For the past couple of months I have been trying to write about the two days in April that I spent in Poland, visiting the village that was once my mother’s German home. Capturing the events of that trip is one thing; capturing the emotions stirred and the thoughts engendered is quite another. I have written about fifteen pages, which may or may not become part of something bigger. Meanwhile I do what all literary scholars do when they are stalled in their writing—I keep reading.
The book I have just finished reading, a book that I both could not put down and often could not bear to continue with, is A Woman in Berlin. Written as a diary by “Anonymous,” it chronicles a woman’s experiences in the eight weeks between the final battles in and around the capital city to the retreat of the Russian forces. It covers the period April 20, 1945 to June 16, 1945.
I no longer remember how I heard about this book. I have read many memoirs by Germans about their wartime experiences (especially those ethnic Germans who lived in parts of eastern Europe—Latvia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Prussia, Romania, and, of course, Pomerania) but this is the first diary I have read. It has had a profound effect on me probably because of the sense of immediacy it conveys. The details of daily existence, as well as the thoughts and acts of an ordinary human being in a time of chaos and danger, are acutely rendered. I got my copy through Amazon’s used bookseller network. It was originally in the Milton Ontario Public library. It has the plastic wrapped cover and all and is stamped “DISCARDED” on the inside. Clearly it was waiting for me to bring it home.
The author wished to remain anonymous, and there are few biographical details about her given in the book. She is in her early 30s. She has blond hair. She is slim. She is engaged to a man called Gerd who is (she assumes) at the western front. She has some experience in journalism or publishing. In any event, she can certainly write.
The diary has been endorsed as “authentic” (whatever that means) by Antony Beevor (author of The Fall of Berlin 1945) and others, though apparently when it was first published in the 1950s it was not well received. Readers did not want to hear details about how ordinary German citizens suffered during the war. They did not want to think of Germans as victims. And German readers did not want to be reminded of the atrocities they endured. More specifically, many did not want to read about rape. Because that is a large part of the diary. Rape. And the enormous effort it took to stay alive, despite everything. Bombing raids. No food. No water. No electricity. No transportation. Burned and smashed buildings. Ruined homes. And rampaging Russian soldiers.
I knew about the rapes. It’s all there in the history books. Estimates are that about 100,000 German women and girls were raped by Russian soldiers who treated the defeated as spoils of war. It did not matter how old or attractive the women and girls were; they were all vulnerable. Anonymous was quickly and repeatedly “taken” (the word she uses) by several different men. But what this diary reveals is how diverse particular women’s and girls’ experiences were. One mother managed to hide her daughter in a crawl space for weeks. She was not found. Russian soldiers tended not to enter apartments that were above the first or second floors, so women and girls living on the upper floors had a greater chance of being spared. One woman (perhaps a lesbian) dresses like a man and passes. Another woman, an actor, uses stage makeup to make herself look very old and the soldiers choose the two young refugee girls who live with her instead.
Some women are so traumatized that they commit suicide. Others try to make better deals for themselves by connecting themselves to a particular Russian in exchange for food and other items that can be used or traded, as well as for protection. Anonymous “partners” with three different men who, for a while, keep other soldiers away from her. “Her Russian,” whoever he happens to be at the time (Anatol, Nikolai, the major), becomes part of the economy of her makeshift “family,” a widow (whom she calls “the widow”) and Herr Pauli, the widow’s invalid lodger. She lives in their flat because her own attic apartment (actually it is not even her own but where she ended up during the bombing raids); the Russians bring them meager but essential means of survival for which they are all grateful. Bread. Canned meat. Potatoes. Matches. Vodka.
Remarkably, Anonymous also thinks about why the Russian soldiers act as they do. Not all are animals. Not all are monsters. They had to get drunk in order to rape, because such acts of violence against women went against their basic human moral code. Alcohol removed inhibitions. She is “convinced that if the Russians hadn’t found so much alcohol all over, half as many rapes would have taken place.” She notes that ordinary soldiers were not given home leave, unlike German troops, so many of these Russian soldiers had not seen their wives or girlfriends for four years. The more educated of them, officers like her “major,” wanted companionship and conversation as much as they wanted sex. They often pleaded with women to let them “sleep at your house.” Code for forced sex, to be sure, but also a request for a pretend domesticity.
The raping stops the forced labour begins—women are rounded up and made to do manual labour: clearing rubble, emptying factories of their machines, washing. Anonymous is able to walk around the city. She visits friends. She asks every woman she talks to the same question: “how many times?”
Gerd comes home. At first she is full of joy, but when Gerd learns about the rapes he turns cold and distant. “For him I’d been spoiled once and for all,” she writes. He calls all the women “bitches.” He finds them “horrible to be around.” He leaves again. The diary ends with her wondering if they will ever find their way back together again. For Gerd and other husbands, fiancés, or boyfriends the women left behind are ruined. But you cannot read this diary and reach that conclusion. On the contrary, you cannot help but marvel at their strength, their dignity, their ability to cope. These women elicit our greatest respect. But only now, after 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall, can we hear such stories. A Woman in Berlin was first published in 1953 and the response was contempt or silence. Anonymous did not want the book to be republished until after her death. Finally it was republished, in its complete form, in 2000, and this is the copy that now lives with—and in—me.