A Woman in Berlin Eight Weeks in the Conquered City A Diary

The last century was so fast-moving, so eventful -so strange and dense in colossal, nightmarish events -that it will be very difficult for future generations to get an accurate feel for it. Indeed, even for someone like me, who lived through half of it, I know that my knowledge and memories are too patchwork and too personal to allow for a deep understanding of the 20th Century unless I keep working at expanding my knowledge of it.

That is why records such as A Woman In Berlin are so important. Here is a rare, direct, honest account of momentous events from the heart of the greatest human conflagration of all time. Anyone with simplistic notions of war -who still thinks it can be noble or just -should read this book. You might think that the fight against a murderous, genocidal regime led by a madman like Hitler could not help but be noble and just.

This book documents how the rules and conventions of civilisation break down under the onslaught of total war -what ordinary, desperate people will do when laws are no longer enforceable -how the victors can behave as badly as the villains they have vanquished. The author constantly comments on the atavism she sees around her We've gone back in time to pre-historic times. -On how fast the most sophisticated of societies can devolve into barbarism. It is remarkable that such a well-written journal could be kept under the most arduous and horrific of circumstances.

I am reminded of the journals kept by the crew of The Endurance during Shackleton's ill-fated third journey to the Antarctic. The author is wholly unsentimental and lacking in self-pity, and yet compassionate and evocative in her descriptions of the devastation around her.

Here are a couple of excerpts: "After that, I calculated that my period was over two weeks late, so I strode seven buildings down to where a woman doctor had hung out her shingle, though Id never saw her before and didn't even know if she had started practising again. Once inside I met a blonde woman, not much older than me, who received me in a wind-battered room. Shed replaced the window panes with old X-rays of unidentified chests.

She refused to engage in small-talk and got right down to business. No, she said after examining me, I don't see anything. Everythings are all right. But I'm so late. I've never had that before. Do you have any idea how many women are experiencing the same thing? Including me. Were not getting enough to eat, so the body saves energy by not menstruating.

You better see that you get a little meat on your bones. Then your cycle will get back to normal." "On the way, I had a new experience. Bodies were being exhumed from a grassy lawn, to be re-interred in a cemetery. One corpse was already lying on top of the debris -a long bundle wrapped in sailcloth and caked in loam.

The man who was doing the digging, an older civilian, was wiping the sweat off with his shirtsleeves and fanning himself with his cap. It was the first time I had ever smelled a human corpse. The descriptions I've read always use the phrase sweetish odour, but that's far too vague, completely inadequate.

The fumes are not so much an odour as something firmer, something thicker, a soupy vapour that collects in front of your face and nostrils, too mouldy and thick to breathe. It beats you back, as if with fists." This journal was no doubt therapeutic for the author. And maybe more than that, perhaps it was a survival tool, helping to take her temporarily out of her terrible situation, even out of herself perhaps, allowing for a life-saving perspective (i.e. as bad as it is, this too will pass) and even retrospective humour (which was not possible at the moment of action).

If you can remember (and a journal makes you thoroughly do so), it means that you have survived, and usually it also means that you expect to continue to do so. The author is incredibly resilient (she was starving and was raped multiple times). Is she able to write because she is resilient? Is she resilient because she has the discipline to write?

Or is she writing because she is a journalist and that is what journalists do? Perhaps all three are true. This book goes well with Guy Sayers The Forgotten Soldier in showing World War Two from the defeated German perspective. It documents the terror of the last days of German resistance as the Russians relentlessly advanced and the Allies carpet-bombed the German capital. When would the enemy arrive? What would they be like?

Would they be as bad as the stories being whispered by neighbours huddled in blacked out basements in the middle of the night? Then, almost anti-climactically, the Russians are there, and at first seem to be just soldiers, some of them friendly. But as the first day turns into night and the Russians begin drinking, the rapes began. No woman was safe, young or old. Many women were repeatedly raped, despite their attempts at hiding, or disguising themselves.

Some women, like the author, coped and survived by making strategic choices. If you are going to be raped anyway, why not choose your ravisher from among the more decent and more powerful conquerors? Others chose a more drastic, permanent solution -suicide. There are many sad, sad stories in this book. And yet A Woman In Berlin is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and woman-kind in particular. Highly recommended. 

Any diary written by a German adult that begins on April 20th and does not immediately note that that was the Fuhrers birthday is immediately suspect. But if it is fraudulent, fraudulent in what regard? Certainly, the authors experience rings true as any surviving Berliner of the spring of 1945 can attest.

What makes the book so interesting--captivating, even--is the spunk of the author. She keeps her spirits up in spite of having to sleep for food; indeed, to lessen the crudeness of her attacker's rapes, she manoeuvres her overnight guest list from Russian recruits to Russian officers. The book is literate and well-written--even lyrical.

The author--"Anonymous--is said to have been a 30-something journalists living in what would later become East Berlin--the same area I lived in at that time. She did not come to Berlin and then leave eight weeks later as the subhead implies ("Eight Weeks in the Conquered City). This and the lack of any provenance of the author--where she grew up, her parents, what she did afterwards (She is said to have moved to Switzerland)--all raises nagging doubts--doubts not of accuracy, but of authorship.

This unease is heightened when one realises that the editor who had the work published, Kurt W. Marek, the author of the bestseller Gods, Graves, and Scholars, did so under a pseudonym of his own (Ceram). The Berlin of 1945 she describes, the mixture of Russian brutality and kindness (as kiddies, we were given toys to play with, rides on their motorcycle and scraps of food), all these scenes ring true.

Her unending pluck is heartening. If she could survive rape, semi-starvation, relentlessly long hours of forced work, and still keep her spirits up--well that is a great lesson for everyone under far less arduous circumstances. No wonder the book has received such sterling reviews.

This book provides excellent insight into the dangers that women face in the midst of a war zone. Though it lacks a broad overview of the issue, this book offers perhaps the frankest account of mass rape during war.


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