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Authors: Marie Jalowicz Simon

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BOOK: Underground in Berlin
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TWO
Alone in the icy wastes
Forced Labour for Siemens
1

For hours on end we stood crammed together in a long, dark corridor. There was nothing we could do but wait. Of course we were terrified of what was going to happen now. We felt as if we had been placed in this humiliating situation on purpose.

In the spring of 1940, the Nazis had begun sending Jewish men and women to do forced labour in the armaments industry. In July I myself was ordered to go to the Central Administrative Office for Jews, the employment office on Fontanepromenade – commonly known as Harassment Promenade.

‘I’m going out of my mind. I’m a heavy smoker, I have to smoke or I’ll go mad, but I don’t know if it’s allowed,’ groaned a man beside me. ‘And if it’s forbidden they’ll strike us all dead.’

Young and naïve as I was at the age of eighteen, I replied, ‘It’s easy to find out. Just ask.’

At that moment someone shouted, ‘Out of the way!’ We squeezed even closer to the walls to right and left of us, to make room for the man who had given this order. I turned to him, speaking in a very friendly, civil tone. ‘May I ask you a question? There’s a gentleman here who isn’t sure whether smoking is allowed.’

I had no idea that I was addressing Alfred Eschhaus in person, the head of this so-called Central Administrative Office and a notorious anti-Semite.

‘You impudent Jewish riff-raff!’ he immediately shouted back. After another furious cannonade of abuse, he went on his way.

But now some of the others moved towards me, threatening me with violence. A fat Yiddish-speaking woman who smelled unpleasantly of moss snatched me away from them and clasped me to her wobbly bosom. ‘Who’s going to hit a Jewish child, then?’ she said crossly. I could have burst into tears.

At this point a lady made her energetic way towards us. ‘I’m sorry you’re having such trouble here,’ she said to me. ‘Let me introduce myself: my name is Rödelsheimer.’ I found out later that she was a musicologist. Of course I introduced myself in return. ‘Well, Fräulein Jalowicz, you made a mistake,’ she explained to me. ‘You acted like a normal human being.’ The incident taught me a lesson that would come in useful for the rest of my life: it is no use behaving normally in an abnormal situation. One has to adjust to it instead.

We were about 200 Jewish women and girls who began working at Siemens at the same time. Our workplace was very close to the entrance of the Werner Works in Spandau, so that we forced labourers did not have to assemble somewhere else, which was the usual way, to be led to work in a flock. We could arrive separately in the morning, collect a key to a locker where we left our coats, and then go to the work bench. The keyboard also served as a means of checking whether we had arrived for work on time.

We formed gangs of six, each gang supervised by a man who set our tools. Most of us worked standing at our lathes in a large factory hall. A few sat at tables in adjoining rooms.

I was in a gang working at the machines near the windows, so at least we could see whether the sun was shining outside, or whether it was raining or snowing. But it was like being screwed down firmly to our lathes all day long. There was no chance of stretching our legs now and then, even for a few seconds, because we used our hips to hold the slides of the lathes in place and move them. You were always getting new, blue bruises, while the old ones were still discoloured yellow and green. It would have been illegal not to provide protection for Aryan workers standing at lathes like that, but the exploitative Siemens management could save the firm the price of leather aprons.

We did hard physical work. Even worse, however, was the monotony of making the same movements all the time, along with the feeling that we were doing wrong in working for the German armaments industry.

Our gang’s tool-setter was called Max Schultz, and he had worked for Siemens for many years. He was a devout Catholic, and lived in a residential area with allotment gardens in Lübars. He originally came from near Bromberg – ‘It’s called Bydgoszcz in Polish,’ he told us. He was what people called a Water Polack, he came from Upper Silesia, and his mother tongue was a Polish dialect.

Max Schulz began every other sentence with the words, ‘My priest says …’ Not only did he go to the priest to make his confession, he held regular conversations with that cleric. ‘My priest says that all men are brothers and sisters, and I must show you as much love as I can. My priest says the Nazis are the worst criminals in human history –’ As time went on, he made such remarks as that last one more and more openly.

He had probably not been able to attend school for long. Max Schulz could read, but he had great difficulty in writing. That gave him trouble when it came to making out our pay slips; there was a special column where he had to enter the number of screws that each woman had made. Finally, he turned to me for help, which of course was strictly forbidden. I had to pack the forms up in greaseproof paper, wrap them in a floor cloth, and secretly take them to the toilet, where I filled them in before returning them to him.

Fluid ran over the metal we worked on our lathes to cool it, and we always had floor cloths with us to mop up the surplus. In between times we tucked them into the belts of the smocks we wore for work. They also provided a means of transport for everything that was forbidden in the factory hall. In the same way, we wrapped family photos and private messages in greaseproof paper and cellophane, and exchanged them with our tool-setters.

For all these men were curious about us. They liked to get a glimpse of our personal documents, or they questioned the supervisor of the factory hall about us. It intrigued them to find out whether a woman surnamed Cohn or Levi used to be a salesgirl, whether she lived in Reinickendorf or Wilmersdorf, whether or not she was married. Many of the women doing forced labour were equally curious about the tool-setters: where did such-and-such a man live, did he have a wife and children? Private contacts were strictly forbidden, and thus all the more intriguing.

My colleagues talked about the tool-setters much as schoolchildren speak of their teachers. They were always saying, ‘Ours said …’, or, ‘Ours thinks …’, and positively competed to claim the tool-setter who was friendliest to Jews as their own. Something else that influenced the atmosphere was the fact that there were many extremely pretty girls and young women among us.

Most of the tool-setters behaved in a correct and friendly way to their charges, but one of them, a man by the name of Prahl, was an exception. He was a repellent psychopath – one of creation’s mistakes, with a kind of steeple head
*
and a brutish, vacant face that always wore a grin. The problem wasn’t his Nazi cast of mind, it was that he had no real cast of mind at all. He was a perverse character, a sadist. For a short time he had been in charge of first aid in the Siemens works, but he had to be removed from that post because of the delight with which he probed the wounds of injured colleagues – even Aryans. If he had to bandage small cuts and grazes, he did it so tightly that he cut off the circulation of his patient’s blood.

There was a girl in Prahl’s gang who had warts on her face and a deformed nose that made her look like a witch. He was always calling her names, and if her work didn’t please him he would push her around so roughly that she was bruised all over. But obviously the supervisor of the factory hall had decreed that Jewish women were to be treated decently. Pushing and jostling them was a form of touching, touching could, in its turn, lead to communication and fellow-feeling, and anything of that nature was to be avoided.

When the factory supervisor heard about the bullying, the girl was moved to a gang with a less vindictive tool-setter, and instead of her a very pretty girl with magnificent breasts joined Prahl’s gang. Her name was Katja, but I thought of her as the chestnut girl: she had beautiful brown eyes, and her hair was the colour of chestnuts just fallen from the tree. Goodness knows what she might have become if she had survived.

Sometimes, with a file in my hand, I managed to go over and spend a minute with her. Or she would come over to me when her machine had been reset.

‘I’ve always managed it with any other guy – so I wanted to see if I could do the same to Prahl,’ she once told me. She went on to tell me, in her heavy Berlin accent, how she had been trying to arouse her tool-setter sexually, adding a wealth of indecorous detail. While he was adjusting her machine, she stood just behind him, breathing down his neck and pressing herself closer to him. The man had to beat a hasty retreat, or his trousers would have burst. Max Schulz went scarlet in the face when I told him this story.

Ruth Hirsch, Nora Schmilewicz and I worked in the same gang. We soon grew close to each other, because all three of us came from incomplete families, and we had all had sad experiences early in life.

Ruth Hirsch, with her many freckles and her strawberry-blonde hair, was very pretty and attractively youthful. When she had to do something that entailed moving the lever of her lathe slowly, she would gaze out of the window, daydreaming. ‘I was just thinking how nice it was when we could pick up windfall apples and eat them,’ she told me once, and then immediately apologised, because she saw how my mouth was watering. Unfortunately I couldn’t hide my reactions.

She came from Memel in Lithuania. Hesitantly and shyly at first, she told us that she was an adopted child. With her twin brother, she had grown up in the care of a married couple who ran a small shoe-shop and had a little house and garden of their own. Her birth mother’s name was Zilla Rostowski, and she used to work as a cook in a prosperous Jewish household. Her master had climbed up to her room one day and got her pregnant, but she couldn’t keep her children; the twins were handed over to the childless Hirsch couple for adoption.

Ruth was a very simple soul, but that made no difference to our friendship. I liked her quiet, naïve, shy way of telling her stories. Her brother had emigrated, and she herself had moved with her parents to Berlin, where the three of them shared a horrible furnished room. Her adoptive mother had severe heart trouble. When Ruth came home in the evening after ten hours of hard work in the factory, she would begin cleaning the family apartment. She thought nothing of that, and merely accepted it as her fate. All she minded was the way that her father was constantly complaining and finding fault.

Ruth Hirsch was the best worker in our gang at the factory. She was bright enough to understand the work, and very good at carrying it out, but not intelligent enough to hate it. She often said, ‘How nice it would be if we had normal wages, not the reduced wage for Jews. Then we could train properly and become qualified lathe operators.’

Her best and happiest time had been when she had a job as a maid with a Jewish husband and wife, both of them doctors. Full of enthusiasm, she told me that once, when her employers went away for some time, they left the whole apartment to her. Ruth kept precise records in an octavo notebook of what she did every day, what she bought when she went shopping, what she ate, and so on. However, she didn’t have enough work, so she decided to surprise the two doctors. Her mistress had said the parquet flooring was getting so dark that its surface would have to be stripped.

So Ruth set to work on that. She got some metal filings and used them to strip down the surface of the wooden parquet. While she was working on it she ate nothing but dry bread, to save her employers money. When they came home, she had stripped down all the floors in the front rooms, and showed them her touching notebook, where she had entered everything she did in a childish hand, with many spelling mistakes. She brought the notebook to show us, and in the breaks at work she read aloud from it in a sing-song voice, like a child who has only just learned the whole alphabet: her entries began with the date, then went on, ‘A piece of bread for breakfast. From nine to ten, scraped down parkit.’ The afternoon was also spent scraping down the ‘parkit’, and the same again in the evening.

When her mistress had seen the results, she said, ‘Here’s some money – now, you go straight out and buy a whole litre of milk and the ingredients to make chocolate blancmange with vanilla sauce, and then you’re to eat it all yourself. You’re half starved.’

I heard Ruth Hirsch tell this story, inconsequential in itself, at least ten times, and I never tired of it. It was Ruth’s greatest experience and the high point of her life: the tale of how she was told to make a whole blancmange with plenty of sauce and eat it all by herself.

What would have become of her if she had survived? She had such touching charm, in her shy, simple way, that she was one of the dead whom I mourned for many years. For the figure of millions of dead means nothing much to anyone. We cling to the image of a single face, and for me it was the face of Ruth Hirsch.

The first name of my other neighbour at the bench of lathes was really Anna. Her parents were Russian, and had called her Nyura when she was little. As that pet name wasn’t known in Berlin, it became Nora. She signed her name that way as well: Nora Schmilewicz.

Nora too was a very pretty girl; in fact a voluptuous beauty. Whenever I looked at her I was reminded of the women who modelled for Rubens. She might have become very fat in time, but she didn’t live long enough for that.

She was startlingly beautiful in her own way, with deep black hair, expressive black eyes, a lovely mouth and unusually regular, white teeth. But she suffered from something I had not seen in any of the other women doing forced labour: she had swollen legs as a result of oedema caused by malnutrition. A Jewish doctor – he couldn’t call himself a doctor any more, only a man who treated Jews – had told her, ‘What you need can’t be bought in a pharmacy, only in food shops, and only in peacetime at that. There’s nothing I can do for you.’

As the daughter of well-to-do Russians, Nora was much better educated than Ruth. Her mother had died very young, and her widowed father had a non-Jewish housekeeper, known to Nora as Auntie. But now her father, too, was dead.

BOOK: Underground in Berlin
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