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. This diary was first published in America in 1954 in an English translation and in Britain in 1955. A German language edition was published five years later in Geneva and was met with tremendous controversy. In 2003, over forty years later, it was republished in Germany to critical acclaim - and more controversy. This diary has been unavailable since the 1960s and is now newly translated into English. A Woman in Berlin is an astonishing and deeply affecting account.
Where to begin with this novel. Is it, in fact a novel? This is something that I questioned from the first entry. Which hooked me. Line and sinker. It is a testament, a legacy to one woman's experiences of Berlin's final months of the World War II. An experience endured by so many in the same circumstance. And it is gritty.
I went in with an open mind, and came out feeling oddly empowered. That may seem odd, or in fact wrong, when you consider the content. But I identified with the author. Part of this came from my own diary keeping. I understood where she was coming from in her writing, the purge that sometimes accompanies an entry. Not that I have ever had to write about anything like this. But I still felt an instant connection to her. She seems balanced and optimistic. A result of her diary keeping, I would wager.
I found it enlightening to read of what I consider to be one of the most important days in WW2 - VE Day - May 8th 1945. Whilst I read her entry of that day - which consisted of hardship and toil - I thought of the celebrations that were being had in the UK. The street parties and the joy that it was all over. This was not the case for Berliners. They were scratching out a living amongst the victorious Red Army, with little knowledge of what tomorrow would bring, or if it would, in fact, arrive at all. A stark contrast to those in London.
The book is not graphic, which surprised me. I was expecting to be harrowed by every page, but there is something in the style and the thought sketched into every sentence that left me wanting more. How could that be right, I questioned? This book is about rape, starvation and death. As events unfolded, and she chose her path, I felt that, in the same situation I may have done the same. Survive.
It may not be verbatim, as the author herself copied out of her original note books after the war, but it is no less a powerful book. Her story, the taboo that still surrounds her experience, recording of it and it's later publication are the reasons you should read this.
There is also a film based on the book - if reading is not your thing.
A 9/10 from me.