A Haunting Account: Underground in Berlin

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Growing up with a mother who had survived the war in Holland, my mother was taught to revile Germans. By no means was that unique. There are still tons of Dutch people that have no time for Germans. So for my mom, the chance to read Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany by Marie Jalowicz Simon, was eye opening. She told me afterwards that she’d never read a story about the other side, about the German experience during the war.

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At the end of her life, Marie Jalowicz Simon’s son convinced her to finally tell the whole story of her experiences during the war. As a young Jewish woman, she was at risk from 1933 onwards. By the early 1940s, both of her parents were dead and she had only herself and a small network of friends to rely on to keep her safe. For 1942, Marie spent a couple of weeks at a time in different households, sometimes hiding completely, sitting in a chair all day afraid to make any noise, at other times passed off as a visiting relative, always afraid lest a neighbour ask too many questions.

From 1943 until early 1945 she managed to lead what was almost a normal life. But it was still filled with fear, sacrifice, and always ensuring that her true identity was hidden. Food was scarce, buying anything involved a complicated ritual of ration coupons, registered all over the city and standing in line for hours just to get a nominal amount of flour or meat. I was annoyed by the constant mention of “ersatz coffee” until I clued in to the fact that this was an actual thing: “coffee” made from roasted rice, peas and chicory to mimic real coffee.

When Marie finally told her story, she did so orally. Over a period of several months, she filled 77 tapes and her son then transcribed those tapes. As she told the story, her son researched what she told him to see if it matched up with what was known about that period of time in Berlin. He was surprised (and his mother gratified) to learn that her memories did match.

Because of the way the story was told, it feels very much like you are sitting listening to her story the same way. It doesn’t have the polish of other historical accounts of the time, but it has more heart. Marie can, at times, come across as callous and hard but when you think about what she had to live through, how she had to survive with only her wits about her, how she had to lie constantly about who she was, it’s really no wonder she sounds so harsh.

I did have a hard time getting through this book. I think this was partly because Marie does seem so distant from the story – a coping mechanism no doubt. It was also that I found it difficult to keep a lot of the people straight. The people helping her would drift in and out of the story and it took me some time to put it altogether.

Nonetheless this is a powerful account of what it was like to actually live in Berlin at the time, to live through one of the cruelest epochs in human history as the kind of person that your country reviles. And for that reason it’s worth reading.

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8 thoughts on “A Haunting Account: Underground in Berlin

  1. Although my mom isn’t Jewish she found it difficult surviving the war. It took her until she was in her sixties to write down her memories. She mentions the ersatz kaffee as well.

    • I think all Germans probably found it supremely difficult to survive the war. But for so long, I’m not sure that they were allowed to admit that. Reading this book I was struck by the amount of ordinary Germans willing to stick their necks out to help Jewish people go “underground.” That was no small thing!

  2. I didn’t realise that about your mum. One of my best friend’s dad came over on the Kindertransport. That not talking about what happened is such a major theme. Maybe that was the best that could be done, the distant voice. I think my friend found it sad that her dad didn’t talk about it and died with so many secrets.

    • My Oma rarely spoke about her experiences during the way. I know that the home she was staying in was bombed in Rotterdam at one point and that any time any war movies or TV shows or commercials came on she had to change the channel. She had a major stroke about 6 weeks before she died and the day before she sat and told my mom everything. It’s so sad that so many died with their experiences still a secret. I think it’s still so important that these stories get told, so that we don’t ever have a chance to forget how horrific it really was.

  3. I will put this on my list of books to look out for, even if it didn’t entirely work for you. Stories like these should never be forgotten. The silence of people living through WWII is an issue in Germany as well. I only recently read an “essay” about how grandparents who never spoke to their children about their war experience are only now starting to open up to their grandchildren. I do hope that people will make an effort to save these stories, not only those of people who sacrificed for others, but also those who didn’t do that. Even if only a few people listen to and learn from them, it will have been worthwhile.

    • You are right about all of that. I think that there’s a lot more understanding now of what it must have been like for the average German to survive, of the atmosphere of fear and oppression that everyone suffered under.

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