Twitter tells me that August is #WomenInTranslation month. (I’m thrilled both to realize that this is a thing, and that it’s happening at this moment. No waiting!)
There is a trove of tweets on the subject that I’ve eagerly riffled through. Then I asked myself, if I were to dedicate a post to this, what would I write about? A work immediately came to mind: A Woman in Berlin. And even though it was translated over half a century ago, and the author is anonymous and now deceased, and it is incredibly dark and sorrowful, I wanted to honor it. It’s an incredible work.
From April through June 1945, a Berlin woman kept a journal. Inside, she recorded her personal experiences against a monumental backdrop. During those two months, Berlin fell, Hitler committed suicide, and the Soviet occupying army arrived.
Her account of what happened is graphic and unflinching.
As students of history, particularly from the vantage point of the US, we think of Germans during the Third Reich and Russians under Stalin as complicit, to varying degrees, in heinous things. Still, humans rarely (if ever) are all good or bad. And it’s possible to feel empathy for people who did bad things. A Woman in Berlin teaches this, and much else.
The setting is a dark world where one’s survival instinct quashes all else:
All of a sudden we’re individuals, no longer a community of people. All old ties between friends and colleagues are gone, so long as we are separated by a distance of more than three houses.
The new reality is stark and unpleasant. She waits hours for a single bucket of water to drink and wash with. A horse dies in the street, and people hack at it with pen knives for the meat. They fight over the scraps.
If you’re curious about what a dog-eat-dog world looks like, this is it.
The woman survives the savagery and chaos, but she was not spared a certain fate of so many: rape by the Soviet army. It horrifically becomes an everyday occurrence in occupied Berlin, as much a part of the new urban landscape as the crumbled buildings and debris. Rape as routine.
(A historical aside. The Soviet army was a notoriously brutal occupying force. They committed mass rapes, sometimes as gangs of up to 12 men. Young girls and old women were not spared. News of the atrocities of the advancing army spurred mass suicides.)
Then, the woman runs some moral calculations and decides that if she has a commodity, she might as well barter it. So she makes an arrangement with a Soviet. She sleeps with him willingly; he sneaks her a bit of butter.
Amid all this, we see this woman’s unfathomable introspection. She notices things. Although at this point the enormity of the Holocaust was unknown to most Germans, she gathers some clues of her country’s crimes. For instance, she takes time to record these words of a Russian soldier:
His face is distorted with anger: “So what? What did the Germans do with our women? My own sister,” he yells, “they…” And so on. I don’t understand the words, but the meaning.
And she grows disillusioned with German men, a group that must include former colleagues of hers, childhood acquaintances, old boyfriends, her own family:
A kind of collective disappointment among women seems to be growing under the surface. The man-dominated Nazi world glorifying the strong man is tottering, and with it the myth “man.” In former times and wars men could boast that the privilege of killing and being killed for the Fatherland was theirs. Today we women have a share in it. This changes us, makes us rebellious. At the end of this war there will emerge, apart from many other defeats, the defeat of man as a sex.
It’s impossible to explain the experience of reading the journal. It’s riveting, heartbreaking, sickening, confusing, inspiring.
It’s a kind of thinking artifact.
But if that’s not enough to pique interest, the events surrounding the journal’s publication are fascinating in their own right.
The journal was written on scraps as a way to get “all this confusion out of my head and heart.” But the scraps found their way to a publisher, and the journal writer was persuaded to publish – but on the condition that she remain anonymous. The book was not received well in 1950s Germany, to say the least. According to a foreward, “German women were not supposed to talk about the reality of rape,” and the account was “met with either hostility or silence.” The author was so scarred that she didn’t allow a reprinting during her lifetime.
After the author’s death in 2001, new editions were published. Someone revealed her identity. While one could argue that this was simply a revelation of historical fact, it feels like a wholly unneeded violation to me. The author didn’t want her name connected with the work. As far as I’m concerned, it should be enough that she lived through that hell, and left the world an intimate and clear-eyed account of it.
Read it: A Woman in Berlin, by Anonymous (1954)