Underground in Berlin – A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in Nazi Germany represents a fascinating and important contribution to Holocaust literature. The author Marie Jalowicz Simon was a young Jewish woman who survived World War II by hiding in Berlin, often in plain sight. She survived to complete her education and become a professor in Berlin. Prior to 1997 Simon generally refrained from telling her story and angrily rejected requests for interviews. But finally, in 1997 during the last year of her life, she dictated her story onto 77 tapes (900 pages of transcript). Although she didn’t keep a written diary during her years of hiding, Simon had maintained a remarkable diary in her head. Marie Simon died in 1998, and approximately fifteen years later, after substantial research and editing, her son published this important book.
Every survivor’s story is unique, but Simon’s is really unusual, mostly because of her attitude. Simon was an educated woman in her twenties in Berlin. Her parents had died and she had no one depending on her. This gave her some freedom and mobility, but it also meant she had only herself to rely upon.
To survive in and of itself was noble, and Simon insisted on surviving. Apart from an unsuccessful effort to marry and relocate to Bulgaria, she stayed in Berlin and its environs. She kept her health and had tremendous ingenuity and nerve. Perhaps more importantly, she had just enough contacts to keep finding a series of short term places to stay. Simon was furious at her situation and furious at the German people, so she wasn’t particularly grateful to those who helped her. She never betrayed anyone, but neither did she waste much time mourning those who didn’t make it. Simon comes across as a difficult person who probably wasn’t the easiest houseguest or the nicest person to have around. But then, to hear her tell it, many of the people who took her in frequently weren’t very nice either. They seemed to have jumbled motives and were frequently unpleasant.
Not to digress, but an interesting study on what it takes to be a rescuer might be conducted just from looking at the lives of the people who stepped up to help Marie Simon. They were a very diverse group of odd personalities from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. Unpleasant they may have been, but undoubtedly they stuck their necks out when they sheltered Simon. In the end, we see her rescuers only through Simon’s eyes, and she doesn’t dwell on how scared many of them must have been.
This book is particularly striking because of Simon’s strong voice. Simon absolutely rejects the fate the Naxi regime is determined to impose. At some level she holds all Germans accountable for the crimes implicated upon Jews and thinks that those helping her are only doing what they were supposed to do. Her rage is impressive and constant, even as she is always on her guard and looking for her next place to hide. The bottom line is that Simon was courageous and bold, and she succeeded in surviving for three years in Berlin during the last years of World War II. It is a great story.