This is a review written for my 4th semester of grad school, in which I was asked specifically to focus not only on the book itself, but how you approach the book as a writer.
I’m not often one to read nonfiction books. I can’t say there’s a specific reason why, but I suppose more often than not I read to get away from the world that I live in, rather than see more of it. But once in a while, a book jumps out at me and won’t leave until I pay attention to the story that it tells, often one powerful and poignant and unwilling to be overlooked—and with good reason. Before, it’s been Elie Wiesel’s Night, Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, or other stories of awful times in our world’s life. And this time, it was the anonymously written and published A Woman in Berlin, telling the tale of a end-of/post-war Germany that had been taken by the Russians.
It’s a part of World War II that no one seems to talk about here in the West. We hear all the stories of a Germany ravaged by the first World War, talk of the concentration camps and Hitler, and then how it all came to a close and the war was won. But we never hear about what happened after, what happened to the German people left behind. We don’t talk about the citizens who weren’t Nazis, the ones who weren’t soldiers…the ones who were marched in on and treated as the enemy. This author arrives to tell us the unflinching story of a woman—still a second-class citizen in this world—who lived in those times.
To be honest, while the book is a quick read at 261 pages, it’s a traumatic and uncomfortable read as well. I found myself having to put down the book several times—only to pick it back up a few moments later because the storytelling was just that captivating. The journal format makes it very easy to keep the story going at a breakneck pace, even when so little is happening in the world around them. Just the day to day struggle can be filled with pain and frustration: too little food, too little water, bombs dropping all around them, and of course, the Russians walking in as if they own the place…which, of course, they might at that point. The detailing of how the German women were treated is just Greek theatre enough to be shy of graphic, but still blatant enough to be seriously uncomfortable. The statistics on how many German women were likely raped in the aftermath of the war are staggering. The reality of the situation, how commonplace it came to be, the fact that the question “How many times did you…?” became a conversation starter…it all sounds like fiction. It doesn’t seem like it could actually happen in the world we live in.
As a person, accounts like this should be mandatory reading in our classes. We need to be confronted by the uncomfortable facts of what we’ve done. It has been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it; that the endless waltz consists of the three beats of war, peace, and revolution and it will continue on forever. Learning from the past, taking our mistakes and transgressions and learning from them is the only way we can break the cycle. As a writer, these are the accounts to remember when we write about strife or war in our books. It is too easy to white-wash the tales and talk only of the victors and how much better they made the world. It is far harder to remember the ones who lost, and the people they represent. Remember the women and children making their own war in the streets, but this time for bread and water. Remember the way victors often behave, and know that they are not often the heroes we want to make them out to be. The anonymous author wrote only of two months in Berlin, and still had to fight for food—scrounge for water—be mistress to several Russians and be raped countless times just to survive.
I don’t know that A Woman in Berlin is going to be a book I want to return to, but it is certainly a book that has earned its place on the bookshelf. I’m pleased that it’s been re-published, though sad that it needed to be after the author’s death since she didn’t want to see it fail again the way it had in its first release. I hope that from the beyond, she can see the impact it is having now, and know that the horrors she was submitted to are being discussed and—with luck—will not be repeated again.