A Woman in Berlin - Reviewed by Janine.
When Becki sent us the name of the first book we’d be reading at
Resplendent Readers, I was very surprised – “A Woman in Berlin” by an anonymous
author. Having spent the first 21 years of my life in Berlin, I was very excited
that we’d be starting with a book that sounded like I’d most certainly be able
to relate to. So off I went on the internet to find out more about it. That
wasn’t difficult as the book is highly acclaimed and a favourite with book
groups all over the world. This first search left me feeling slightly
embarrassed about the fact I’d never heard of the book before. Ooh oh, I
thought as I read the synopsis, a book about the last days of WW2 in Berlin as
experienced by a young woman my age. .. Gulp! A few years ago I had picked up
“Alone in Berlin” by Hans Fallada, a novel based on a true story set in 1940 in
Nazi-ruled Berlin. It is one of the very few books I never managed to finish. I
found it so threatening, dark and truly sickening that I never made it more
than 50 pages or so into the book.
So here I was, torn between delight that “A Woman in Berlin”would
probably be a book I could relate to and the dread that I might actually find it
an upsetting and wholly unenjoyable read.
Well, I shouldn’t have worried. The events that unfolded as I
made my way through the diary entries of this young woman are truly shocking.
Yet the pragmatism and sheer stoicism with which the author faces and records
them left me able to read and digest them without ever feeling that I simply
did not want to know what happens next. The author is such an able and
practical young woman that I never once doubted she would get through these
dark days, hanging between the dark days of Nazi rule and the chaotic and
violent occupation of Berlin by the Russian Army. So as I read about rape,
violence, suicide and hunger I found myself willing her on, telling her that
she was making the right choices (and choices she did make!) and not to give up
like so many others around her.
This book was first published anonymously in America in 1954,
after a friend of the author convinced her that it was a valuable piece of
history that the world needed to read. It wasn’t until five years later that she
reluctantly agreed to a German publication. The reaction of the German public to
the first publication of this book was outrage and disgust, and it was soon
taken out of print. My guess is that even 15 years after the end of the war, the
German people were not able to face up to and publicly admit to‘the shame’ that
was brought onto so many of their women in these few weeks. Reading about one
brave young woman, who so matter-of-factly dealt with her fate and refused to be
a victim of the events happening to her, probably humiliated readers. The fact
that men are portrayed in her diary as either absent or impotent to stop the
rapes and violence, could not have made this a comfortable read for many
post-war Germans either. My guess is that for exactly these same reasons I have
no idea how my female relatives living in Berlin at the time got through the
last days of the war – it was a subject that was never discussed in our family.
It may simply have been easier to focus on and live with the guilt that a decade
of Nazi rule had bestowed on the German people than face up to the fact that so
many came out of the war and the subsequent occupation victims
But times move on, and it seems Germany is finally ready to face
this chapter in its turbulent history. After the death of the author (her
identity was controversially revealed when she died) the book was republished
and became a best seller immediately. And it is easy to see why – A
Woman in Berlin is a shocking yet very readable contemporary account of a
rarely reported on period in modern history. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who is interested in
observing history from a different angle.