Witness to Ruination



A Woman in Berlin

Anonymous (trans. Philip Boehm)

Metropolitan Books, 2005


In April 1945, one and a half million soldiers from Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s First Belorussian Front approached the eastern quarters of Berlin. The vibrations from their thunderous arrival filled the souls of Berlin’s civilians with terror. Women stood out in the streets without speaking to each another. Their husbands and children stayed indoors, knowing what was to come and dreading the inevitable. Also awaiting the Red Army soldiers were small groups of boys, seniors, cadets, and veterans. They were poorly armed and equipped with little to no fuel for the few armored vehicles left in the city. Though resentment hung like a weight from their hearts, surrender was not an option. Himmler had only recently declared that any German male found with a white flag should be immediately shot. The propaganda ministry, too, attempted to stimulate the courage and wrath of German’s remaining soldiers with slogans like “We will never surrender!” and “Protect our women and children from the Red beasts!”


One civilian in Berlin, a 34-year-old female journalist, kept a diary of the events she witnessed. She remained anonymous until after her death, a decision which led to widespread speculation at one point that the events recorded in her alleged diary were actually false. Historians from this period, however, have since verified the authenticity of the places, names, and occurrences in her work by placing it alongside other personal documents from the same time. All the events which she documented in her journal—mass rapes, suicides, and widespread starvation experienced by men, women, and children alike—actually happened.


The product of her careful notes and regular writings is A Woman in Berlin, a narrative which spans the entire Red Army occupation of Berlin from April 20, 1945 to June 22, 1945. The book reveals in all its raw and uncensored power the destruction of war and the aftermath of what really happens to the conquered innocent. Central to the work is its honest and brutal description of the rapes which regularly took place at the hands of the Red Army troops. The news of rape, as the narrator describes it, embarrassed the Communists who earnestly believed that they had instilled within their Soviet men a sense of disgust at the very idea of sexual intercourse with German women. The men of Berlin were also humiliated into silence, as husbands frequently had to stand aside in a corner while a group of four or five Russian soldiers raped their wives. Virgins were kept hidden in secret panels behind walls or in the attic, although not all young girls escaped unscathed. Accounts of these women, both young and old, are meticulously recorded in entries which caused the writer no little pain or discomfort in ensuring that one day their stories would be told.


What distinguishes A Woman in Berlin, however, is the narrator’s inability to pity herself. Though she is surrounded by women who cry and lament their hopeless situation, she does not fall prey to madness or suicide. Instead, she maintains a quiet sense of self-reservation and solitude. Her ability to reason and act under extreme and trying circumstances is nothing short of incredible. After being brutally raped for the second or third time, she decides to assign herself to a high-ranking official who will protect her. Once she belongs to someone, she explains, the other soldiers will leave her alone no matter how much they desire her body or company.


The narrator offers neither an explanation for herself or for the other women who suffer from these inconceivable acts of rape. One especially poignant scene stands out from all others in the work; here she describes the rape of a woman and her husband’s simultaneous death:  


For months the couple had been looking forward to the liberation of Berlin, spending entire nights huddled by the radio, listening to the foreign broadcasts. Then when the first Russians broke into the basement and went after the women, there was a scuffle. Shots were fired. One bullet ricocheted off the wall and hit the man in the hip. His wife threw herself at the Russians, begging them to help, in German. Whereupon they took her in the hallway, three men on top of her, as she kept howling and screaming, "But I’m Jewish, I’m Jewish." In the meantime, her husband bled to death. They buried him in the front garden. His wife has fled, no one knows where. Writing this sends shivers down my spine. No one could invent a story like this: it’s life at its most cruel—mad blind circumstance.


No detail slips past the author of A Woman in Berlin. Everything, no matter how painful, despairing, or seemingly petty, comes to life again through her diary. In reading this terrifying account, we are led by the writer to see what she witnessed so many years ago: the ruin of an entire people and the devastation of innocent women who are taken against their will in spite of their age or infirmity.