“Vanya the Child”

On p. 84, the narrator learns that the eighteen-year-old’s parents have so far managed to keep her safe from Russian soldiers: they put her in the ceiling, and no one has so far discovered her. So she stays up there all day, “equipped with bedclothes, a chamber pot, and some eau de cologne.” PHEW! She was the one self was most worried about, from Day One of the Occupation.

Another woman, a 50-year-old widow, was taken on the first night of the occupation by a sixteen-year-old — “inexperienced,” with a slender, hairless body, who after that follows the widow around like a puppy, bringing her tea and extra food, and swearing to stand guard over her and protect her to the end of his days. This boy shows up every day to stand sentry over the widow, “machine gun at the ready” with “the look of a loyal dog.” The narrator has a nickname for him: “Vanya the Child.”

Self wonders if it’s the dry, ironic wit of the narrator — intact even after the nightmare — that led a German critic (male, of course) to denounce her outrageous “immorality”!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Herr Pauli, AWIB p. 67

Self decided to go back a few pages and examine the only other male presence in the narrator’s life (Self means, the only other male presence who’s not a Russian soldier taking advantage of her) and it’s a man named Herr Pauli, an accountant who was conscripted by the Volkssturm and who improbably makes it back to his apartment building when the German defenses collapse.

  • . . . only this morning he was courting death with the Volkssturm, until his troop had the sense to disband and, lacking both weapons and any orders to the contrary, dismissed themselves and went home. Suddenly he belches, falls forward, and throws up on the carpet . . . The others shake their heads, and express their sympathy. Then Herr Pauli crumples into bed in his room next door, where he spends the rest of the day and, as it turns out, the foreseeable future. A lame duck — probably his subconscious wants him that way. Neuralgia of the soul. Even so, his simple male presence keeps things somewhat in check.

The women jump at every noise and huddle around the sleeping Herr Pauli’s bed . . . “other than that, we feel completely at the mercy of anyone and everyone.”

Don’t think the exact same thing isn’t happening under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Today’s wsj had a front-page story about how all women who served in the Afghan military or air force are now being hunted and have gone into hiding. The headline: FORMER AFGHAN FEMALE TROOPS HIDE FROM TALIBAN TO SURVIVE.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Gerd, the Boyfriend

If this book becomes too hard to continue, self will just select her next book and move on. She will not beat herself up.

Unfortunately, with Anonymous still there, alive and kicking, still so formidably present (Now she is formulating survival strategies), how can self abandon her? The truth is, she cannot.

Last night, self read as far as she could stand, and this morning the situation is slightly less harrowing, because now we have backstory on the mysterious, absent boyfriend:

Gerd and I would have married long ago if it hadn’t been for the war. But once he was called up that was it, he didn’t want to anymore. “Bring another war orphan into the world? Not a chance. I’m one myself, I know what it’s like.” And that’s the way it’s been up to now. Even so, we feel just as tied to each other as if we were married. Except I haven’t heard from him for over nine weeks; his last letter was posted from the Siegfried Line. I hardly know what he looks like anymore. All my photos were bombed, except the one I had in my purse, and I tore that one up on account of the uniform.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 74

The German-Russian Dictionary

Notice the word for kaput on the page. Self would have loved to blow it up even more. The narrator thinks kaput is a good substitute for the word ‘dead,’ which apparently was censored out of the dictionary because the target readership was soldiers (The narrator’s delicious sense of irony is intact, even after undergoing the unspeakable).

A German critic wrote that A Woman in Berlin could not be considered an accurate work of literary witness but should be treated as a literary creation of the 1950s. Self has never heard anything so absurd in her life. Anonymous kept a diary for eight weeks in 1945. Because it was not published until the 1950s, it can’t be considered accurate?

Was anyone publishing rape stories in 1945? 1946? Ever heard of that hot-selling genre in the post-war period? No doubt publishers were falling all over themselves to be the first to put out this searing portrayal of men abasing women — notwithstanding the fact that all the heads of publishing houses in that period were men, and might have felt a little embarrassed.

And as for the critic who said this work could not be an accurate portrayal of war-time, could he just shut up? The critic said he was not denying that rapes occurred, just that Anonymous could not have been writing accurately about it.

Of course he would know first-hand about rape stories? Him being such a connoisseur?

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.


The behavior of Anonymous changes abruptly once the Russians are in the picture.

That is, she emerges from the basement very boldly, and is apparently engaged in flirting, practicing her very basic knowledge of Russian on the soldiers, leading groups of them to where they can get water for their horses, etc.

Why on earth. Self is dismayed by her actions. They seem learned.

But tne narrator wasn’t rich, not by any means. She was a writer for goodness’s sake. If she were allied with the Nazi regime, surely she would be living in better conditions, instead of flitting, homeless, from building to building?

The narrator leads (not on purpose) a Russian soldier to the basement, where this guy has ample opportunity to count the number of women hiding there.

. . . just when I think I’ve shaken him, he’s standing next to me and slips into the basement along with me. Staggering from one support beam to the next, he shines his flashlight on the faces, some forty people all together, pausing each time he comes to a woman, letting the pool of light flicker for several seconds on her face.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 49

When the soldier finds an 18-year-old student, whose head is wrapped in a heavy bandage from a head wound, he keeps asking her age, and the narrator volunteers “Eighteen.” (If that were self, she would have said, “Twelve.” Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, but at least that might stall for time. But no. Anonymous goes right ahead and says, “She’s eighteen.”)

The man is “small and sallow” and reeks of alcohol and has already tried earlier to take her into a courtyard so why. She goes running toward two other men and “reports” the sallow soldier — no doubt operating on the principle that she MUST find higher-ups to ingratiate herself with, because it’s better to find “protectors” even if she has to sleep with them.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

The Break

Self keeps dreading that moment when something really bad happens to Anonymous. This evening, she decided to skip ahead a few pages (to prepare herself) and saw that, in a few pages, instead of daily diary entries, we have: “Looking back on ____________.” And it continues like that, the rest of the way till the end.

Oh . . . it’s happening soon, then. The Russian army is about to enter Berlin. The women in the narrator’s building seem somewhat resigned. They even say things like, “Well, at least we aren’t virgins.” (!!!) One asks another woman to read her cards, and the card-reader says, “In the short run you will experience disappointment in connection with your husband.”

In the meantime, the narrator hauls buckets of water, lines up for hours each day just to get a scrap of food, lugs 50 lbs. of coal in a knapsack, tries to snatch two hours of sleep in her own bed, keeps writing in her journal . . .

She’s damn heroic.

Here it is, the very last entry of Before:

Friday, April 27, 1945:

It began with silence . . . Around twelve o’clock Fraulein Behn reported that the enemy had reached the gardens and that the German line of defense was right outside the door . . . I finished dressing and combed my hair. Within minutes the whole basement was on its feet.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 44

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Anonymous, p. 15

Self knows who Anonymous is (It’s easy to find out: Her name was revealed by a German editor in 2003) but self will keep using the name under which the author preferred to write.

Self has been going back over the sections she has already read. Why? Because this woman is so alive, so present, so determined. It’s awesome!

. . . I’ve never seen anyone actually die. I expect that won’t be long in coming. Not that I think it could happen to me. I’ve had so many narrow escapes; I feel I lead a charmed life. Which is probably the way most people feel. How else could they be in such high spirits, surrounded by so much death? What’s clear is that every threat to your life boosts your vitality. My own flame is stronger; I’m burning more fiercely than before the air raids. Each new day of life is a day of triumph. You’ve survived once again. You’re defiant.

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, by Anonymous

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