Read Underground in Berlin Online

Authors: Marie Jalowicz Simon

Underground in Berlin (6 page)

BOOK: Underground in Berlin
4.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Nora still lived in her parents’ large apartment in Urbanstrasse. She lived in one large room, where all the furniture from her parents’ household was stored. A Jewish family was accommodated in each of the other rooms.

‘Auntie’ still played a large part in Nora’s life. There was a strange love–hate relationship between them. Auntie must have been a highly strung, hysterical woman. Sometimes she called Nora her child, and gave her food, at other times she scolded her in the most vulgar language.

She had a key to the Urbanstrasse apartment, and now and then she turned up in Nora’s room in the middle of the night. When the girl woke, sensing that there was someone standing beside her bed, Auntie might smother her with kisses, declaring, ‘You are all I have; you are my lover’s child, so you’re my child too.’ Or then again, she might let fly with a wildly anti-Semitic tirade of abuse. Nora suffered a good deal from this woman.

Nora and I were once invited to Ruth’s home on her birthday. Her father had been skilfully exiled to the kitchen, where we politely wished him a good day. He muttered and scolded and called us names, but only to himself. Ruth’s mother, overweight and sick as she was, sat beside him and didn’t say anything.

‘It’s very cramped at home,’ Ruth had warned us in advance. Indeed, it was terrible. Cupboards were stacked on top of each other in a tiny room with a very high ceiling, and those three people lived there. The only space was a narrow pathway through the middle of the room.

Apart from us, a woman who seemed to be a cousin had come. A gramophone was brought out, the kind with a horn, and we played records of ancient hit songs on it. I remember one record that I didn’t know at all, typical honky-tonky 1920s stuff, songs about: ‘Records, black matzos we call them, everyone knows them, everyone has them, records are the latest thing,’ … and so on.

All of it is imprinted on my memory like a scene from a film. The raucous gramophone, the embarrassingly Yiddish hit songs, and the terrible birthday coffee party. The cousin was very ugly, with extremely fat legs, and had no inhibitions at all. As she danced she raised her skirt right up. It was so grotesque, and the whole atmosphere so awful that I thought: there ought to be some way to capture this for later.

Nora and I glanced swiftly at each other, and then looked away again. After two hours we said goodbye. Ruth’s tour de force had been to bake a cake, using potatoes. She didn’t really mean to tell us how furious her father had been, but it slipped out. He had been deprived of potatoes for the sake of that cake. Like good girls, we said what a lovely party it had been, and left.

Hand in hand, Nora and I went down the streets in silence. After a while we exchanged glances again, and quickly, with very few words, we agreed that we wouldn’t tell anyone else about the party. Not a word about the wretched background; Ruth’s so-called parents; the barely edible potato cake; the music and the fat cousin hopping about. I said, ‘Someone ought to make a film showing how a Jewish girl’s birthday party changes from year to year. First there’s Ruth with her non-Jewish women neighbours, in the family’s own house, and the garden with all the children. And then things get worse every year: first the Christian children don’t come to the birthday party, and in the end all we see is the Hirsch family in their emergency quarters in Berlin.’

‘Are you feeling all right? Who on earth would make a film about Ruth’s birthday?’ asked Nora.

So I told her that after these terrible times, other days would come, and we ought to tell posterity what was happening now. She stood still, and replied, ‘Yes, I see what you mean, and you’re right. You must make that film. You’re going to be the only one of us to survive; Ruth and I won’t.’

2

It was hard to leave our apartment in the dark in autumn and winter to go to Spandau, and then come back in the evening when it was dark again. When I finally got home, worn out by my many hours at work and the long journey, my lonely father would be waiting for me: half-starved as he was, he had been with me all day in his thoughts.

He often took his meals at Danziger’s Diner in Königstrasse. He had a few acquaintances there, and found a little entertainment talking to other Jewish widowers and similar lonely people. He frequently talked to a lawyer from south Germany whose Aryan wife had left him. This man had once been extremely prosperous and well-known.

For a meal at Danziger’s you had to hand over a five-gram or ten-gram fat coupon, and you would need a magnifying glass to search for a globule of fat on your plate. It was the same with coupons for fifty or a hundred grams of meat. All the restaurants cheated their customers at the time – and in particular, of course, they cheated Jews who had to depend on such establishments.

Danziger’s served the most meagre fare imaginable. What the place called soup was pure salted water without any other ingredients in it. The main dish consisted of a piece of meat visible only under a microscope, a nasty substitute for gravy and two potatoes. Dessert was a concoction of water and artificial sweetener.

The boss, Paula Danziger, had severe heart trouble. She was unnaturally fat, and had blue lips and elephantine legs. My father was warned, several times, that her daughter worked with the Gestapo. This young woman, Ruth, who was also very fat and had a face covered with spots, tried flirting with all the male customers at the diner. And they all obliged her, paying her compliments and laughing at her jokes, because, without exception, they were terrified of this Jewish informer.

Every day my father brought one of those horrible lunches home for me, to be heated up in the evening, and I was so unspeakably hungry that I ate it. Of course it tasted disgusting, and I never felt full after eating it, but at least it was something to put in my mouth.

He often had the gas lit in the kitchen before I came home. As soon as he heard my key in the door, he put the pan on the gas flame so that I could have some of the hot, thin soup at once. Then we sat together for a while, and I told him about my day of forced labour.

‘What’s going on here? They’re queuing up at your workbench,’ asked Edith Rödelsheimer one day, as she passed me during a break. Three or four girls were waiting in line to talk to me.

I had met the musicologist again soon after I began working for Siemens, and we were both glad to see one another. After I had behaved so naïvely at the Fontanepromenade employment office that she had to rescue me from disaster, her influence gave me a great advantage: now I was the one to whom others turned for advice. Most of my colleagues came from a background very different from mine; few of them had any higher education. Now I heard my companions telling me, ‘There’s another girl who has her school-leaving certificate working in the next room. I simply must introduce you to each other.’

I had learned to adjust to an abnormal situation and come to terms with it. But again and again I was beside myself with rebellious feelings, crying out silently for liberty. One way that I tried to give the immeasurable horror and monotony of my existence at Siemens some kind of meaning was by getting to know as many of my companions as possible, and finding out all I could about their individual lives.

In our breaks at work, I was always going round to collect stories of their impressions and experiences. Many of my colleagues didn’t like that. ‘Why do you go paying so much attention to those girls all the time?’ they asked. ‘We belong together, and it’s not so nice anywhere else as in our room.’

Hermann Jalowicz aged sixty-two, in Berlin in 1939
.

‘I know, but I have to get to know everyone,’ I would reply.

So I was pleased when the supervisor walked through the hall one very cold winter’s day asking for volunteers to shovel snow. Freedom from using my hips to operate the lathe. Freedom from the workshop, out into the wonderful, fresh, snowy air! There were not many other volunteers. Most of the women doing forced labour came from poor backgrounds, and thought it was better to do a job that they had learned at one of the lathes than to clear snow.

Unfortunately it took us little more than an hour to clear the path all the way to the entrance of the works, but it was wonderful! Of course Edith Rödelsheimer was another who had volunteered, and once again she introduced me to other women. We got on very well. I met a very nice nursery-school teacher from the hall next to ours. She was a good-looking young married woman, with two children. ‘You’re a young mother, so why do you have to work here?’ I asked her. She told me that her own mother had been allowed to look after the children instead of her, and they both preferred that arrangement. She herself enjoyed being with other people, whereas her children’s chatter got on her nerves, while her mother hated working on the factory floor.

Another woman who interested me very much was Betti Riesenfeld; at over forty, she was an old lady from my point of view at that time. I knew her slightly from meeting her at a golden-wedding anniversary party in the well-respected Jewish Wolff family. She was tiny but well-proportioned, with snow-white hair, a fringe, and a pert snub nose – an unmarried bourgeois Jewish woman.

She worked as a quality controller at Siemens. In the broad gangway down the middle of the factory hall stood a table with a stool placed on it. Riesenfeld sat on this stool, with a container beside her in which finished items were placed; she had to measure every single screw. Any that did not match the prescribed norm were thrown out as rejects.

Fräulein Riesenfeld, who had an education at a girls’ secondary school for the humanities behind her, followed by training as an office worker and a household shared with her mother, was now, so to speak, enthroned above us, and visibly enjoyed her superior status. When anyone came over to her this tiny creature called down from on high, ‘Hand it up, and let’s see if everything’s all right.’ At the end of every working day, she stood at the door as we all filed past her separately, and said, ‘See you bright and early tomorrow!’

When our tool-setter Max Schulz bent over Ruth’s machine we could all see that not only were they were very like each other, they looked almost identical: the same shape of nose, the same hair colour, the same complexion. It was positively uncanny. Max Schulz was at least forty, while Ruth wasn’t twenty yet, but even people in other gangs noticed it. ‘Your tool-setter and that girl look like identical twins. I’ve never seen such a similarity before.’ I usually replied, ironically, ‘I expect it comes of the racial difference between them.’

This striking phenomenon corresponded to something very personal. Ruth was Schulz’s great love. Not just a passing fancy, but his great love. And Schulz was Ruth’s first and, because she was not fated to live much longer, her only love.

To a man like Schulz, such feelings denoted profound conflict. As I knew from his shy confidences, he had a wife whom he found unpleasant, malicious and demanding. That was one of the things that sent him to confess to his priest every week. ‘My priest says that love is good,’ he told us, ‘and I must love you all.’ But I could guess what he really meant.

There was a second phenomenon of this kind at Siemens, and I discussed it with Edith Rödelsheimer, but only once. When we were talking about the similarity between Max Schulz and Ruth Hirsch, she said, ‘Nature has even allowed herself two such games, and everyone with the slightest intelligence here has noticed it.’

I knew who she meant: Schönfeld the SS man and me. Our supervisor sat in a separate glazed compartment in the factory workshop. He was clever enough to know how to employ us so that production would go on without a hitch. He had the same grey-green eyes as I did, the same shape of nose and mouth, the same teeth. We might have been twins.

Glancing at the man, I thought that I was looking in the mirror. It was terrible. We had both noticed it, and each of us knew that the other was also aware of it. Nature had indulged in a whim whose meaning we did not understand.

One Sunday I was on the way to Alexanderplatz Station with my father. I saw Schönfeld coming towards us on the steps up to the station, with about half a dozen other uniformed SS men. It would have been wrong to exchange any greeting, but I looked him full in the face as I passed him. His upper body literally gave way as he cast down his eyes, deeply ashamed, and blushed.

Although our wages were pitifully small, we adopted a piecework rate. Now and then the timekeeper came into the factory hall, trying to look inconspicuous, and checked the speed of our work. However, we were always ready for him. There was a warning system in all departments of Siemens, letting workers know in advance that the timekeeper was on the way, so that no one would lower the rate for the job, which was poor enough anyway, by working with excessive zeal. We also made sure that jobs were fairly shared out, so that everyone got the basic wage.

That mattered much more to the others than to me. I couldn’t really feel either glad of what we called ‘roast pork’ – a productive job that paid well – or resentful when the job was too difficult for us to meet the piecework rate.

BOOK: Underground in Berlin
4.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Man Who Loved Birds by Fenton Johnson
Sacred Sword (Ben Hope 7) by Scott Mariani
Sarah by J.T. LeRoy
Try Me On for Size by Stephanie Haefner
Persuaded by Jenni James