A Woman in Berlin

You might think, given that I’m on research leave this term and the edition of Mrs. Dalloway is done, that I’d be free to read absolutely anything. And that’s true. I have given myself complete free rein to read whatever strikes my fancy.

I surprised myself by choosing the dark, disturbing, and beautifully written A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City. This memoir, published anonymously, was written by a German woman, about 30, who lived through the Russian invasion of Berlin in 1945. One of my graduate students wrote about it, but I hadn’t had time to read it until now. She had been a journalist before the War. Her account of what she endured—rape, rape, and more rape—is harrowing, but also precise. She asks each woman she encounters “how many times were you raped?”, trying to survive in part, by continuing to do her work. She has beautiful things to say about the frustration and anxiety of living without work and continually returns to the notion that she cannot live like a plant, does not want to be a plant. As her food stores dwindle and she’s picking nettles to boil for food, she persists in her drive to be more than just a plant or, as she sometimes calls herself, a walking machine.

It is strange to read about the War from the perspective of a German woman. Strange but important: I could feel assumptions and stereotypes weakening a little as I read.

Of all the many passages that moved me in this beautiful and careful account of wartime life, the one that truly sticks in my memory is her account of the slow emergence of American flags flying from the balconies of Berlin. Every home had a Nazi flag and, she writes, unpicking the swastikas and appliquéing on a hammer and sickle to make a Russian flag was quick work. But, as the plan for Berlin to become a city of three districts emerged, citizens were encouraged to hang flags representing all the Allies. Sheets were easily available for the white bits. Scarce as blue was, it could be found. Of course, the French tricolor is not difficult. Even the Union Jack could be stitched together, with help from consulting an encyclopedia, but all those stars: “the woman with eczema asked me on the stairwell how many stars the American flag ought to have. I didn’t know for sure whether it was forty-eight or forty-nine.” Finally, she is rueful about the competence of the German housewife, even in defeat: “This could only happen in our country. An order came—I have no idea from where—to hang out the flags of the four victorious powers. And lo and behold, your average German housewife manages to conjure flags out of next to nothing.”

You can read more about the text’s complicated path to publication in this review from the Times. It was made into a film, too.