12 Jan 2010

“A Woman in Berlin”

, , , , ,

A Woman in Berlin — Eight Weeks in a Conquered City was first published in 1953.

Its anonymous author, describing herself only as “a pale-faced blonde, always dressed in the same winter coat,” had kept a diary of her own personal share of traumatic experience undergone by two million female residents of Berlin upon the arrival of the conquering Red Army in the closing days of April 1945 .

Raped repeatedly, the 34 year old author coldbloodedly determined to “find a single wolf to keep away the pack.” Working by candlelight, fingers “shaking as I write this,” the author recorded her ordeal in a clear-eyed and courageous diary account conspicuously lacking in anger or self pity.

Comparing notes with an old friend on all they have experienced, “How many times were you raped, Ilse? “Four, and you?” She is dismissive and deprecatory. “No idea, I had to work my way up the ranks from supply train to major.”

Her memoir sold badly when first published in the 1950s. Apparently people, after such a short post-war interval, were not eager to revisit the most shocking and painful episodes of WWII. In 2003, when it was republished after the author’s death, it became a bestseller.

The same year, the author was identified as Marta Hillers, a journalist who had studied at the Sorbonne and traveled extensively in Europe, including Russia, before the war.

A film based on the memoir, titled Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin, was released in Germany on 2008.

After several weeks of violence, fear, near starvation, and abasement, finding that she and her neighbors have managed to survive a Sunday of victory celebrations, she takes inventory of her situation.

(T)hings are looking pretty good for me. I’m healthy and refreshed. Nothing has harmed me physically. I feel extremely well armed for life, as if I had webbed feet for the mud, as if my fiber were especially supple and strong. I’m well equipped for the world, I’m not delicate — my grandmother used to haul manure. On the other hand, there are multiple minuses. I don’t know what in the world I should do. No one really needs me; I’m simply floating around, waiting, with neither goal nor task in sight. I can’t help thinking of a debate I once had with a very smart Swiss woman, in which I countered every scheme she put forward for improving the world by insisting that “the sum total of tears always stays the same”— i.e., that in every nation, no matter what flag or system of government, no matter which gods are worshiped or what the average income is, the sum total of tears, pain, and fear that every person must pay for his existence is a constant. And so the balance is maintained: well-fed nations wallow in neurosis and excesses, while people plagued with suffering, as we are now, may rely on numbness and apathy to help see them through — if not for that I’d be weeping morning, noon, and night. But I’m not crying and neither is anyone else, and the fact that we aren’t is all part of a natural law. Of course if you believe that the earthly sum of tears is fixed and immutable, then you not very well cut out to improve the world or to act on any kind of grand scale.

To summarize: I’ve been in twelve European countries; I’ve seen Moscow, Paris, and London, among other cities, and experienced Bolshevism, Parliamentarianism, and Fascism close up, as an ordinary person among ordinary people. Are there differences? Yes, substantial ones. But from what I can tell the distinctions are mostly ones of form and coloration, of the rules of play, not differences in the greater or lesser fortunes of common people, which Candide was so concerned about. And the individuals I encountered who were meek, subservient, and uninterested in any existence other than the one they were born to didn’t seem any unhappier in Moscow than they did in Paris or Berlin—all of them lived by adjusting their souls to the prevailing conditions.

No, my current gauge is an utterly subjective one: personal taste. I simply wouldn’t want to live in Moscow. What oppressed me most there was the relentless ideological schooling, the fact that people were not allowed to travel freely, and the absolute lack of any erotic aura. The way of life just wouldn’t suit me. On the other hand, I’d be happy in Paris or London, although there I’ve always had the painfully clear feeling of not belonging, of being a foreigner, someone who is merely tolerated. It was my own choice to return to Germany, even though friends advised me to emigrate. And it was good I came home, because I could never have put down roots elsewhere. I feel that I belong to my people, that I want to share their fate, even now.

But how? When I was young the red flag seemed like such a bright beacon, but there’s no way back to that now, not for me: the sum of tears is constant in Moscow, too. And I long ago lost my childhood piety, so that God and the Beyond have become mere symbols and abstractions. Should I believe in progress? Yes, to biggger and better bombs. The happiness of the greater number? Yes, for Petka and his ilk. An idyll in a quiet corner? Sure, for people who comb the fringes of their rugs. Possessions, contentment?

I have to keep from laughing, homeless urban nomad that I am. Love? Lies trampled on the ground. And were it ever to rise again I would always be anxious, could never find true refuge, would never again dare hope for permanence.

Perhaps art, toiling away in the service of form? Yes, for those who have the calling, but I don’t. I’m just an ordinary laborer, I have to be satisfied with that. All I can do is touch my small circle and be a good friend. What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still the dark and amazing adventure of life is beckoning. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.

Marta Hillers died in Switzerland in 2001, at the age of 90, without producing another book.


Please Leave a Comment!

Please note: Comments may be moderated. It may take a while for them to show on the page.

Entries (RSS)
Comments (RSS)
Feed Shark