A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous – Metropolitan Books, 2000

Just finished this book–a diary kept by a Berliner in May-June 1945. I don’t usually enjoy this sort of narrative. It can be very depressing (a terrible slog), but this one is written in such a matter-of-fact way that I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the horror of what happened to the author.

The most powerful part of the book, at least for me, was the last chapter, when the author’s former lover comes home (having spent nearly four years as a soldier). At first, he promises to assume the rule that you would expect him to assume (the care of the fragile, emotionally-damaged woman he claimed to love only a few weeks before). The author tries to open up to him by giving him her journal to read. He makes a perfunctory attempt at doing this, before returning it to her with the remark he can make no sense of her scribbles. He points out an abbreviated word, “Schdg.”, which the author tells him stands for “Schandung” or rape. He stares at her like she’s crazy–and the discussion of the journal closes.

The author’s lover can’t cope with the situation. He is struggling with his addictions to cigarettes and alcohol. He and the author argue over food that he wants to carelessly give away to friends and acquaintance while she wants to hoard ever morsel for them (having come to know hunger, among other things, intimately in his absence). When they go to bed that first night, she is unable to enjoy their intimacy and is glad when he is finished (having come, over the previous few weeks of repeated rapes, to view sex as painful and humiliating).  She describes herself as “cold as ice in Gerd’s arms and was glad when he left off. For him, I’ve been spoiled once and for all.”

When a widow neighbor tells Gerd a crude joke that a rapist told about her, he lashes out at the author: “You’ve all turned into a bunch of shameless bitches, every one of you in the building. Don’t you realize? It’s horrible being around you. You’ve lost all sense of measure.” The author is deeply hurt by the remark. Gerd makes no attempt to apologize–to understand the change that has come over the author and the “shameless bitches” she lives with. Presumably, their crime was letting themselves be abused by the invading enemy–and living to tell the tale.  Gerd ultimately abandons the author, telling her that he is going to Pomerania, with a friend, but that he will return with food (a promise we have no way of knowing if he kept).

In an earlier part of the book, the author visits a friend in another neighborhood. This friend, Ilse, has a husband, who is in the flat while the two friends are discussing their rapes. He steps out because he cannot bear to hear it discussed. And be reminded of his failure to act in defense of his wife (who is raped, once, within his earshot, in addition to several other times, when he was pushed out of the flat by Russian soldiers).

It is a sad commentary that the author can only recount one instance of a man defending his wife from a rapist. In that instance, the Russian, startled by the man’s reaction, fled. The author recalls another instance where a frightened man urged a woman who was attempting to flee her rapists to go with them (as they asked) before she brought trouble on everyone else (we must assume, he really meant, trouble on him).  Self-preservation is a nice name for cowardice–and it wasn’t in short supply, unfortunately.

This is a great book for studying a social breakdown in a defeated country.

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