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A Young Woman Goes 'Underground In Berlin' To Escape The Holocaust

Marie Jalowicz Simon survived the Holocaust by hiding with friends and strangers in Berlin.
From the private collection of Hermann Simon
Marie Jalowicz Simon survived the Holocaust by hiding with friends and strangers in Berlin.

A lot of books come across our desks here at Weekend Edition. One caught our eye recently, because of the unusual way it came to be published. The title sums up the story — Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman's Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany.

That remarkable tale came to light thanks to a request by her son, historian Hermann Simon. "I once put a tape recorder and said to her, 'You always wanted to tell me the story of your life. Well, go ahead.' "

In one of the recordings her son made near the end of her life, Marie Jalowicz Simon describes a near miss with the Gestapo. It was June 22, 1942. Her father had just died after a long illness, leaving her, a 20-year-old Jewish woman, all alone in Berlin.

Marie Jalowicz watched as friends and family were hauled away to unknown destinations. When the Gestapo came for her, she was staying with a family friend. The officers ordered Marie to get ready to go.

"We want to ask you some questions. It won't take long, and you'll be back in a couple of hours," they said. "That was the kind of thing they always said to prevent people from falling into a fit of hysterics, or swallowing a poison capsule, or doing anything else that would have been inconvenient for the Gestapo."

With the help of her friend, Marie fled.

"She thought it is only possible for her to survive not in her former neighborhood. It must be a place that is for her completely for her unknown," Hermann Simon says.

So she wouldn't be recognized, Marie Jalowicz went underground, moving around the city to survive — staying with sympathetic Germans whom Simon describes as on the fringe of German society: "Prostitutes, poor people, really outsiders. Not the so-called normal people."

Some of them treated her decently. They chose to ignore the fact that Marie was a Jew and in exchange she helped them — standing in lines for rations or cooking and cleaning. Others exploited her. She recounts in matter-of-fact tone how time and again she had to endure sexual assaults. Her son describes it as part of the price she paid for survival.

And then, after Marie Jalowicz had spent three years living under an assumed name — surviving hunger and abuse and countless Allied air raids — the war ended and the Russians rolled into Berlin.

"She once said to me: it was difficult to go underground, but it was also difficult to come out from the underground," Simon says. "Everything changed. And she was alone. At the end, she was alone."

The house she grew up in had been razed, friends and family members had been killed by the Nazis, but Marie Jalowicz stayed in Germany after the war. She found and married her childhood friend Heinrich Simon. And she continued her studies and became a professor of literary cultural history at Humbolt University in Berlin, where she lived until her death in 1998.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff