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Authors: Marie Jalowicz Simon

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BOOK: Underground in Berlin
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That was how I remembered my goldfish in Berlin. And now, in Magdeburg, Erna’s little boy just said, ‘Mutti, fry it for me!’

On 4 April 1943, a tiny package arrived by post from Johanna Koch to Johanna Koch, care of Erna Hecker.

‘Well, well – a package for you?’ asked Erna.

‘It’s my birthday today,’ I explained.

The tiny package contained a hard-boiled egg, a small piece of cake, a few cigarettes and a letter. In the letter, phrasing it very cleverly so that the censor wouldn’t understand it, Frau Koch told me about the recent Factory Action, the deportation of all Jewish forced labourers from Berlin. She also described the demonstrations in Rosenstrasse, and told me that my uncle Karl, my father’s younger brother, had been arrested. However, he was set free again after five days.

In the evening we sat with Erna’s neighbour Frau Krause, a nice, kind and entirely non-political woman. She knew the truth about me, and went to great pains to act as my protector. Since I couldn’t go out of doors during the day, she took me for a walk round the block every evening, as if she were taking out a dog. On these walks, she linked arms with me in a friendly, almost affectionate way, and adjured me to breathe in and out deeply.

Generally, however, Frau Krause was to be found sitting at Erna’s kitchen table with her hair in curlers and a towel round her head. The two women spent almost every evening together. I took care not to get in their way, but I knew that I was expected to contribute to the conversation. If the subject was recipes, I knew it would be tactless to discuss one for which the ingredients were not available in south-east Magdeburg. After much thought, I decided on the Yiddish dish containing prunes known as
, although I didn’t give it that Yiddish name. I said that my aunt Grete used to make a wonderful beef dish in a heavy pan, adding prunes to the meat.

I often longed not to have to plan my tactics all the time, and wished that for once I could say just what I was thinking, without weighing every word to see if it would suit the vocabulary of my partners in conversation, or whether it might hurt their feelings.

One day we went to meet the second of the Aernecke sisters at a café in the city centre. Elsbeth, known as Elle, was married to Erna’s husband’s brother, so her surname too was Hecker. Naturally she was another staunch communist, but she was intent upon leading a comfortable life. Constantly bewailing the Nazis’ dissolution of the German Communist Party was not her style.

Her husband was in the army, and she had enough money to live on. Elsbeth Hecker brought out her white-flour coupons so that she could order each of us a piece of cake in the café. On Trude’s instructions, she had also brought me a present: a little bag of sweets.

She told us that some time ago she had been summoned to the employment office, and told that she was to be sent to work in the armaments industry. Naturally this horrified her. She borrowed the most extravagantly outrageous items of clothing that her circle of acquaintances could provide, turned up at the employment office dressed to the nines, in a hat with a veil and garishly made up, and told the people there that she was an artist. If she had to do manual labour her art would suffer. That did the trick. The employment office never got in touch with her again.

Another day we went right through the city to visit Erna’s sister Edith. It wasn’t freezing any more, but there was a very cold wind. All the same, I enjoyed being out of doors again at last. In Magdeburg-Rothensee we had to walk for some way beside fields. The wind made our eyes water, and at that moment I was simply glad to be alive. The sight of the landscape, the factory chimneys on the horizon and the smoke rising from them moved me greatly.

It was the beginning of spring, and I wanted to bend down, pick up some soil from the fields and smell it. But I didn’t want Erna thinking I was out of my mind, so I refrained.

‘Oh, Erna, I’ve survived the winter – my first winter underground,’ I said happily. She smiled, and I saw a couple of tears run down her cheeks. ‘Wait a moment,’ she said, and then she herself bent down, picked up some soil and held it out in front of my face, bobbing something like a little curtsey.

We were approaching one of the city’s housing estates. Erna had packed up a couple of sweet cinnamon pastries, explaining that you could never be sure whether Edith was prepared to entertain visitors in wartime or not. Our reception was much as she had expected; Edith was lying on the sofa in the living room wailing that she didn’t feel well. Her two little daughters were quarrelling because they both wanted to use the potty at the same time. Erna quickly sorted everything out.

In the kitchen we saw several days’ worth of dirty dishes encrusted with the remains of food. Erna and I soaked all the crockery in a large wash-tub, laid the table, made ersatz coffee and prepared supper together. Edith gradually thawed out, and when she realised that matters in her apartment were improving she rose from her bed of pain.

Our third visit was to Frau Aernecke, the mother of all the sisters. She was extraordinarily corpulent, and reminded me of a fat Buddha. She had enormous dark braids, and wore a long, dark brown, coarse cotton skirt. Her appearance amused me so much that I had to concentrate hard on controlling myself so as not to laugh out loud. But I felt very much at ease in her spotless kitchen. Containers of provisions stood on shelves in the little room, like tin soldiers lined up in order of size: flour, salt, sugar and so on, until last of all came sago. I liked the way it was arranged in the style of the last century.

Anna Aernecke knew my cover name, and in her deep voice addressed me as Hanna. She had the thick legs of all the Aerneckes, legs on which they bravely stomped their way through life as committed communists, uncompromising anti-Nazis and kindly human beings.

Almost the entire family was assembled that day: Elsbeth, Edith, Erna and Rolf were all there, and the sisters’ younger brother Herbert happened to be at home on a few days’ leave. He was the only one to have fiery red hair like Trude. A very large open pan stood on the stove with a ladle in it; ersatz coffee was ladled out of the pan and into our cups. Anna Aernecke, who spoke very slowly, made a solemn speech. Its contents were very simple; she said that from now on I was one of her family. I was greatly impressed, and in the invisible diary that I kept in my head I entered, in capital letters and underlined several times: Adopted into communist clan in the war year of 1943.


After almost exactly six weeks, in April 1943, I returned to Berlin from Magdeburg. As I learned much later, those six weeks had been among the most significant events in Erna Hecker’s life. My hostess knew that she had done a fine thing in risking her life for me, and she had carried out that task with joy such as I have hardly ever seen in anyone else. I myself had felt very well in Magdeburg; it had been a time almost without fear. However, I was also glad to go back to Berlin, because it meant going to the Neukes.

At 13 Schönleinstrasse, however, the atmosphere was very tense. Trude had not yet found another refuge for me. Besides all her other anxieties – her sick husband, her own health, her difficult children, poverty and her constant fear of being arrested for her resistance work – she was saddled with me again.

All the same, on one of my first few days there Trude came home very cheerful. Frau Steinbeck had told her that furniture which had previously belonged to Jews was being sold cheap somewhere. Now she had bought a coat stand for the front hall, complete with umbrella stands and a shelf for hats, all for three marks. Hitherto the Neukes had had to hang their jackets on nails in the corridor. ‘Do you think that’s bad?’ she asked diffidently. ‘Those people have been taken away, and if I don’t buy that piece of furniture someone else will.’ I said she was quite right, yet I felt a curious pang in my heart.

Another small thing happened on the same morning. When Trude was going to send her son to the baker’s he grumbled, ‘Why me? We’re feeding a stranger here, let her go and get bread.’ ‘You’re right,’ said Trude quietly, unaware that I had overheard the exchange, and she sent me off. Of course I didn’t mind going to the bakery, but my feelings were ruffled by knowing that I ranked below Trude’s teenage son in the hierarchy of the household.

The boy had just been putting on his Hitler Youth uniform. When he came into the kitchen a little later in his Nazi outfit, Trude apologised to me, saying she ought to have spared me the sight of it. For my part, I thought that was unnecessary. After all, I knew that all young people were forced to join such organisations. ‘I’m afraid we have to beware of our own children these days,’ she complained. ‘You can’t know what the boy says to his friends. Or what questions one of the leaders may ask him.’

I was now seeing Hannchen Koch regularly again. Once a week we met at a café in Köpenick, where she gave me a precisely calculated amount of bread, fat and sugar.

Unfortunately she had a tendency to keep emphasising how difficult it was for her to spare these donations from her own food rations. Trude was different; she always assured me, with exaggerated cheerfulness, that she was doing ‘almost nothing’ for me.

The two women, who never met, did not like each other. In talking to me, they both used words like ‘nefarious’ and ‘unreliable’ about one another. ‘She’s politically dangerous, she was always after your father, she’s a secret schizophrenic,’ Trude said of Frau Koch, who in turn called Trude a ‘Red Nazi’.

At one of those meetings in the steamy atmosphere of that crowded café in Köpenick, I couldn’t refrain from telling Hannchen Koch about my latest experiences in the Neuke household. Of course that was not very clever of me, but my description had a wonderful effect on Hannchen. It gave her a chance to talk about her rival, apparently understandingly and with an air of superiority. ‘You see,’ she told me, ‘those people are political fanatics, but they’re not really fond of you. They don’t love you.’ In a certain way I could see that she was right. ‘I’m grateful to the Neukes, I respect them and I acknowledge all they have done,’ I said, ‘but I myself can’t love them.’ Hannchen Koch beamed at me happily, and I saw that her eyes were moist.

When we were sitting in the kitchen one evening, and as usual Trude was raising her voice too much, Jule performed a mime act. He pointed up with his long arm and large, erect forefinger, then down, to right and to left, and laid his hand on his mouth. ‘For heaven’s sake, the neighbours!’ he was signalling. But Trude just imitated him maliciously and shouted, ‘You idiot! You fool! There’s only Frau Steinbeck to hear us, and she knows everything anyway.’

‘Are you out of your mind?’ he asked angrily.

Red in the face with fury, she screamed, ‘You’re just a stupid working man!’ That shook me. She, of all people, who was always delivering tirades against the bourgeoisie, and praising the working class as the secret of redemption, using ‘working man’ as a term of abuse for her husband!

It had been Trude herself who let her neighbour Frau Steinbeck into the secret that I was a Jewish girl, and must be hidden. Of course that had been very dangerous, but Trude had thought hard about it. She knew that her neighbour was materially well provided for, but terribly bored. Now she gave Frau Steinbeck something to do; she wanted her to keep an eye on her friend, a woman who held some kind of Nazi office in this part of the city, observe her, question her, and warn us of any danger in good time. It sounds like a crazy idea, but it worked.

In that way Trude’s resistance group was also provided with detailed information about this Nazi functionary. I did wonder, however, what they could do with their knowledge. Sometimes it seemed to me as if all these meetings of tiny resistance cells were more like a large but wholly ineffective game, its real significance being to sustain the morale of the players.

Many years after the war, at an exhibition, I saw a presentation summing up the activities of the Saefkow-Jacob-Bästlein organisation, as Trude’s group of that time was called. A small cord on a map, reaching from Berlin to Magdeburg, showed that there had been a courier service along that route. I realised that I had been that courier, and the leaflets that I had supposedly brought over had been rumbling around in my case.

Much about Trude was ambivalent. She was indeed innocent of any trace of anti-Semitism, but her face distorted with hatred as soon as anyone mentioned the bourgeoisie. On the one hand, I was a persecuted Jew to her; on the other, a lawyer’s daughter from the enemy camp, to wit that same bourgeoisie. Once, in the course of a vehement discussion, she snapped at me, ‘You haven’t a clue about politics!’

‘I wasn’t even eleven years old when the Nazis came to power,’ I defended myself. ‘How could I have had a political education?’

The truth was more complicated: in my parental home, politics and history had been very important from my early childhood onwards. But we were interested in Jewish history and Jewish politics. Even before I went to school, for instance, I was very well informed about the persecution of the Jews in Spain. And as a child I also understood something about the difference between those Jews who were Zionists and those who were not, and also about assimilated Jews; the CV; and the extreme right-wing Naumann Group.
I knew that among Zionists there was a faction true to the Law – in the sense of the Torah – and a faction that was not. However, I couldn’t make such distinctions clear to the Neukes.

Sometimes conflict flared up among us over small things. Once Trude poured the ersatz coffee into a cup so vigorously that it slopped over. ‘In Magdeburg,’ she explained, ‘we say a cup must be full to the brim.’ Laughing, I agreed with her.

‘I’ve found you out!’ she cried. ‘Caught you! You’re lying. Your family were fine folk, and they never fill a cup more than three-quarters full!’ I explained that I couldn’t survive without adapting courteously to whatever were my current surroundings. ‘That makes sense,’ said Trude, and this time our reconciliation was unusually emotional. She even caressed me – for the only time in our entire relationship.

BOOK: Underground in Berlin
2.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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