Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Woman in Berlin (1954)* * * * *

A Woman in Berlin (link to book at Amazon)
A Woman in Berlin is the diary of Marta Hillers who was living in Berlin when it fell to the Russian Army. The diary starts as she is sitting in a bomb shelter to avoid the nighttime bombing raids by the Americans. During the day, they can hear the Russians over the horizon. It is 3 more days before the Russians will make it to their part of town. This diary records what she saw in her small part of Berlin during the two months starting just before Berlin fell. Marta Hillers (who published this anonymously but it is well-known who is the author) was a 34-year old journalist. An orphan from WWI, she lived as a free-spirit. A modern woman. A traveler. She had studied in Paris and had visited Russian, back in her youthful days as a coffee-house red-sympathizer before she became disillusioned after visiting Russia. She had a working command of Russian, which would change her experience during the Russian occupation (it's unclear if it was a positive or negative).

I had approached this book with trepidation. I knew that during the fall of Berlin, there was an orgy of mass rape and that estimates are that 50% of all women were raped. As I opened the book, I braced myself for horror. The book wasn't anything like that. Yes rape is a big part of this book; the author herself loses track of the number of booted soldiers that force their way into her bed. But unlike in Prussia, most women were not getting raped AND beaten. It was happening to all women, and the Berlin women quickly developed a gallows humor about it. Marta relates how every visit to friends quickly found the women huddled together discussing 'So, how many...'. Just like women huddle together and tell birthing stories. When one relates a particularly unpleasant encounter, the rest wince and can commiserate with their own unpleasant encounter.

After one particularly uncouth rapist, the author decides she's had it and that if she's going to have forced intercourse with Russians 2-3 times a day, at least she is going to have it with only 1 Russian of her own choosing. So she goes out to find an officer. Her plan is a bit vague on how this is going to work, but she figures if she gets an officer boyfriend, he will somehow keep the others at bay. She manages to find one, and thus her apartment (actually not hers but a widow who she is living with) becomes a gathering spot every evening for a group of Russian officers of various levels. Endless late nights of drinking and discussing politics (followed by ... with her officer). She is amazed at the diversity of men -- they come from all over Russia and represent very different backgrounds. At some point, she realized that she has become a willing participant and ponders whether she has become a whore. She provides sex; the Russian visitors provide food. However, the alternative is starvation. So she is practical about it. A number of other women in her building have similar arrangements.

In the second month of the diary, the Russian Army leaves from her part of town. Gone are the Russian visitors. Gone is the food. Back to potatoes and nettles. She joins a number of forced labor call-ups. A day of rubble clearing. A week dismantling a factory and loading it on a train to Russia. I have often wondered how the Germans (esp women) could rebuild Berlin so fast after the war. I had imagined that the women must have been shattered by their experiences. Some were. But this book gives insight into the many women who were not. Who somehow coped and focused on the work to be done and not on self-pity. As one woman comments, "Life goes on..."

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