Non-fiction – paperback; Virago; 311 pages; 2005.
It’s true: the war is rolling towards Berlin. What was yesterday a distant rumble has now become a constant roar. We breathe the din; our ears are deafened to all but the heaviest guns. We’ve long given up trying to figure out where they are positioned. We are ringed in by barrels, and the circle is growing smaller by the hour.
So begins one of the most harrowing accounts of war-time Berlin you are ever likely to encounter. Indeed, the imminent war historian Antony Beevor, who writes the introduction to this edition, calls it “a war diary unlike any other…one of the most important personal accounts ever written”.
The diary begins on Friday 20 April 1945 and continues for just over two months until 22 June. It is written by an anonymous 34-year-old woman, whose husband is away fighting in the German Army. She has been bombed out of her own apartment and is now living in a furnished attic room owned by a former colleague, who has also been called up.
It chronicles the day-to-day struggle for survival in a city now under Russian occupation. We hear of the huge queues for food and water, the ransacking of government buildings in search of Nazi stockpiles, the constant fear that they will be bombed out of their homes. But the most shocking part of this book is the diarist’s account of mass rape that was carried out by Russian soldiers.
Fortunately, she doesn’t go into elaborate detail, but her thumbnail portraits of such barbarous events — she was raped several times over the course of a few days — are enough to fill the reader with horror. But this is an intelligent, well-educated woman, who, as a journalist had travelled the world and picked up numerous foreign languages along the way (including Russian), and so she adopts the most pragmatic approach that one could adopt when confronted with such brutality — on Tuesday, 1 May 1945, she writes:
No question about it: I have to find a single wolf to keep away the pack. An officer, as high-ranking as possible, a commandant, a general, whatever I can manage. After all, what are my brains for, my little knowledge of the enemy language?
While A Woman in Berlin might sound like terribly depressing subject matter, it somehow doesn’t feel that way when you read it. Yes, it’s distressing and occasionally very dark, but the diarist is so practical, so free from self-pity and so bloody tenacious, that you find yourself being swept up by her life, cheering her along, hoping she’ll come out the other side with her spirit and faculties intact. It helps, too, that the book is riddled with dark humour, such as this exchange between a friend she manages to track down on 21 May:
Ilse and I hastily exchange the first sentences: ‘How many times were you raped, Ilse?’ ‘Four, and you?’ ‘No idea, I had to work my way up the ranks, from supply train to major.’
I also have to point out how terribly easy this book is to read. It feels very much like a novel, not a diary. She has such an eye for detail that she brings everything to life in beautiful descriptive passages, such as this one contained in her entry for 10 May:
All along the way we see debris left by the troops: gutted cars, burned-out tanks, battered gun-carriages. Occasional posters in Russian celebrating May Day, Stalin, the victory. Here, too, there are scarcely any people. Now and then some pitiful creature darts by — a man in shirt sleeves, a woman with dishevelled hair. No one pays us much attention. A woman passes us, barefoot and bedraggled. She answers our questions — ‘Yes, the bridge is still there’ — and hurries away. Barefoot? In Berlin? I’ve never seen a woman in that condition before. The bridge is still blocked by a barricade of rubble; my heart is pounding as we slip through a gap.
And this, more startling, image contained in her entry dated Thursday, 26 April:
An image from the street: a man pushing a wheelbarrow with a dead woman on top, stiff as a board. Loose grey strands of hair fluttering, a blue kitchen apron. Her withered legs in grey stockings sticking out the end of the wheelbarrow. Hardly anyone gave her a second glance. Just like when they used to ignore the rubbish being hauled away.
The publishing history and the “outing” of the anonymous author’s identity is almost as interesting as the book itself. A Woman in Berlin was first published in an English translation in the US in 1954 and the UK in 1955. When a German language edition was published in 1960 it caused an uproar, because as Antony Beevor explains, “rape and sexual collaboration for survival were taboo subjects”. The author apparently claimed she did not want it published again in her lifetime. She died in 2001 and it was republished in 2003. You can find out more about her in this wikipedia entry.