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Taucher – Jews Underground in Berlin

The Wiener Library is a truly wonderful resource, even if it is in hiding.  I have used the reading room before, and still I could not find it.  Google Maps had me blocks away, the glowing blue dot saying “You are here,” when you can see, very clearly, that you are not.  Or can you?  The library can be found by disregarding the numbering of buildings, mounting stairs to peer at discreet gold plaques, then squinting at the call buttons on the entry phone.  It is hidden in plain sight – a useful metaphor for the nature of historian and author Roger Moorhouse’s talk:  Eye of the Storm – Jews Underground in Hitler’s Berlin, 2 September 2010.

He starts by giving us Berliners’ name for Jews who chose to hide “in plain sight” in Berlin through the war.  Known as die Taucher, the divers, they were also referred to as U-Boats.  11,000 Jews went underground in Berlin during the war years of 1939 – 1945.  1400 survived the war.  There are no maths or statistics to explain odds which meant fewer than 10% would survive capture, hunger, illness or bombs.  Perhaps 50% died due to “betrayal.”  But Moorhouse did suggest some methods to increase the odds.
1. Remove your star
2. Destroy your deportation order
3. Learn to live on the run.  Be prepared to lie, cheap and steal.
4. Avoid your past.  Forget your family, forget your friends.  Avoid entire areas of the city, where you may be recognized.  Forget you ever were a Jew.
5. Change your appearance.  Commit visual sleights of hand if you “look Jewish” through hair dye, clothing, stolen uniforms.  Do not allow yourself to appear unkempt, even if you have nowhere to live.  Disarray, even in wartime, will attract attention in Berlin.
6. Find somewhere to live.  Available accommodation can include lofts, basements, trams, parks, houseboats, bordellos.  Find someone who will hide you for money, or for love.  Be open: the tomb of Josef Schwarz in the Jewish Cemetary in Weissensee, which remained open throughout the war, provides a hiding place to sleep in the dome of its mausoleum.
7. Have an accident, injury or illness and get yourself admitted to the Jewish Hospital, which kept patients from being deported through a variety of radical “operations.”
8. You are nothing without paperwork.  Whatever you do, find the right paperwork with the right stamps. Hope for a sympathizer to drop them before you, present yourself as a victim of bombing to receive a “bomb certificate as refugee”.  Search fresh corpses in air raids.

Moorhouse pointed out that the decision to go on the run was contrary to a Berliner’s way of life, a culture which prided itself on belief in the law and civic duty.  That was often the reason given for the “betrayals” that would find Aryan Berliners hiding, and then denouncing, local Jews.  Another risk were die Greifer, “the catchers”, particularly the “Aryan-look Jew” Stella Kubler, known as “the blonde poison”, who betrayed others to keep herself and her parents from deportation.  But Berlin was also a particularly good city in which to go underground.  There was a strong and proud Jewish tradition and Berlin had never naturally been Nazi.  Both the church and the communists provided havens and networks.

There was a lively question and answer session to follow, and a number of attendees who wanted to tell their own stories of hiding and escape.  I felt very young in the room, and I felt every inch a shiksa.  While Moorhouse spoke of the “imagination gap” between what Berliners and Jews felt was happening to deportees and what they would know following 1945, I am trying to fill my own “ignorance gaps” with all that I do not know as well as remember the imagination and information gaps that my characters would surely have.  When dealing with WWII it is nigh impossible not to reference the end.  There are things that you see that you cannot unsee, even as there are things that you learn that no one could know, let alone fathom, in 1933, 1939, or 1943.

Roger Moorhouse’s book is unusual in its coverage of Berlin at War:  Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939 – 1945; it is the first of its kind, says the author, to give a “Berlin eye view” of the war.  In my discovery of the history of Berlin, it is a book I am very much looking forward to reading.  To read The Telegraph’s review of the book, visit their site:

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