The plight of Berlin’s Jewish population during World War II, the people who managed to evade the transports to the camps, is a lesser known aspect of the Holocaust. This book is not about those with semi-protected status because of marriage or nationality but those who became illegals, resisting arrest and dodging deportation to remain in the city. Submerged on the Surface is an extensive survey of the experience of those people, collating statistical data and personal accounts. A macro picture of Jewish life in Berlin at the time, this is an academic work and the arguments are laid out as such. However, don’t be put off by the fact that it was written for historians and Holocaust scholars, the story of Berlin’s Jewish population during the war is a matter of much wider non-academic interest too. This book is approachable for the general history reader, highly informative, and engaging within those parameters. A powerful tale of survival, dignity and ingenuity during one of the darkest periods of human history.
We don’t feature academic tomes here very often and although I will refer to that aspect of Submerged on the Surface I have to admit I’m more interested in the human stories. The people clearly matter to Lutjens too, this survey may be about statistical analysis but it is stronger for the personal stories. Remembering the Holocaust matters as much today as it ever did. Submerged on the Surface opens a window on an aspect of life under the Nazis that has so far been peripheral to the history of the Holocaust and is deserving of wider study.
Lutjens looks at what it meant to resist arrest and deportation (and probable death). How did the Jewish population of Berlin, people at the heart of the Nazi empire, live as illegals? This is the story of those who made it to the end of the war and many who didn’t, of resistance and survival. A subject that general readers, any lover of history, particularly Jewish history, will find fascinating, it is an important reminder of man’s inhumanity to man but also a story of hope and survival. These are stories of endurance, resilience, ingenuity, bravery and a powerful will to survive. This is an account of a heart-breaking aspect of the genocide but also an uplifting tale of courage and humanity in the face of terrible odds.
The statistical value of the survey and the perspective it provides based on years of deep rooted research are evident, however, there are many examples of individual cases provided by Lutjens. He wants us to hear those voices but the book identifies the unifying experience that is reflected by the personal accounts. Caveat: I apologise for any failures of precision and definition due to précis and simplification and no historian would speculate as I’m about to. The cover photograph of this history is of the Gedächtniskirche, Berlin, taken in 1942, it shows a crowd of people milling about outside the church, statistically it’s not likely that any one of those people is Jewish and hiding in plain sight but I can’t help wondering.
Lutjens states that his primary concern is to allow us hear the voices of the Jews who lived unseen in plain sight in Berlin. In order to evade deportation to Auschwitz and near certain death in February of 1942 Dr. Charlotte Bamberg vanished. She then lived in Nazi Berlin for twenty-seven months at the home of Countess Maria von Maltzen. Daily walking the countess’s dogs to the bus station to meet their mistress. Bamberg’s unpublished testimony was titled ‘Untergetaucht – An der Oberfläche (Submerged on the Surface). Some 6500 Berlin Jews attempted to escape the Nazi roundups between 1941-43 and live as illegals until the end of the war. Of those in hiding 1700 made it but the term ‘in hiding’ is a misnomer. Those who did evade capture referred to themselves as; dasher, illegal, U-Boat, and gaucher (diver). As Lutjens points out this is unlike the experience of, say, Anne Frank and her family in Holland hiding in an attic. Lutjens has reviewed the testimony of 400 survivors, roughly 25%, and taken data from 63% of cases.
Becoming submerged meant concealing identity not physically hiding, dropping out, removing the yellow star. Lutjens makes the point that there is no collective ‘hiding narrative’ unlike the forced collectivised experience of the camps (dehumanising and destroying the individual). Although there are elements of common experience each story is individual and individualistic, about personal bravery, ingenuity, mobility, resourcefulness, agency (problem solving, adapting, creative thinking), and utilising a knowledge of Berlin life/norms.
Lutjens talks about the written sources and testimony that underpin this book. Sources principally fall into four categories; published memoir, unpublished accounts, video archive and post-War restitution claims in Berlin to the Head Commission for the Victims of Fascism. Lutyens notes that individual accounts are subject to personal interpretation, feelings, stylising, chronological errors, and often contain analogies and imagery, there are no official documents to support such testimony for obvious reasons. Of the roughly 8300 Berlin Jews who survived the War, 20.5% survived as submerged, 22.9% survived the camps, and 56.6% were half Jewish and married to a non-Jewish person and were protected from deportation.
Berlin Jews were more often acculturated than Jews in other places across Europe, for example, the Yiddish speaking population of much of Poland. 44% of the Jewish population of Germany lived in Berlin at the time of the first deportation in 1941, (78,872 people). When the deportations began the submerged had to take advantage of Berlin’s anonymity (scale), they avoided Nazi neighbourhoods, such as Stieglitz, but, honestly, no area was safe when it came to the implementation of policies of anti-Semitism.
The book deals with four phases of the submerged experience. Submerging – from the first deportation in October 1941 to the last in March 1943. Jewish residents of the city had three terrible choices: to comply with the deportation order, to commit suicide or to submerge. Surviving, covers the experience of living submerged from March 1943 during the first year after the mass deportation programme ended. Living, covers most of 1944 and the strategies that people adopted for surviving. Finally, Surfacing tackles the last month’s of the war and emerging into Soviet Berlin.
In March 1943 Goebbels declared Berlin to be judenfrei but, of course, there were Jewish citizens of neutral and ally nations, Jewish people married to Aryans and the submerged in the city. In February, of that year Eva Gotthilf had gone to a deportation point to find her family who had been rounded up only to be turned away by a policeman who advised her she could do nothing for her family but could get herself arrested too, she submerged.
Erich Hopp, his wife and son were turned away by Aryan friends who said that they worried about the possibility of their bodies being found in an air raid which would come back on them, no doubt many excuses and valid fears existed. Some citizens knew about local Jewish illegals and kept quiet but trusting anyone was fraught with danger of exposure. Some illegals joined resistance groups, Jizchak Schwersenz founded the Zionist youth group Chug Chaluzi (Pioneer Circle), which provided hiding places for dozens of illegal Jews as well as food and false papers. Illegals needed money to buy shelter and food but, of course, resources were finite and this was a constant struggle for illegals, even those with money could only take limited amounts with them into hiding. The submerged were most often alone. Herta Fuß stayed with a non-Jewish acquaintance for a few days but was forced to move around, it was difficult to hold on to shelter, she survived on the move throughout the remainder of the war. Bourgeois Jews often tried to hang on to their old lifestyle but this proved more and more difficult. Professor and war veteran Erich Hopp and his son wound up staying with a madame, he:
“. . .lay awake, reviewing the paradox: here we were safe–in a brothel! And safe for how long?”
People moved for fear of denunciation, financial or physical strain, falling out with their helpers and because of destruction by air raids. Divers had to deal with their helpers fears as well as their own. Often people missed identifying Jewish people because they didn’t fit the caricature of the posters, films etc. With rations scarce the black market was crucial to survival. As time went on the allies destroyed many hiding places. The bombing campaign of August 43 to March 44 was brutal. In one night 700 bombers dropped 1132 tons of explosive and 1334 tons of firebombs, it was only the wide boulevards that prevented the city conflagration becoming like Dresden. In four days, 23rd-26th November, 400,000 people were made homeless, 68,000 homes were destroyed and 2,966 people killed.
Helene and Paul Helft were picked up in the Large Factory Operation, the last and largest round-up. They managed to escape their transport, spent a couple to days with no food and managed to talk their way out of an arrest before submerging in Berlin. False papers were essential but by 1943 the postal identifications cards were no longer valid as identification in a search. Again those with money turned to the black market money. Denunciation was a constant worry:
“Urgent. Jewish Matter.
. . . I have noticed for some time that people are hiding a Jewess in this building, and she does not wear a star.
The Jewess is called Blumenfeld, and she is being secretly hidden [sic] by Frau Reichert. . .
…This Jewess… Was always cheeky and stuck up.”
There were also Jewish informants, spies called Fahnder (searchers). Lothar Orbach was turned in by a Jewish neighbour but despite his arrest Orbach survived the war. On returning to Berlin in 1945 he reported the informant, Siegfried G, to the Russians. His case appeared before the Jewish Community Honour Court which had the power to withhold social security and recognition as a victim of fascism (which meant access to compensation). Siegfried G was 17 when he denounced Lothar Orbach and had been tortured by the Gestapo, in the past he had faked papers for Jewish illegals. His youth and the level of Gestapo coercion was taken into account and Siegfried G was not punished:
“One cannot expect from such a young and inexperienced person in such an intractable and dangerous situation the same courage and consideration as from a mature male adult.”
This lack of vindictiveness does the Community Honour Court much credit. Staying was dangerous but so was escaping the city, some tried to make it Sweden via Denmark or Switzerland. Surviving often meant adopting an Aryan persona, Eugen F dressed as a Hitler youth, others read the Volkischer Beobachter, the Nazi paper, in public. Getting a job was a key route to survival but women were caught up in the ‘children, family and church’ mentality and men would be questioned on why they weren’t in the army. The submerged faced the threat of death, pregnancy, sexual violence, illness, rape and abortion.
By 1945 Jews and Aryans were under siege from the allied bombing campaign and the Russian advance. The Russians did not distinguish between those citizens of Jewish or Aryan background. What befell the city befell it’s Jewish inhabitants too. The situation took years to return to anything resembling normal life (re-adjustment, financial problems, sickness, freedom, work). But it was possible to become openly Jewish again. Lydia Haase survived war, was reunited with son and: “With the invasion of the Russians . . . I once again took my old name.”
I think this is a book that would interest the non-academic but it is structured as a text book so be aware of that. Still and all this is a fascinating read.
Paul Burke 4*
Submerged on the Surface by Richard N. Lutjens Jr
Berghahn Books 9781785334559 hbk Sep 2019