About A Woman in Berlin by Marta Hillers
Between April 20th and June 22nd of 1945 the anonymous author of A Woman in Berlin wrote about life within the falling city as it was sacked by the Russian Army. Fending off the boredom and deprivation of hiding, the author records her experiences, observations and meditations in this stark and vivid diary. Accounts of the bombing, the rapes, the rationing of food and the overwhelming terror of death are rendered in the dispassionate, though determinedly optimistic prose of a woman fighting for survival amidst the horror and inhumanity of war.
The “chronicle” of the unnamed narrator begins with the end of the war reaching Berlin. There is constant artillery and the narrator lives in an attic apartment that belongs to a former colleague that let her stay since he is on leave. Her original apartment was bombed and destroyed. While she lives off meagre food coupons, all of her thoughts are of food and her gnawing hunger. All of the Berliners spend their time either in the basement air raid shelters, their apartments, standing in lines for food, or raiding food stocks when the rations don’t suffice. Spending time in the basement shelter, the narrator gets to know her fellow “cave dwellers” and a kind of camaraderie forms. When a series of bombing destroys her apartment, a pharmacist’s widow “the widow” allows the narrator to live at her place.
All of a sudden there is silence when the Russian army reaches their street. The Russians set camp outside and spend their first days comparing stolen watches and bicycles. Eventually the soldiers enter the buildings and basement air raid shelters asking for alcohol and choosing women to rape. The narrator works as a sort of translator and mediator for women in the basement who are pursued for rape. She tries to convince the men to not rape women and seeks a commander to plead to stop the rapes but minimal effort is offered to the women. Two men outside of the basement rape the narrator after her fellow Germans close and lock the door behind her. Many families desperately hide their young daughters to preserve their virginity. Four Russian soldiers barge into the widow’s apartment and eventually one named Petka, rapes the narrator. After raping the narrator Petka begins his “Romeo babble” where he expresses a liking for the narrator and how he hopes to return later that day. That same day the widow’s tenant Herr Pauli arrives and settles in his bed. His male presence offers some but very limited protection against the Russian s*xual predators. Another Russian soldier, described as old, enters the apartment and rapes the narrator in an exceptionally demeaning manner as he opens up her mouth to spit in it and then throws a half opened pack of cigarettes on the bed as payment.
This rape experience creates some sort of turning point for the narrator, who decides after vomiting and crying that she has to use her brains to help her situation. She decides that she needs to “find a single wolf to keep away the pack” and heads outside to find some higher ranked Russian to have an exclusive s*xual relationship with so that she doesn’t get viciously and randomly raped every day by different men. Out in the street she meets Anatol, a lieutenant from Ukraine. She flirts with him briefly and they agree to meet at her place at 7 pm. That night Petka arrives with some of his friends and makes himself at home. Petka and his friends shock the widow and the narrator as they place their food straight on the table, throw bones to the floor, and spit casually. Despite the narrator’s worries that Petka and Anatol might clash over her, when Anatol comes he is at ease in her apartment and she discovers that his rank means very little to the Russians. Over the next days, Anatol comes to have s*x with the narrator and a “taboo” is formed in that the Russians know that she is claimed. Anatol and his men come and go as they please and the widow’s apartment is considered “Anatol’s men’s restaurant” but a restaurant where they bring the food. The narrator and the widow get food that the Russians bring and they benefit from the protection of Anatol’s men against other Russian soldiers. The narrator also meets educated Russian soldiers, such as Andrei, and has many conversations about politics, fascism, and such. Petka shows up completely drunk in a fit of rage against the narrator and tries to hurt her but due to his drunkenness the widow and the narrator manage to push him out of the apartment. Among the many Russian visitors of the apartment, a pale blond lieutenant who has a lame leg and a clear dislike of the narrator rapes her one night, completely ignoring the “taboo” with Anatol. He arrives another day with a major and after conversing and drinking champagne; he asks the narrator if the major pleases her. The narrator realizes she has little choice considering Anatol has left and eventually decides to have s*x with the major. She accepts the relationship with the major and does not call it rape since it is consensual. The major is very pleasant, shares his life with her, and brings her food and supplies such as candles. The narrator contemplates her status as she agrees to have s*xual relationships in return for goods and protection.
Eventually, Berlin completely surrenders and the Russians soldiers leave the street. The city begins to undergo reconstruction and the German women are rallied to work under Russian and some German orders to clear the rubble and to search for Zinc. The narrator gets pulled off to do laundry and for the last days of work she works tirelessly with other women while being teased by Russian soldiers. Once the job ends, the narrator finds out through a friend called Ilse that a Hungarian plans to start a press. The narrator works with the Hungarian and others to start planning the products. Gerd, the narrator’s boyfriend from before the war shows up and clashes with her on her change in mindset after the war and her discussion of her rapes. Gerd believes that she has lost her mind and has changed immensely from before. The chronicle ends with the narrator brooding on her relationship with Gerd.
Marta Hillers (May 26, 1911 – June 16, 2001) was a German journalist, and the author of the memoir Eine Frau in Berlin (A Woman in Berlin), published anonymously in 1959 and 2003 in German. It is the diary of a German woman from 20 April to 22 June 1945, during and after the Battle of Berlin. The book details the author’s rape, in the context of mass rape by the occupying forces, and how she and many other German women chose to take a Soviet officer as a protector.