A frightened young girl chose the lonesome allotment garden behind a Berlin tenement block to abort her child. The child was an impossibility if Marie Jalowicz wanted to survive in Nazi Germany. She fled the Gestapo before she could be deported to a death camp. She was “submerged” out of sight in Berlin.
For Marie, giving birth to her child was an impossibility—so was an abortion. At the time, any Jew caught performing one was to be executed. She was able to find a doctor who gave her a drug that induced a premature birth three months into her pregnancy. The pregnancy was the result of a brief affair with another fugitive. Marie took the drug in the garden while she sobbed on a bench while her body writhed in pain. Marie’s tiny baby was wrapped in a newspaper and a friend buried it under a plum tree.
When she was asked about the experience nearly 50 years later, she said “Moral doubts? I had none. I wanted to live, and that was that. But I was sad. It was a boy.” Marie continued living her life under the swastika. She survived, married, and had two children. She later died in 1998. Before her death, she documented her life story on more than 80 cassette tapes. Those tapes have since been transcribed by her son, Hermann, and is now a critically acclaimed book, Submerged, which later became a film. The film is said to be tragically harrowing and at the same time, a tribute to the human spirit because for Marie, the will to live was greater than the Nazi power to destroy her.
Marie was one of only 1,500 Berlin Jews to survive the Holocaust. Her memoirs are notable because they paint the unflinching reality of living during that time. There were a score of people who were kind and good hearted who helped her; however, there were plenty of others who made selfish and often sexual demands. “Not all motives were noble,” she said. “I had to be pragmatic.”
Any sense of normalcy had ended in 1933 for the Jews of Germany. This was when Hitler came into power. Marie was the only child of a rich lawyer and a housewife. At the age of 10, she witnessed the quality of life for the Jews diminish: smaller apartments, less food and no doctors. They became isolated, then deported and exterminated.
As an elderly woman when she made the tapes, Marie still had a good recall of the events. For example, she was able to recall how the Jews were ripped off in their “Jews Only” restaurants. “One had to look for the fatty meat with a magnifying glass,” she said. “The so-called soup was pure salt water. Afterwards there was a pudding made of saccharin and water.” The Daily Mirror reported that her mother, Betti, died in 1938 of cancer and her father, Hermann, died in 1941. By this time, Marie had become a slave laborer in a Siemens arms factory. One by one, her friends no longer came to work. They had been “deported.”
“My instincts told me,” said Marie, “that whoever allowed themselves to be deported was on a one-way ticket to death I did not want to belong to the community of death. I was wanted to live.” She asked a friendly overseer to be “let go.” He asked if she really wanted to be “out there – in the ice desert” but he signed her off as ill and with the help of a postman, she pretended to be a neighbor and wrote to the labor office stating that Marie had been relocated east. She then dyed her hair and obtained false papers. She was 19 and alone in a Nazi ruled Berlin. She was what the Nazi’s called a “U-Boat” – a Jew diving below the surface of society in search of safety. She had been told of Jews who would marry Chinamen and be able to leave Germany. She became engaged to a man called Schu Ka Ling, but while the paperwork was being finalized, he left her for another woman.
Marie’s life was a constant succession of moves from one house to another. In one home, she escaped a Gestapo search by a matter of minutes. In another search, she cunningly slipped out the window as the Gestapo entered the front door. Berlin was decreed to be Jew free and the net was closing in on Marie. She devised a plan to get to Palestine through Bulgaria and Turkey.
She was able to get to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria; however, once there, she was held on suspicion of being a Russian spy. She was able to bluff her way out of the situation, but was put on the next train back to Berlin. On June 22 1942 a Gestapo agent came for her at 6am. “I knew it was not the milkman,” she said “The woman I was sharing with opened the door. He asked to speak to me, came into the room and I pretended to be asleep. Friendly and quiet, he asked me to get dressed and go with him. A voice inside spoke loudly and clearly: ‘Don’t go, you are mad!’?“
He let her go to the kitchen in her petticoat for a drink and bread but instead she got her coat and an empty bottle, thinking: “They always come in twos. Either this bottle will break or it will break the skull of the second man downstairs. I was determined not to go without defending myself.”
But she was able to slip out while the second man drank coffee in the kitchen. She walked quietly to the corner then ran for her life. Then there was the night she was “sold” to a Nazi with syphilis – called the Rubber Director because his legs had been eaten away like elastic. “I dreaded what was to happen, that I would put my life at risk if I shared a bed with him,” said Marie. “But then with head bowed and tears in his eyes he said he had to disappoint me, that he was no longer capable. I was deeply relieved.” Then there was Willi the communist. Arriving with her suitcase, Marie was grateful for shelter at the house he shared with his sister in a working-class district of Berlin. Then he came into her room on the first night.
“He stood at the end of the bed,” she recounted. “This lanky man with the crumpled face and a far-too-short nightshirt, babbling a few obscenities. The rest you can imagine. I could neither hit him or send him away so I let it happen to me.” Marie was eventually taken under the wing of a colony of Dutch slave workers who looked after her until the Red Army liberated the shattered and bombed city in May 1945. In 1948 she married Heinrich Simon, a schoolfriend who had made it to Palestine before the war and served in the British Army. To the astonishment of all, she stayed in Germany, studied philosophy at university and became a lecturer in antique literature and cultural history. “I was born here, grew up here and feel at home here,” she said.
Her son Hermann was born in 1949 and his sister Bettina in 1952, though she died in 1989. But Marie never forget those war years when her life was on the line every day. Many who had helped her ended up in the death camps and she was “skin and bone” at the end in 1945. There was one last ordeal too. The Russian troops mass-raped the women of Berlin and Marie was “naturally” among the victims. Luckily she befriended a soldier who put a note on her door saying she was his “bride” and was to be left alone. She was not molested any more.
And into her son’s tape recorder half a century later she left these haunting words: “I was so thin the wind blew me forwards. I had no watch, no idea of the time of day or night. But I was alive.”