Monday, November 15, 2010

{review} a woman in berlin

Anonymous A Woman in Berlin (1st English edn 1954; new translation Virago 2005)

A Woman in Berlin
Then I... came across [Aeschylus'] The Persians, which, with its lamentations of the vanquished, seems well suited to our defeat. But in reality it's not. Our German calamity has a bitter taste - of repulsion, sickness, insanity, unlike anything in history. The radio just broadcast another concentration camp report. The most horrific thing is the order and the thrift: millions of human beings as fertilizer, mattress-stuffing, soft soap, felt mats - Aeschylus never saw anything like that.
One can see why doubts were cast on the authenticity of this polished memoir of events surrounding the fall of Berlin from the 20th of April to the 22nd of June 1945. It is indeed polished – but who wouldn't tart up their diary for publication, for Heaven's sake? Moreover, the anonymous author is suspected to be a female journalist; that is, a professional writer. She also speaks some Russian, which lends her another level of access to her experience (for instance, she is able to get some work translating). But it is the content which seemed to concern the doubters most. Why would a woman offer such a blatant account of her multiple rapes at the hands of the Russian invaders and her attempts to achieve a compromise that will keep her alive ("sexual collaboration for survival", as Antony Beevor aptly phrases it)? 
He gave me a little notebook, a German-Russian dictionary for soldiers, assuring me he could get hold of some more. I've looked it over; it has a lot of very useful words like 'bacon', 'flour', 'salt'. Some other important words are missing, however, like 'fear' and 'basement'. Also the word for 'dead'... which I find myself reaching for quite often in recent conversations.
This is not a coy memoir, by any means. It is shocking and, despite its polish – or perhaps the polish serves to highlight the rawness of the events? – it is emotionally raw. The horror in the text is often evoked less by the narrator's terrible plight (she maintains an extraordinary level of coolness, even calculation) but by the appalling events overtaking those around her. 
...out of the male beasts I've seen these past few days, he's the most bearable, the best of the lot. Moreover, I can actually control him... I can actually talk with the major. Which still isn't an answer to the question of whether I should now call myself a whore, since I am essentially living off my body, trading it for something to eat... It goes against my nature, it wounds my self-esteem, destroys my pride- and physically it makes me miserable.
Starvation, suicide, sexual assault – this is a difficult read: "We washed our sheets so my bed is freshly made - a much needed change after all those booted guests."

One aspect I found particular intriguing was how the victims of these multiple and multiplied sexual assaults (Beevor offers the figures of between 95,000 to 130,000 woman in Berlin and an estimated 2 million in Germany) supported each other by talking about their trauma and comparing notes (that is a harsh-sounding phrase, I know, but that is what it is: "In answer to the standard question, 'How often did they...?'") The moment their menfolk returned from the front, all discussion became verboten and their trauma became internalised, unspeakable and shaming. The double standard is at work here – revictimising the victims for their apparent cooperation in their violation, although it saved their lives. There is presumably an element in this shaming of the shame of the men who could not protect them. Or who have, perhaps, been behaving similarly in other conquered lands?
All my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live. They shall not destroy me.
This book makes you ask yourself what you would be prepared to do to survive. 
In the queue at the pump one woman told me how her neighbour reacted when the Russians fell on her in her basement. He simply shouted, 'Well why don't you just go with them, you're putting all of us in danger!' A minor footnote to the Decline of the West.
What moral compromises are you willing to make for, e.g., one square meal when you and your household are starving? At what point does your own survival require you to sacrifice another? This memoir provides some frank and brutal answers.

Rating: 10/10.

If you liked this… I'm slowly reading Antony Beevor's Berlin: The Downfall 1945. Beevor wrote the excellent introduction to A Woman in Berlin and includes some information on the purported author.

Berlin : The Downfall 1945 

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