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True story of survival makes for a captivating read

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Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany By Marie Jalowicz Simon (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2015)

We who were born in Canada after World War II will never be able to relate to, let alone profoundly, truly understand the full meaning of the ubiquitous atrocity and suffering during that war.

Of course we have an obligation to educate ourselves and to learn about the atrocities and the suffering. But the valley between learning facts and grasping experience – in the case of World War II, and indeed all cases of sustained, raging inhumanity – cannot be bridged by the mere good will to do so.

But we must try.

Thus, when an opportunity arises to peer once again from the edge of that valley, we must seize it.  Underground in Berlin by Marie Jalowicz Simon is such an opportunity.

It is an intense, first-hand account by a young Jewish woman of her life in Berlin during the war. She is an only child. Her parents have died. She tears the Yellow Star off her outer garment and goes “to ground.” She goes into hiding. And against all odds, she survives until the end of the war.

Her account is powerful and absorbing.

Jalowicz Simon was born in April 1922. She was 11 years old when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of the Third Reich and 23 when Hitler committed suicide, bringing to an end the blood-soaked carnage in which some 50 million people were killed. Jalowicz Simon died in September 1998.

At the urging of her son, Prof. Hermann Simon, Jalowicz Simon finally undertook the monumental work of recording her wartime memories. To that point, she had been reluctant to shine a public light on her ordeal. Alas, she began the project toward the end of her life and did not live to see the finished work.

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Jalowicz Simon was a woman of prodigious ability and uncommon strength of character. This was evident during the war and proved itself anew after the war. She obtained a doctoral degree from Humboldt University of Berlin in 1951 in a field of study she described as “between philosophy and classical philology,” rising to full professor of the literary and cultural history of classical antiquity. She retired from professorial duties in 1982, but remained a celebrated icon at the university until the mid-1990s.

Jalowicz Simon survived the war as an underground individual, a U-boat as she and other resisters called themselves. Sheer dumb luck – “chance,” as she would later write – as well as a fierce, highly focused determination to live, courage and a deeply ingrained humanitarianism “helped,” and were the chief determinants of her survival.

Evidence of Jalowicz Simon’s moral focus despite the nightmare daily existence recurs throughout the pages. After a stranger confers an especially surprising kindness upon her, Jalowicz Simon noted, “I decided, then and there, that if I survived and was still a decent human being, I would try all my life to listen to people and see whether they needed me. For it sometimes takes only a few words a small gesture at the right moment, to help someone in need to recover.”

She often also acknowledges the kindness and goodness of the Germans who opposed the Nazis.

“And our caretaker had done it [instructed her where to run to safety] especially for me. ‘If the danger comes from downstairs, from the lowest riff-raff ever known, and that’s the Nazis, you don’t want to run down, you want to run up. Because there’s usually one of them still standing outside the door. Then you can get into another building by way of the attics, and leave again in another street,’ he explained.

“When I tried to thank him, he would have none of it. ‘No need for you to thank anyone. On the contrary. What’s been done to you and your people is monstrous. It’s you we have to thank if we can help you.’”

Such deep moral awareness infuses Jalowicz Simon’s story because it clearly infused her character. But she did what she needed to survive. There was no room in the gritty, uncertain, frightening spaces of her life for squeamishness of any kind. Jalowicz Simon does not dwell on the myriad ways dignity was sacrificed to survive one more day. She simply reports them in a straightforward, understated manner. The full dimension of unpleasant experiences are usually left to the reader to imagine.

Jalowicz Simon has densely packed the book with a veritable archive of details. The reference to so many individuals is likely a way of honouring their memories as well as a testament to the author’s personal commitment to uncompromising, truthful recounting.  At times, however, the story is too laden with details of people and places. It interrupts the suspense and tension of the harrowing situations in which she found herself each day. She was on the move, always on the run from one sheltering house to another.

But the occasional weighing down by suspense-dulling detail is far outweighed by the frequent poignant observations that Jalowicz Simon records.  One such example is when she describes her “greatest radio experience” during an air raid warning in broad daylight.

“I simply did not go down to the air-raid shelter, but sat in front of our crystal set. Suddenly I heard a distance voice: Po Yerushalayim (This is Jerusalem). I knocked on the wall above the receiver and cried, “Chaverim (comrades) I’m shut up here… But I want to live! I’m fighting; I’m doing my best to survive! Shalom, shalom!”

Underground in Berlin is a thrilling story. That it is also true makes it a captivating read. It enables us to marvel once again, at the irrepressibility of the human spirit. We still cannot truly measure the horrible depths of human suffering, though Jalowicz Simon has helped us peer once again from the edge into the deep dark abyss of that valley.

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