A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City. A Diary. Anonymous. Translated by Philip Boehm, Holt and C., N.Y. 2005.
Why this book? Because more than anything I have recently read, this book is a reminder that every coin has its flip side, and that one purpose of literature is to teach us the importance of seeing things from a new perspective. Books that that fail to do so are, in my opinion, merely a string of pretty words or a source of momentary distraction.
Like most Canadians, I grew up thinking of Germans as “Herrenmenschen,” as masters who inflicted unspeakable cruelties upon other human beings. Abstractly, I knew that there had been a few good Germans, a handful of heroic souls who had risked their own life to save Jews and other targeted victims, but as far as the German masses were concerned, I felt little beyond scorn for their gullibility, their willingness to jump on the “Heil Hitler“ bandwagon as a means of enriching the national coffers and fattening their own bank account after the rigours of the depression.
Of course, in my case, there was an additional reason for hating the Germans. I am a Jew born in Europe, a Jew who with her parents barely escaped Auschwitz and Dachau and other dreaded camps that claimed my grandparents along with countless aunts and uncles and cousins I had known as a child. The shadow cast by Hitler’s Germany has never once left my side.
And yet, something shifted when I read this book by an anonymous author. She was just a bit older than me, initially a child who learned to salute her flag each morning just as we did the Union Jack in my school before singing “God save our gracious king .” Her descriptions of huddling night after night in a Berlin bomb shelter, terrified, in vain asking her parents why they were so hated by the Brits and the Amis, as the Americans were called.
Eventually, her terror gives way to an even greater reality. The war ends, not in joy and jubilation, but in rape. Again and again, every girl and woman is violated by the conquering Russians. It is hard to imagine being raped even once, let alone twenty times a day, and again the next day, and the next.
In a unique way, this book brought home to me the tragedy of war. My horror of what the Russians had done was balanced by my awareness that many of them were 17 year old boys and other conscripts who had survived the Grim Reaper in German guise as he slew an estimated twenty million of their kin. The relief, the unspeakable relief. A relief that must be vented.
In my sheltered Canadian life, what can I know of such matters? How can I judge, how dare I judge when I have not walked in the boots of another? This book helps me to do just that.
Monday, June 1 , 1945.
I marched home around six. The streets were filled with small, tiered caravans of people. Where were they coming from? Where were they going? I don’t know. Most were headed east. All the vehicles looked the same: pitiful handcarts piled high with sacks, crates and trunks. Often I saw a woman or an older child in front, harnessed to a rope, pulling the cart forward, with the smaller children or a grandpa pushing from behind. There were people perched on top too, usually very little children or elderly relatives. The old people look terrible amid all te junk, the men as well as the women – pale, dilapidated, apathetic. Half-dead sacks of bones. They say that among nomadic peoples like the Lapps or the Indians old people used to hang themselves on a tree when they were no longer of any use or crawl off to die in the snow. Our western Christian civilization insists on dragging them along for as long as they can breathe. Many will have to be buried along the roadside. pp.240-1.
A Woman in Berlin : Eight Weeks in the Conquered City. A Diary. Anonymous. Translated by Philip Boehm, Holt and C., N.Y. 2005.