Sunday, August 07, 2005

"the walking machine"

Bearing and recording degradation: In 1945, an astute German woman faces hunger, rape and chaos
review by Edie Meidav, San Francisco Chronicle, 7 August 2005

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City
by Anonymous; translation by Philip Boehm
[...] destined to be a classic, given its depiction of one woman's candid response to an unambiguously horrible season, the vanquishing of Berlin by the Soviets over eight life-changing weeks in the spring and early summer of 1945.

In contrast to many Holocaust diaries, its author was a woman lacking Jewish ties, a German journalist in her 30s who had traveled abroad and who spoke a bit of Russian, her relative fluency becoming both a burden and a privilege once the "Ivans" entered Berlin. "An orphan," she says of herself at one point, "a pale-faced blonde always dressed in the same winter coat." Written often in a basement air raid shelter or in an apartment sacked daily, on scraps and shreds, it was issued in Germany in the '50s, only to be met with a shaming reception, given the book's frank account of rape in war. Hence the author, who died in 2001, chose to remain Anonymous.

Because some of the author's most complex thoughts concern the nexus of gender and war, including the weakening of prewar ideas of German masculinity, the published diary was no naif's tale. The intelligent introduction by Anthony Beevor makes the useful point that rapes by Stalin's army were less often a terror tactic, as was the case in the Spanish Civil War and Bosnia, and more pertinently arose from what Russian psychiatrists have called barrack eroticism, "created by Stalinist sexual repression during the 1930s (which may also explain why Soviet soldiers seemed to need to get drunk before attacking their victims)."

[...] Several sorts of archetypal scenes take place frequently, including the piecing together of a meal out of nothing, running down stairs to the shelter or volunteering in some useless, well-meaning effort. The most socially dense moments are those when Anonymous considers which of the conquering soldiers she should entertain at night: Who among them will act as a "single wolf to keep away the pack"? How can she prevent more of the gang rape she encountered early on? She is clever and survives, and later, after a calm settles in, wonders if she might not have been more clever and survived with greater feeling intact. "To the rest of the world we're nothing but rubble women and trash," she says later on. When she chokes on her own words, we understand that she feels more than she can write, and such moments sing out, among the most moving in an already gripping testament. When her long-lost soldier boyfriend returns, when she shows him her diary, she feels she has lost her connection to him. "For him I've been spoiled," she mourns. Early on, she has begun to dissociate, referring to her depleted self in the third person as "the walking machine." [...]