Reviewing 'A Woman in Berlin'
Written and published anonymously, A Woman in Berlin offers a raw, vulnerable and unique insight into the life of a woman in post-WWII Berlin as she if forced to endure the Russian occupation in 1945.
I believe I purchased this book whilst in Normandy on a family holiday many years ago, but for some reason I never read it. However, I'm so glad I decided to wait - this book is not for young readers, predominantly because it covers a period of time when the author becomes victim to horrific sexual abuse. As the Russians invaded Berlin, they were of the mind that, because Germany had taken so much from them, they were justified in taking it out on any surviving Germans they came across, particularly the women. This is what makes the book stand out from all the others I have read that detail the individual experiences of WWII - this woman survived the war, yet suffered enormously once it was over.
The book was published in the same way it was produced - as a series of diary entries - which allows the woman to convey the emptiness she feels, capturing how her experience in post-war Berlin took away her sense of life and drive, so much so that the words 'Heart, hurt, love, desire' sound 'foreign [and] distant'. And yet, despite the fact she had 'never been so removed from [herself], so alienated. All my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live. They will not destroy me.'
Another moment in the book that captured my interest was the woman's views on technology:
'Yes, we've been spoiled by technology. We can't accept doing without loudspeakers or rotary presses...Technology has devalued the impact of our own speech and writing.'
What interested me was how this was thought in the mid-1900s, decades before the world of technology developed as we know it now. It really brings home how technology has shaped our existence, especially in the latter years, and whether it will continue to change our society into one that struggles with face-to-face communication and building meaningful relationships (an article specifically on this topic will be coming shortly!).
For all the misery, pain and horror the woman experienced, a sense of hope can be heard within the book, particularly as the woman thinks back to her school days when her teacher said: ''Girls, you better go and change the world. It needs it!" She goes on to say how she and the other students 'systematically rejected' the world of 1930, suggesting a mood of rebellion that she was unfortunately helpless to act upon.
'The Russians never see ads like that; their newspapers are utterly devoid of sex appeal...They're bound to be interested in that - all men are. But they can't get it at home. Maybe that's a mistake. If pictures like that were available, the men could fill their fantasies with all those idealised figures, and wouldn't wind up throwing themselves on every woman in sight.'
The atrocious abuse that the woman and her fellow women were forced to endure is truly horrifying, made even more sinister when some Russian soldiers claimed to be in love with their victims before transforming into fierce monsters following a night of heavy drinking. The lack of escapism from her situation is what compelled the woman to write down her thoughts, feelings and experiences.
A final moment of the book that I worthy of note is the woman's outlook on the community spirit that was founded upon the invasion. During the war, when the allies bombed Germany, the village would share an underground shelter, offering comfort, safety and community. However, the woman notes that 'our valued community, the communal sense forged by national identity and living in the same building and sharing an air-rate shelter, is gradually eroding. In fine urban fashion everyone is locking themselves within their four walls and carefully choosing the people they mx with.' This made me think about the current lockdown measures that are being taken to protect the world from the COVID-19 pandemic - will our sense of community spirit continue to thrive as the weeks pass by, or will we soon become isolated, solitary and confined within ourselves as the pandemic continues to take its toll?
This book really moved me. The woman's experiences were painful to read, but her account stands testament to her power and strength, an inspiration to all.