Gone To Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon trans. Anthea Bell, book review: A survivor's story of daily degradations

A Jewish girl faced hardship, danger and starvation living 'underground' in Berlin
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The Independent Culture

Marie Jalowicz Simon was a Jewish teenager who – as friends and family were being deported to their deaths from Nazi Berlin – made the bold decision to vanish from official view; to remove her yellow star, go underground and survive. She was, in the parlance of the period, a "U-boat".

Gone To Ground is her remarkable story, edited together from 77 tapes of interviews, given in 1997 to her son, Hermann Simon. For all the many volumes already dedicated to the unspeakable history of the Holocaust, this remains a fascinating addition.

With an identity borrowed from Frau Koch, one of the many brave people who helped her during the course of the war, Marie Jalowicz took shelter where she could find it, lived with whoever offered protection, and scrabbled for food. The war impinges surprisingly rarely, with an occasional mention of the Sixth Army or a radio report of the attempted assassination of Hitler. This is, instead, a diary of daily degradations.

The story is most revealing where least expected. It is an angry Jewish woman who betrays Benno Heller, another of the heroes of the resistance. And avowed Nazis can and do turn a blind eye. There are confusing motivations and equally confused and confusing reactions.

Marie is openly annoyed at having to feel grateful to those risking their lives to assist her, an honesty which is admirably unflinching but hardly endearing. She seems to sneer when, with the war's end approaching, she considers how Frau Koch would cope. "The splendid role of resistance heroine that this shy woman from humble origins had been playing for years would be over."

But a hardening of the heart is both a pragmatic response and natural consequence of years crazed with hunger and living in perpetual fear of being exposed. During the interviews, which are the basis of the book, Hermann Simon allowed his mother to speak without interruption, which was understandable when she had for so long declined to speak. But it feels a pity that she was not asked how she felt about the moral compromises into which she was forced and the physical consequences of living in jeopardy.

The reader gets a strong sense of the educated, cultured middle-class world from which she came but virtually nothing of what a young girl of that background felt about having sex with strangers to secure a roof over her head. At one point she has to use the same container for food and excrement. Yet she is too proud to ask a wealthy elderly uncle on the point of deportation for cash and is "unspeakably embarrassed" when Frau Koch cries over the strain of borrowing books for her to read. Only one premise holds: "It is no use behaving normally in an abnormal situation."

English PEN, the writers' organisation, supported the translation but it is questionable whether it does complete justice to Marie's words. Later a professor of classical antiquity, she was acutely conscious of the difference between the common Berlin dialect and the High German of the educated which makes some of the clumsy inelegance in her narrative surprising. After her father dies, the boss at her forced labour factory "condoled with me silently". There is a lack of literary power to match the emotional punch.

But it would be impossible to argue that matters much. The afterword by her son suggests there is another book about her life that could and probably should be written. But these are Marie Jalowicz Simon's words, the last recorded only days before her death in 1998. She is a female voice from the horrors of the Second World War and it is good that voice lives on.