This is the edited transcript of tapes recorded at the end of her life by a Jewish classics professor who survived the Second World War by going “underground” in Berlin. Marie Jalowicz was 18 in 1940 when she was conscripted as a forced labourer for Siemens, but by the following year she had persuaded a sympathetic supervisor – an SS man – to fire her. Shortly after that – defying the advice of her deceased father not to separate herself from the Jewish community, who would later be transported to the east – she went under the authorities’ radar and survived on her wits, people’s kindness and, above all, chance, until Berlin was liberated by Soviet troops in April 1945.
It is a gripping and plainly told account. It’s also grim: the narration of an induced miscarriage or forced acquiescence to sex in order to survive is done in a matter-of-fact tone – perhaps as a way of distancing herself from the recollections. Even rape by the liberating Soviet soldiers is presented as not too dreadful; perhaps less dreadful than the years of violation and suppression of her identity and intellectual ambitions in order to make herself useful/acceptable/available to her benefactors.
I was left reeling from the inconsistencies and oddities of so many of the people she lived amongst. Jalowicz is sometimes protected and helped by fervent Nazis – like the supervisor above – and sometimes exploited by “the good guys”. Heroic actions are performed by neurotic, petty-minded harridans and lechers who could surely not have been unaware of the consequences if they had been caught. You have a sense of a whole city gone mad but not completely bad. Jalowicz herself is not immune to it: she is sometimes ambivalent about those who protect her or resentful at always having to dance to their tunes.
I recalled Victor Klemperer’s Diaries and the role that chance – one can hardly call it “luck” – also played in his survival: the fire-bombing of Dresden began on the night before he was due to be transported.