Book Review//A Woman in Berlin



World War II is one of the eras I am particularly interested in. I have read many books about life in the U.K. and the U.S. during the war. I especially enjoy diaries and letters. Recently, I thought it would be interesting to read about what life was like on the other side of the war. This led me to A Woman in Berlin:  Eight Weeks in the Conquered City. This diary was published anonymously in 1954 to huge acclaim. It was translated into many other languages and finally published in German in 1959. It is said that the book was either "ignored or reviled" in Germany. The author refused to have another edition published in her lifetime. A Woman in Berlin was finally published in Germany again in 2003. This time it was on the bestseller list for more than 19 weeks. The author was identified as a journalist named Marta Hiller. She died in 2001.

Hiller's diary is deeply upsetting and beautifully written. She kept a diary for the eight weeks in 1945 when the Russian army was taking over Berlin. She wrote about her life and the life of those who shared her apartment building. It is an honest and painful description of the violence, hunger, rape, and misery of war but also of the strength of the individuals.

The hunger is overwhelming and all-encompassing. Notice this passage:

Rummaging through the few books owned by the tenant of this apartment (where I also found the blank notebook I'm using to write this), I turned up a novel. The setting is English aristocratic, with sentences like:  "She cast a fleeting glance at her untouched meal, then rose and left the table." Ten lines later I found myself magnetically drawn back to that sentence. I must have read it a dozen times before I caught myself scratching my nails across the print, as if the untouched meal-which had just been described in detail-were really there and I could physcially scrape it out of the book. A sure sign of insanity. Onset of mild delusions brought on by lack of food.

The people who lived in Hiller's apartment building formed a community. They looked out for each other, for the most part, and comforted and supported each other. This was especially true of the women who had to deal with repeated rape by the Russian soldiers. Some of them chose to accept the protection of one soldier in the hopes of being able to avoid rape by many different men.

I look at the sixteen-year-old girl, up to now the only person I know who lost her viginity to the Russians. She has the same dumb, self-satisfied look she always had. I try to imagine how it would have been if my first experience had come in this way. But I stop myself-it's unimaginable. One thing is for sure;  if this were peacetime and a girl had been raped by some vagrant, there'd be the whole peacetime hoopla of reporting the crime, taking the statement, questioning witnesses, arrest and confrontation, news reports and neighborhood gossip-and the girl would have reacted differently, would have suffered a different kind of shock. But here we're dealing with a collective experience, something foreseen and feared many times in advance that happened to women right and left, all somehow part of the bargain. And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. 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. Which of course doesn't mean that creatures more delicate than this cheeky little Berlin girl won't fall apart or suffer for the rest of their lives. 

The author has an amazing ability to step outside herself and report on not only what is going on but also how she and others feel about it. It makes reading these diaries an intensely emotional experience.

What else can I do? I have to sit out and wait. Our days are accented by flak and artillary fire. Now and then I wish it were all over. These are strange times-history experienced firsthand, the stuff of tales yet untold and songs unsung. But seen up close, history is much more troublesome, nothing but burdens and fears.
Tomorrow I'll go look for nettles and get some coal. Small as it is, our new stock of provisions will keep us from starving. I fret over it the way rich people worry about their money. The food could be bombed or stolen, eaten by mice or looted by the enemy. Finally I have everything crammed into one more box for the basement. I can still carry all my earthly possessions up and down the stairs with hardly any effort. 

 The whole time I read this book the phrase about "man's inhumanity to man" kept running through my head. How do people do these things to each other? How do people survive such horrors? I would not say I enjoyed this book. It isn't a book you enjoy. It is a book you read with, figuratively speaking, your hand over your eyes yet peeking through your fingers because you are unable to look away. Really, we shouldn't look away because this is what people do to each other sometimes and that is truly terrible. The truly terrible needs to be acknowledged.

4 comments

  1. It's such a powerful book, isn't it? And it's one that stays with you. It must be 15 years since I first read this and yet it is still so vivid in my memories, and rightfully upsetting.

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    1. Yes, I keep thinking about it. I think it was even more powerful because she was so matter-of-fact in her writing.

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  2. I read this one a wee while ago and was surprised that I didn't find it as dark and depressing as I thought it might be. In some ways I did enjoy it, it was interesting to read of the experiences of the 'other side' as like you I've read so many books about the war with settings in the UK and even a few set in Australia.

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    1. It was very interesting. I think I am going to need to expand my reading about the war even more.

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