Bushboy’s World: Last Photo on the Card, December 2021

What a year we just had. WHAT. A. YEAR.

Thanks to Bushboy for hosting the Last on the Card Challenge. Since the Last on the Card is also the Last of 2021, it is extra significant.

The last group of photos self took were on the day she lined up for her covid test (which turned out negative — HOORAY! VACCINES WORK!). Because it was a three-hour wait, self had ample opportunity to read (None of the other people in line seemed much inclined to talk).

She snapped a picture of the book with her cell:

The passage she was on was about the anonymous narrator standing in line for food, in April 1945 Berlin. The parallels! The parallels!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Coda

Anonymous = Marta Hillers

She moved to Switzerland and passed away 2001. A Woman in Berlin, first published in the 1950s, was re-published after her death and immediately caused a sensation. Self desperately hopes that the rest of Hillers’s life was happy.

Friday, June 15, 1945:

I found a copy of Tolstoy’s Polikushka and read that for the umpteenth time. Then I plowed through a collection of plays by Aeschylus and came across The Persians, which, with its lamentations of the vanquished, seems on the surface well suited to our defeat. But in reality it’s not. Our German calamity has a bitter taste — of repulsion, sickness, insanity, unlike anything in history. The radio just broadcast another concentration camp report. The most horrific thing is the order and the thrift: millions of human beings as fertilizer, mattress stuffing, soft soap, felt mats — Aeschylus never saw anything like that.

Saturday, June 16, 1945:

I haven’t been writing. And I won’t be, either — that time is now over.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 257

SPOILER ALERT

Gerd, the long-absent boyfriend, resurfaces, well-fed and healthy. In shock, he tells the author: “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.”

She gives Gerd her diaries, “there are three notebooks full.” He says he can’t find his way through the scribbling.

“For example, what’s that supposed to mean?” Gerd asks, pointing to Schdg.

Schandung,” of course — rape. “He looked at me as if I were out of my mind but said nothing more.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 260

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Life Goes On

Far from being bleak, as this book nears the finish line, eight weeks after the Soviet Army occupied Berlin, stories of individual women who managed to avoid the Russian soldiers emerge (All throughout this book, self would just like to say, the narrator’s comparisons of the Russians with Berliners showed how much more open Berliners’ sexuality was. For instance, no Russian soldiers propositioning German men — this was worthy of notice!):

Stinchen, the eighteen-year-old student, has finally come down from the crawl space. The scars from the flying rubble have healed. She played the part of the well-bred daughter from a good home perfectly, carrying a pot of real tea from the kitchen and listening politely to our conversation. Apparently our young girl who looks like a young man also managed to come through safely. I mentioned that I’d seen her in the stairwell last night. She was arguing with another girl, someone in a white sweater, tan and quite pretty but vulgar and unbridled in her swearing. Over tea I found out that it was a jealous spat: the tanned girl had taken up with a Russian officer . . . more or less voluntarily — drinking with him and accepting food. This evidently irked her young friend, who is an altruistic kind of lover, constantly giving the other girl presents and doing this and that for her over the past several years. We discussed all of this calmly and offhandedly over a proper tea. No judgment, no verdict. We no longer whisper. We don’t hesitate to use certain words, to voice certain things, certain ideas. They come out of our mouths casually as if we were channeling them from Sirius.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 181

Germany After

But our country is despondent, our people are in pain. We’ve been led by criminals and gamblers, and we’ve let them lead us, like sheep to the slaughter. And now the people are miserable, smoldering with hate. “No tree is high enough for him,” I heard someone say of Adolf this morning at the pump.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 131

A reprieve for the narrator and the other people in the building: some German men show up at the apartment building with wooden planks. This they nail against the back door. Later, a Russian tries to gain entry but even after kicking hard, the boards hold.

It turns out the strongest door in the entire building belonged to a bookseller. Neither he nor his wife were bothered by any Russian soldiers. So booksellers were like elite, in pre-war Berlin? Books had great value? Why else would a bookseller build such a sturdy door?

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

“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.

Unfortunately TRIGGER WARNING

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.

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