow us to live in the land of the gas chambers. Do you think that the mob anywhere else in the world, if their worst instincts had been cleverly aroused, would have behaved any worse than the mob in Germany? Germans have murdered millions of Jews. But many Germans, risking their lives, made great sacrifices to help me.”

This remarkable story was dictated onto 77 tapes in the presence of Simon’s historian son, Hermann Simon, director of the Neue Synagogue Berlin-Centrum Judaicum Foundation. The German manuscript was then edited by journalist Irene Stretenwerth and fact-checked; the fates of the people named in it are listed at the end of the book. The book was translated into English by Anthea Bell, who previously worked on W.G. Sebald’s remarkable Holocaust novel, “Austerlitz.”

Simon’s memoir deserves a place of honor among other highly readable books, including “A Past in Hiding,” Mark Roseman’s biography of Marianne Strauss, who was saved for three years in Germany by a network of New Age-style anti-Nazis, and “The Author of Himself,” Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s memoir of survival in Warsaw. As a counterpoint, it may be read in tandem with Hans Fallada’s novel “Alone in Berlin,” which portrays an array of non-Jewish Berliners and their lives during these same Nazi years.

It is possible to read Simon as a special case that cannot be exemplified, or as overly forgiving of Germany and Germans, perhaps in order to defend her decision to remain there. However, in our environment of rampant and murderous racism, not to mention political intransigence, this book offers a valuable tale, in addition to being a fascinating read. It vividly illustrates that for many ordinary people, even under duress, human behavior doesn’t have to follow a party line. It seems that the world isn’t really divided into “us” and “them.” It may be more accurate to say that some people maintain their human image, warts and all, even under extreme circumstances. And, one must ask, how are we doing?

Lisa Katz edits the Israeli pages of Poetry International Rotterdam. “Late Beauty,” a bilingual selection of poems by Tuvia Ruebner (translated with Shahar Bram) is forthcoming from Zephyr Press; her translation of Hannan Hever’s “Suddenly the Sight of War” will be released in January by Stanford University Press.