A WOMAN IN BERLIN
Eight Weeks in the Conquered City
Translated from the German by Philip Boehm
Metropolitan. 261 pp. $23
Berlin, spring 1945: "I am essentially living off my body, trading it for something to eat." An anonymous woman is writing into her diary, questioning whether she should call herself a whore. With that same stunning frankness, she describes the plundering of her neighborhood when Berlin was conquered and Soviet soldiers moved through the city, raping women of all ages, attacking them alone or gang-raping them in stairwells, cellars, on the streets.
A Woman in Berlin is an amazing and essential book. Originally written in shorthand, longhand and the author's own code, it is so deeply personal that it becomes universal, evoking not only the rapes of countless German women in 1945 but also the rape of every anonymous woman throughout war history -- the notion of women as booty. The book's focus is not on the Nazi rampage across Europe but on its aftermath, when 1.5 million Red Army soldiers crossed the Oder River and moved westward. More than 100,000 women in Berlin were raped, but many of them would never speak of it. "Each one of us will have to act as if she in particular was spared," Anonymous writes. "Otherwise no man is going to want to touch us anymore."
Anonymous was an editor and journalist. Her voice is unlike most other voices from that period: She probes, refuses to look away. Nearly half a century ago, when her diary was first published in German, it challenged the postwar silence and all it concealed: guilt, lies, defensiveness, denial. . . . What courage it must have taken her to agree to publication! She was initially reluctant and insisted on anonymity -- a wise decision that protected her from the stigma of rape and, somewhat, from the outrage of her readers.
How dare she dishonor German women? How dare she remind German men that they hadn't protected their wives or mothers or daughters from rape? How dare she survive by forming a relationship with one rapist, who was willing to protect her from other attackers and provide her with food? "I hear that other women have done the same thing I have," she writes, "that they're now spoken for and therefore taboo . . . [reserved] for officers only, who don't take kindly to low-ranking poachers trespassing on their private preserve."
The first day of the occupation, Anonymous was raped by two Russians. Later that day, when four more Russians broke into her apartment, she tried to escape. But one of them, Petka, caught her. Terrified, she told him she would be with him if he protected her from the others. This urge to survive -- physically and emotionally -- is at the core of her writing. It informs her perspective with dignity and grit, a bizarre sense of humor and the capacity to find odd moments of joy in her surroundings -- in the scent of lilacs, in a tree stump "foaming over with green."
She knows the "blank, shiny eyes" of hunger, knows what it's like to eat nettles and knows how "all thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food." When she replaces Petka with a new protector, she questions herself: "Am I doing it for bacon, butter, sugar, candles, canned meat? To some extent I'm sure I am. . . . out of all the male beasts I've seen these past days he's the most bearable. . . . Moreover I can control him." Since Anonymous spoke Russian, she translated for Russians and the people in her building. War news came to her from the occupiers: By April 30, she heard that Hitler and Goebbels were dead. Many Germans who supported Hitler now claimed to resent him. The phrase "For all of this we thank the Fuhrer" was no longer used to praise Hitler but to denounce him. Even when Anonymous was afraid or in pain, she did not consider herself a victim but understood the Russians' violence as the consequence of German cruelties in the Soviet Union. One Russian told her about German soldiers who brutally killed children in his village. Others asked her to be a matchmaker and promised her food.
Her diary focuses on the moment -- as if she were having a conversation with herself -- and gives scant information about her past politics. But her voice suggests a woman who disagreed and adapted, who used her considerable survival skills to observe and think and record. This voice is irreverent and insightful, focused and without self-pity and hypocrisy. Capturing that prose in another language would be a challenge for any translator. In the 2003 German edition, published after the author's death, this voice comes at us in fragments, breaking many rules of grammar. It's a fascinating voice, hip and educated and weightless, flitting between slang and high German. In the English translation, Philip Boehm captures the details of the diary accurately, but unfortunately he alters the diarist's character by giving her an even voice that conforms to grammatical rules.
Anonymous writes about other women on her block who adapt and survive. But many don't. There are suicides and horrendous injuries. Her neighbor, Elvira, is attacked by "at least twenty, but she doesn't know exactly. . . . Her swollen mouth is sticking out of her pale face like a blue plum . . . her breasts, all bruised and bitten." How can any woman survive mass rape? How can any woman live with the impact of mass rape? According to A Woman in Berlin, the impact is very different from rape during peacetime. "We're dealing with a collective experience, something foreseen and feared many times in advance . . . something we are overcoming collectively as well," she writes. "All the women help each other by speaking about it, airing their pain, and allowing others to air theirs and spit out what they've suffered." *
Ursula Hegi's books include "Stones from the River," "Sacred Time" and "Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America."