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When the Russians Came

In a recent review in these pages of two posthumous works by W.G. Sebald, perhaps the greatest of contemporary German writers, Charles Simic mentioned Sebald’s nonfiction book On the Natural History of Destruction, in which the subject was “the carpet bombing of German cities by the Allies and the strange silence in German literature after the war about that experience.” Sebald, he continues, makes in another essay, Campo Santo, the “interesting point that the most effective descriptions of total destruction of cities, an experience that surpasses all imagination, is to be found in the most matter-of-fact reports, such as letters.”*

Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944 and died in England in December 2001 (he was by then professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia). When he wrote Campo Santo he probably had never heard of A Woman in Berlin: it was suppressed by the author soon after it first appeared, precisely because of the indignation it aroused. The book is neither fiction nor letters, but a diary—the diary of a thirty-four-year-old woman in Berlin, between April 20 and June 22, 1945. It begins a few days after the start of the artillery bombardment that opened the attack of Russian troops on Berlin, by which time the American and British air forces had already reduced much of the city to rubble. So it is all about destruction and hunger, and rape by Russian soldiers.

The diarist was highly educated. When the first bombs fell, she penciled a verse by Horace on the wall of her room:

Si fractus illabatur orbis
Impavidum ferient ruinae.
(Should Nature’s pillared frame give way,
that wreck would strike one fearless head.)

(The translation is from the English version of the diary. The German original doesn’t bother with translation.) The anonymous diarist was a writer by profession, a journalist and editor, although we never learn where she worked. She certainly knew how to write. In one entry after another, she manages to be brisk and perceptive, vivid, evocative, horrified, disgusted, heart-rending; and there is even an occasional murmur from the undercurrent of laid-back and quite friendly sarcasm that Berliners like to claim as their special brand of humor.

The book has a foreword by the poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, whose stature as a writer in Germany is probably comparable to Sebald’s own. He says that the diary was first published anonymously in English in the United States in 1954. (It remains anonymous to this day; though as you might expect, at least one German writer has claimed to know who wrote it.) No German publisher would touch it, and it took five more years before the original German text appeared in 1959. Even then, the publisher was not German, but Swiss. “German readers were obviously not ready to face some uncomfortable truths, and the book was met with either hostility or silence,” Enzensberger writes.

One of the few critics who reviewed it complained about the author’s “shameless immorality.” German women were not supposed to talk about the reality of rape; and German men preferred not to be seen as impotent onlookers when the Russians claimed their spoils of war. (According to the best estimates, more than 100,000 women were raped after the conquest of Berlin.)

No wonder a couple in the diarist’s apartment building kept their teenage daughter in the shallow, windowless space between the attic ceiling and the roof, or else under a sofa (which was safer from bombs, but not from the “Ivans,” as the Berliners called the Russian soldiers).

The writer died in 2001. Because of its prickly reception, she had refused to allow her diary to be republished in her lifetime; although, especially from 1968 on, she might have expected much less hostility than in the Forties and Fifties, and even a cheer or two. On April 26, six days after Hitler’s birthday, when the bombs crashed down among posters proclaiming “The Fighting City of Berlin Greets the Führer,” and five days before his suicide, she had written:

These days I keep noticing how my feelings toward men—and the feelings of all the other women—are changing. We feel sorry for them; they seem so miserable and powerless. The weaker sex. Deep down we women are experiencing a kind of collective disappointment. The Nazi world—ruled by men, glorifying the strong man—is beginning to crumble, and with it the myth of “Man.” In earlier wars men could claim that the privilege of killing and being killed for the fatherland was theirs and theirs alone. Today we women, too, have a share. That has transformed us, emboldened us. Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex.

Very briefly she mentions her fiancé, Gerd. You feel she can hardly bear to write down his name, or her hope that they’ll be married if he returns from the front. His chances of survival are small. At the very end of the diary he does return, but they don’t get on. When she tells him how she and her neighbors were raped by Russians during the last few weeks, his reaction is:

You’ve all turned into a bunch of shameless bitches, every one of you in the building. Don’t you realize?” He grimaced in disgust. “It’s horrible being around you. You’ve lost all sense of measure.”

Then he leaves. She is surprised how little she minds.

She wrote her diary with a pencil stub by candlelight in the basement where the inhabitants of her apartment block took shelter, first from the bombs, then from close-up shell fire as well, and finally from Russian foot soldiers smashing through the doors with their Kalashnikovs and leaving excrement and pools of wine from broken bottles on the floor. Most of them were drunk by the time they reached the building, which was in East Berlin, where the Soviet forces began their sweep through the city. The attic had just received a direct hit. The writer herself had been bombed out from her own flat some time before, and was living in one borrowed from an absent colleague on the top floor. Occasionally she would dip into his volumes of Aeschylus and Tolstoy, but she also spent a lot of time with a disagreeable, middle-aged, lower-middle-class couple (“the widow” and her lodger, Herr Pauli) a few floors below, where it was slightly safer. They shared what little food they had with her. But as soon as the bombing stopped (though not the rape), they told her to leave. (She wasn’t sorry.)

Whenever there was a pause in the bombing and shelling, everyone went out in search of food and fuel. At the beginning, one shop was still open, selling just one item: “pudding powder” for making the gelatin dessert blancmange. But otherwise people simply appropriated anything edible they could see—including nettles. There were plenty of those growing on bombed sites, and whenever there was a bit of gas in the stove the diarist made nettle soup. It took forever, because the gas pressure was so feeble. Then the gas stopped altogether, and the electricity as well. When the radio stopped too, all news became hearsay:

Rumor—the goddess Fama. I’ve always pictured her as an old woman all shrouded up and murmuring away. Gossip. We feed on it. In the old days people got all their news through hearsay and word of mouth. It’s impossible to overestimate how this affected ancient cultures, how unclear and uncertain their view of the world must have been—spooky, nightmarish, a swamp of murmured horrors and fears, of malicious men and resentful gods.

And how amazing it was for this woman to have had such penetrating thoughts about a classical deity in the midst of the horror and chaos and danger all around her.

Meanwhile, people who have never stolen before steal anything they can from the ruins—food, of course, but also whatever else catches their fancy or seems useful; useful for the unimaginable future, that is. When they collect their belongings from the ruins in the basement, the widow steals expensive underwear from a neighbor’s pile but she later on shamefacedly returns it, pretending she took it by mistake.

All notions of ownership have been completely demolished. Everyone steals from everyone else because everyone has been stolen from and because we can make use of anything.

Food, however, comes first: “My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach,” the diarist says on the first day of her diary. “All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.” Once the Russian soldiers start to rape her, soap becomes a runner-up to food. “If at least we had a little decent soap!” (The German text has richtige Seife—“real soap”—presumably what Germans had by then was some kind of substitute.) “I have this constant craving to give my skin a thorough scrub—I’m convinced that would make me feel a little cleaner in my soul as well.”

Feeling filthy—morally as well as physically—is one of her besetting problems. “I’m constantly repulsed by my own skin. I don’t want to touch myself,” she writes, after standing in one of many queues.

I find myself coming down a level in the way I speak and in what I say, immersing myself in the general emotion—though this always leaves me feeling a little slimy and disgusting. And yet I don’t want to fence myself off, I want to give myself over to this communal sense of humanity; I want to be part of it, to experience it. There’s a split between my aloofness, the desire to keep my private life to myself, and the urge to be like everyone else, to belong to the nation, to abide and suffer history together.

Her sense of this “split” is one of the elements that make her diary so sympathetic, so enlightening, and so gripping.

As she sits in the basement listening to the bombs and the shell fire, the diarist watches other people falling on their knees in prayer. She won-ders whether to consider religion as a protection for herself. She thinks about kneeling, but doesn’t try it out: “Prayers extorted by fear are pitiful begging.” Religion isn’t an option for her. But she has a rare advantage over her fellow sufferers in the basement: she knows a little Russian, because, before the war, she had a few journalistic assignments in the Soviet Union. This makes it easier for her to do what probably all the other women aim at doing (the ones who don’t commit suicide, that is): to pick a permanent protector from among the rapists. Some of them bring along smoked herrings and tins of meat and bottles of vodka and even German champagne. But before she can find such a protector, she suffers several brutal assaults. (One of her early rapists, “an older man, with gray stubble, reeking of brandy and horses,” takes his leave by pulling open her mouth and spitting into it.)

Still, by Tuesday, May 1, she can write:

When I said the word [rape] for the first time aloud, Friday evening in the basement, it sent shivers down my spine. Now I can think it and write it with an untrembling hand, say it out loud to get used to hearing it said. It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything—but it’s not.

Earlier, when the bombing was at its height, she made a similar discovery:

I now know one thing: in the heat of battle, in the thick of the action, you don’t think—you don’t even feel afraid because you’re so distracted and absorbed…. In any case I have to rethink my ideas about heroism and courage under fire. It’s only half as bad as I thought. Once you’ve taken the first step, you just keep charging ahead.

She decides that her protector-rapist has got to be an officer with as many stars as possible on his epaulets and therefore with the authority to keep other rapists at bay. “I have to find a single wolf to keep away the pack.” The very same day, May 1, a middle-aged, middle-class Russian major appears, and soon becomes anxious to choose her as his semipermanent sex object. He is just what she had hoped for. He has extremely careful manners, shows her his documents, photographs, and savings bank book, and keeps apologizing for needing sex:

By no means could it be said that the major is raping me. One cold word and he’d probably go his way and never come back. So I’m placing myself at his service of my own accord. Am I doing it because I like him or out of a need for love? For the moment I’ve had it up to here with men and their male desire; I can’t imagine longing for any of that again. Am I doing it for bacon, butter, sugar, candles, canned meat? To some extent I’m sure I am.

Still, she admits to liking the major. And he can sing beautifully.

By April 29, before she is under the major’s protection, there are several regular Russian visitors to the widow’s flat. They all sit talking around the table, so that it’s “like a restaurant,” except that the guests bring the food. April 29 is “the first time we have a real discussion, with at least three highly talented debaters”: a schoolteacher; then a man “with a hook nose and a fiery gaze. (‘I’m not Jewish, I’m from Georgia,’ was how he introduced himself to me.) He’s amazingly well read, able to quote fluently both verse and prose.” Finally, there’s a very young lieutenant who, earlier that same evening, has been wounded by shrapnel (though only lightly).

Only a week earlier, the situation was entirely different. On April 22, the Russians were rumored to have reached the outer suburbs of Berlin. Without newspapers or radio, the order still got around that everyone was to line up at 2 PM at a “distribution center” for

advance rations…. I took my place in line and waited in the rain for two hours before finally getting 250 grams of coarse-ground grain, 250 grams of oatmeal, 2 pounds of sugar, 100 grams of ersatz coffee, and a can of kohlrabi. There still isn’t any meat or sausage or real coffee.

There is a lot more queuing to be done in the next few weeks, mainly with buckets to collect water from the street pumps. Sometimes there isn’t any, and in the flats there is never any water at all. Toward the end of the diary, it begins to return, together with the gas and electricity. But they all remain spasmodic and unreliable.

When the fighting stops, the diarist attempts a few excursions to see friends (never knowing whether they’ll still be at their old addresses, or even alive). It takes hours to scramble from the east to the west of the city. There is no public transport. There is almost nobody to be seen, even on the few streets that have not been bombed into heaps of unrecognizable rubble. Patches of lawn by the roadside are full of makeshift graves with homemade crosses bearing the names of the dead. Two names usually mean joint suicides by married couples. “Flies, flies, flies everywhere. I’ve never seen such massive swarms of flies in Berlin. Or heard them. I had no idea they could make so much noise.”

At last she arrives in the western suburb of Charlottenburg, where her friend Ilse is amazed and thrilled to see her. We “hastily exchange the first sentences: ‘How many times were you raped, Ilse?’ ‘Four, and you?’ ‘No idea, I had to work my way up the ranks from supply train to major.’” By this time women have started “to view all the raping with a sense of humor—gallows humor.” They have also invented an amateur collective psychotherapy: they tell one another exactly what has happened to them and find that a comfort, though not always a lasting one. On the way home from a visit to another friend, she sees a coffin

tied to a cart with string, pushed by a man and a woman, with a child perched on top. Another snapshot: a municipal garbage wagon with six coffins on top, one of them serving as the drivers’ bench. The men were eating their breakfast as they drove, passing a bottle of beer and taking turns drinking.

On May 7, the major lets the diarist borrow his sparkling new (looted) German bicycle, and she goes for an ecstatic five-minute ride through the ruins. When she returns, they drink the Tokay he has brought with him. “I feel good, cozy as a cat. The major stayed till 5:00 PM; after he left I felt rotten. I cried.” Next day, the rumor goes around that armistice has been declared. “Evening came, and we were all alone. Herr Pauli, the widow, and I.” The Russians have gone. But the major comes back for one last time: he is being sent home because his wounded knee is getting worse. He is feverish and they have a bad night together. It is their last. He talked about taking her back to Russia, saying, she writes, “that I would have no difficulty finding a ‘qualified job’ in his homeland. Thank you very much, I know you mean well, but I’ve had my fill of this Russian brand of school. Too many night classes.”

A fortnight later every fit person between fifteen and fifty-five is summoned by the Russian authorities to the town hall to report for work. Most of those who turn up are women. The diarist’s first job is filling a trench that had been dug down the middle of a main road. The next day is even more exhausting: she has to join a group heaving heavy metal parts from a machine tool factory into freight cars—presumably to be sent to Russia. The third day is the worst: in a stinking shed the women scrub the Russian soldiers’ feces-stained underwear. All the shifts are from 8 AM to 8 PM, but at least there’s a regular issue of soup, even though there may be only one shared spoon to eat it with. The work-place lavatory is unbelievably disgusting, with clogged pipes.

Still, on May 26 the electricity comes back in the apartment block, and then the radio. “Late in the evening they played Beethoven, and that brought tears. I turned it off. Who can bear that at this moment?” The next day she thinks about church again: perhaps she will go on Sunday. “Those of us who don’t belong to any church have to suffer alone in the darkness. The future weighs on us like lead. All I can do is to brace myself for what’s to come, and try to keep my inner flame alive. But why? What for? What task awaits me? I feel so hopelessly alone.” The forced labor comes to an end, and with it the regular distribution of soup—and the company of other people. She is hungrier than ever, and all alone in her top-floor apartment.

Peace turns out to be a gray, gloomy anticlimax. Although the diarist doesn’t say so, the feeling of comradeship bred by the horror and destruction of war gradually fades from the pages. Her account of the weeks after May 8 lacks the weird brio that the war generated: excitement, drama, jokes, friendship, generosity, risk-taking. Her writing is still magically evocative, but it doesn’t have quite the verve it had before the armistice. War seems more inspiring than peace. Of course she doesn’t say that; she would probably hate the idea. And anyway, by now she is undernourished, exhausted with the hunt for food and the noisy repairs to the war damage all around her. “I feel so burned up, I can’t imagine what could possibly move me today or excite me tomorrow.” By June 10 her mood has lifted:

A reflective morning, with music and sunshine, which I spent reading Rilke, Goethe, Hauptmann. The fact that they were also German is some consolation, that they were our kind, too.

Rather surprisingly, there are no overt recommendations in the book to embrace feminism. Perhaps that is because a diary means talking to yourself, and the self already knows what beliefs it holds. So if you wanted to draw a lesson from Anonymous, it might be this: read and memorize as many classics as you can, in as many languages as you can. They may keep you going better than canned kohlrabi.

  1. *

    The Solitary Note Taker,” The New York Review, August 11, 2005.

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