A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary

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Overview

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. "With bald honesty and brutal lyricism" (Elle), the anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. "Spare and unpredictable, minutely observed and utterly free of self-pity" (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland), A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject—the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.

A Woman in Berlin stands as "one of the essential books for understanding war and life" (A. S. Byatt, author of Possession).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312426118
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 07/11/2006
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 175,586
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 8.29(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

The anonymous author of A Woman in Berlin was a young woman at the time of the fall of Berlin. She was a journalist and editor during and after the war.

Read an Excerpt

A Woman In Berlin

Eight Weeks in the Conquered City a Diary


By Anonymous, Philip Boehm

Picador

Copyright © 2002 Hannelore Marek
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-15675-4



CHAPTER 1

Friday, April 20, 1945, 4:00 P.M.

It's true: the war is rolling toward 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.

Now and then whole hours pass in eerie silence. Then all of a sudden you remember that it's spring. Clouds of lilac perfume drift over from untended gardens and waft through the charred ruins of apartment houses. Outside the cinema, the acacia stump is foaming over with green. The gardeners must have snatched a few minutes between sirens to dig at their allotment plots, because there's freshly turned earth around the garden sheds up and down Berlinerstrasse. Only the birds seem suspicious of this particular April: there's not a single sparrow nesting in the gutters of our roof.

A little before three o'clock the newspaper wagon drove up to the kiosk. Two dozen people were already waiting for the deliveryman, who immediately vanished in a flurry of hands and coins. Gerda, the concierge's daughter, managed to grab a few "evening editions" and let me have one. It's not a real paper anymore, just a kind of news sheet printed on two sides and damp on both. The first thing I read as I went on my way was the Wehrmacht report. New place-names: Müncheberg, Seelow, Buchholz — they sound awfully close, like from somewhere in the Brandenburg Mark. I barely glanced at the news from the western front. What does it matter to us now? Our fate is rolling in from the east and it will transform the entire climate, like another Ice Age. People ask why, tormenting themselves with pointless questions. But I just want to focus on today, the task at hand.

Little groups milling around the kiosk, people with pasty faces, murmuring.

"Impossible, who would have thought it would come to this?"

"There's not one of us here didn't have at least a shred of hope."

"Nothing the likes of us can do about it."

The talk turns to western Germany: "They've got it good. For them it's over and done with." No one uses the word Russians anymore. It refuses to pass our lips.

Back in the attic apartment. I can't really call it a home; I no longer have a home. Not that the furnished room I was bombed out of was really mine either. All the same, I'd filled it with six years of my life. With my books and pictures and the hundreds of things you accumulate along the way. My starfish from that last peacetime summer on Norderney. The kilim Gerd brought me from Persia. My dented alarm clock. Photos, old letters, my zither, coins from twelve different countries, a piece of knitting that I'd started. All the souvenirs, the old skins and shells — the residue and warm debris of lived-in years.

Now that it's gone and all I have is a small suitcase with a handful of clothes, I feel naked, weightless. Since I own nothing, I can lay claim to everything — this unfamiliar apartment, for instance. Well, it's not entirely unfamiliar. The owner is a former colleague, and I was a frequent guest before he was called up. In keeping with the times, we used to barter with each other: his canned meat from Denmark for my French cognac, my French soap for the stockings he had from Prague. After I was bombed out I managed to get hold of him to tell him the news, and he said I could move in here. Last I heard he was in Vienna with a Wehrmacht censorship unit. Where he still is now ...? Not that attic apartments are much in demand these days. What's more, the roof leaks as many of the tiles have been shattered or blown away.

I keep wandering around these three rooms, but I can't find any peace. I have systematically searched every single cupboard and drawer for anything usable, in other words, something to eat, drink, or burn. Unfortunately, there isn't much. Frau Weiers, who used to clean the place, must have beaten me to it. These days everything is up for grabs. People no longer feel so closely tied to things; they no longer distinguish clearly between their own property and that of others.

I found a letter wedged inside a drawer, addressed to the real tenant. I felt ashamed for reading it, but I read it all the same. A passionate love letter, which I flushed down the toilet. (Most of the time we still have water.) Heart, hurt, love, desire — how foreign, how distant those words sound now. Evidently a sophisticated, discriminating love life requires three square meals a day. My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.

Two hours later. The gas is running on a tiny, dying flicker. The potatoes have been cooking for hours. The most miserable potatoes in the country, good only for distilling into liquor, they turn to mush and taste like cardboard. I swallowed one half-raw. I've been stuffing myself since early this morning. Went to Bolle's to use up the pale-blue milk coupons Gerd sent me for Christmas. Not a moment too soon — I got the last drops. The saleswoman had to tilt the can; she said there'd be no more milk coming into Berlin. That means children are going to die.

I drank a little of the milk right there on the street. Then, back at home, I wolfed down some porridge and chased it with a crust of bread. In theory I've eaten better than I have in ages. In practice, the hunger is gnawing away at me like a savage beast. Eating just made me hungrier than ever. I'm sure there's some scientific explanation. Something about food stimulating the digestive juices and making them crave more. No sooner do they get going than the limited supply is already digested and they start to rumble.

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 physically scrape it out of the book. A sure sign of insanity. Onset of mild delusions brought on by lack of food. I'm sorry I don't have Hamsun's Hunger to bone up on the subject. Of course I couldn't read it even if I hadn't been bombed out, since somebody snatched my copy right out of my shopping bag over two years ago in the U-Bahn. It had a raffia cover; evidently the pickpocket mistook it for a ration card holder. Poor man! He must have been a very disappointed thief! I'm sure Hamsun would enjoy hearing that story.

Morning gossip at the baker's: "When they get here they'll go through the apartments and take whatever they can find to eat. ... Don't expect them to give us a thing. ... They've worked it all out; the Germans are going to have to starve for two months. ... People in Silesia are already running around the woods digging up roots. ... Children are dying. ... Old people are eating grass like animals."

So much for the vox populi — no one knows anything for sure. There's no Völkischer Beobachter on the stairs anymore. No Frau Weiers coming up to read me the headlines about rape over breakfast. "Old Woman of Seventy Defiled. Nun Violated Twenty-Four Times." (I wonder who was counting.) That's exactly what they sound like, too, those headlines. Are they supposed to spur the men of Berlin to protect and defend us women? Ridiculous. Their only effect is to send thousands more helpless women and children running out of town, jamming the roads heading west, where they're likely to starve or die under fire from enemy planes. Whenever she read the paper Frau Weiers's eyes would get big and glaze over. Something in her actually enjoyed that brand of horror. Either that or her unconscious was just happy it hadn't happened to her. Because she is afraid; I know for a fact she wanted to get away. I haven't seen her since the day before yesterday.

Our radio's been dead for four days. Once again we see what a dubious blessing technology really is. Machines with no intrinsic value, worthless if you can't plug them in somewhere. Bread, however, is absolute. Coal is absolute. And gold is gold whether you're in Rome, Peru, or Breslau. But radios, gas stoves, central heating, hot plates, all these gifts of the modern age — they're nothing but dead weight if the power goes out. At the moment we're marching backwards in time. Cave dwellers.

Friday, probably around 7:00 P.M. Went for one last quick ride on the streetcar headed for the Rathaus. The air is full of rolling and rumbling, the constant thunder of heavy guns. The woman tram conductor sounded pathetic shouting over the din. I studied the other passengers. You could read in their faces what they weren't saying out loud. We've turned into a nation of mutes. People don't talk to one another except when they're safe in their basements. When's the next time I'll ride a streetcar? Will I ever? They've been pestering us with these Class I and Class II tickets for the past several weeks, and now the news sheet says that as of tomorrow only people with the red Class III tickets will be allowed to use public transportation. That's about one in four hundred — in other words, no one, which means that's it.

A cold evening, dry faucets. My potatoes are still simmering on the tiny gas flame. I poked around and managed to fill some shopping bags with split peas, pearl barley, flour, and ersatz coffee, then stashed the bags in a box. More luggage to drag down to the basement. After I'd tied it all up I realized I'd forgotten the salt. The body can't do without salt, at least not for long. And we'll probably be holed up down there for a while.

Friday, 11:00 P.M., by the light of an oil lamp in the basement, my notebook on my knees. Around 10:00 P.M. there was a series of three or four bombs. The air-raid siren started screaming. Apparently it has to be worked manually now. No light. Running downstairs in the dark, the way we've been doing ever since Tuesday. We slip and stumble. Somewhere a small hand-operated dynamo is whirring away; it casts giant shadows on the wall of the stairwell. Wind is blowing through the broken panes, rattling the blackout blinds. No one pulls them down anymore — what's the point?

Shuffling feet. Suitcases banging into things. Lutz Lehmann screaming, "Mutti!" To get to the basement shelter we have to cross the street to the side entrance, climb down some stairs, then go along a corridor and across a square courtyard with stars overhead and aircraft buzzing like hornets. Then down some more stairs, through more doors and corridors. Finally we're in our shelter, behind an iron door that weighs a hundred pounds, with rubber seals around the edges and two levers to lock it shut. The official term is air-raid shelter. We call it cave, underworld, catacomb of fear, mass grave.

The ceiling is supported by a forest of rough timbers. You can smell the resin despite the closeness of the air. Every evening old Herr Schmidt — Schmidt the curtain man — launches into a structural analysis to demonstrate that the forest will hold up even if the building overhead collapses — assuming that it collapses at a certain angle and distributes its weight in a certain way. The landlord, who should know about that kind of thing, isn't around to tell us. He took off to Bad Ems and is now an American.

In any case, the people here are convinced that their cave is one of the safest. There's nothing more alien than an unknown shelter. I've been coming here for nearly three months and still feel like a stranger. Every place has its own set of quirks and regulations. In my old basement they were obsessed with having water on hand in case of fire. Wherever you turned you bumped into pots and pails and buckets and barrels full of murky fluid. And still the building burned like a torch. You might as well have spit on the fire for all that water would have done.

Frau Weiers told me that in her shelter it's the lungs. At the first sound of a bomb they all bend forward and take very shallow breaths, their hands pressed against their bodies. Someone told them this would help prevent blast lungs. Here in this basement they're all fixated on the walls. They sit with their backs against the outside wall — except in front of the ventilation flap. At the first explosion they move on to the next obsession: cloths — everyone has a cloth handy to wrap around their mouths and noses and then tie behind their heads. I haven't seen that in any other basement. I don't know how the cloths are supposed to help. Still, if it makes people feel better!

Apart from these ticks it's the usual cave dwellers on the usual chairs, which range from kitchen stools to brocade armchairs. We're mostly upper- and lower-middle class, with a sprinkling of workers. I look around and take stock:

First is the baker's wife, two plump red cheeks swaddled in a lambskin collar. Then the pharmacist's widow, who finished a training course in first aid and who sometimes lays out cards on two chairs pushed together and reads them for the other women. Frau Lehmann, whose husband is missing in the East and who is now a pillow for the sleeping infant on her arm and four-year-old Lutz asleep on her lap, his shoelaces dangling. The young man in gray trousers and horn-rimmed glasses who on closer inspection turns out to be a young woman. Three elderly sisters, all dressmakers, huddled together like a big black pudding. The refugee girl from Königsberg in East Prussia, wearing the few old rags she's managed to piece together. Then there's Schmidt, who was bombed out and reassigned here, Schmidt the curtain wholesaler without curtains, always chatting away despite his years. The bookselling husband and wife who spent several years in Paris and often speak French to each other in low voices ...

I've just been listening to a woman of forty who was bombed out of her home in Adlershof and moved in here with her mother. Apparently a high-explosive bomb buried itself in her neighbor's garden and completely demolished her own house, which she had bought with her savings. The pig she'd been fattening up was flung all the way into the rafters. "It wasn't fit to eat after that." The married couple next door to her also met their maker. People retrieved what parts of them they could from the rubble of the building and the mess in the garden. The funeral was very nice. An all-male choir from the Tailors' Guild sang at the graveside. But everything ended in confusion when the sirens cut in right during the "Rock of Ages" and the grave diggers had to practically throw the coffin in the ground. You could hear the contents bumping about inside. And now for the punch line, the narrator chuckling in advance, although so far her story hasn't been all that funny: "And imagine, three days later their daughter is going through the garden looking for anything of use, and right behind the rain barrel she stumbles on one of her papa's arms."

A few people give a brief laugh, but most don't. I wonder: did they bury the arm as well?

Continuing with my inventory: Across from me is an elderly gentleman, a businessman, wrapped in blankets and sweating feverishly. Next to him is his wife, who speaks with a sharp Hamburg s, and their eighteen-year-old daughter, whom they call Stinchen, with the same s. Then comes the blonde who was recently reassigned here and whom no one knows, holding hands with her lodger, whom no one knows either. The scrawny retired postmaster and his wife, who is forever lugging around an artificial leg made of nickel, leather, and wood — a partial Pietà since its owner, their one-legged son, is (or was, nobody knows for sure) in a military hospital in Breslau. The hunchbacked doctor of chemistry from the soft drink company, slumped over in his armchair like a gnome. Then the concierge's family: a mother, two daughters, and a fatherless grandson. Erna and Henni from the bakery, who are staying with their employer because it was impossible for them to make their way home. Antoine the Belgian with his curly black hair, who puts on a big show of being a baker's apprentice and has something going with Henni. The landlord's housekeeper, who got left behind and who in open defiance of all air-raid regulations is carrying an aging fox terrier. And then there's me, a pale-faced blonde always dressed in the same winter coat — which she managed to save just by chance — who was employed in a publishing house until it shut down last week and sent its employees on leave "until further notice."

One or two other people, colorless, unremarkable. A community of discards, unwanted at the front, rejected by the Volkssturm, the civil defense. A few of our group are missing: the baker, who's gone out to his garden plot to bury his silver (he's the only one in the building with a red Class III ticket), and Fräulein Behn, a brash spinster who works in the post office, who just raced off to get today's news sheet during a lull in the bombing. Another woman left for Potsdam to bury seven of her family who died in the heavy bombardment there. The engineer from the fourth floor is also absent, along with his wife and son. Last week he boarded a barge that was to take him and his household goods along the Mittelland Canal to Braunschweig, where his armaments factory has been moved. The entire workforce is heading for the center of the country. It must be dangerously overpopulated — unless the Yanks have already arrived. We no longer know a thing.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from A Woman In Berlin by Anonymous, Philip Boehm. Copyright © 2002 Hannelore Marek. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Foreword by Hans Magnus Enzensberger,
Introduction by Antony Beevor,
Translator's Note,
A Woman in Berlin,
Praise for A Woman in Berlin,
About the Author and Translator,
Copyright,

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