I am on a mission to learn about the Second World War. Not about generals and strategy but about the people who lived and survived it. Primo Levy’s book Survival in Auschwitz was a great book. An incredible story that demonstrates just how damn hard it is to survive.
A Woman in Berlin is no different. It’s written by a journalist who chronicles what happens to the people in her apartment block (including herself) over two months at the end of the war when the Russians are beating down on the city.
Through the framework of her apartment block she shows you the minutiae of war. Who are the people hiding in cellars, what are they eating, wearing, where does water come from, what is the daily, hourly, minute by minute search for food like, where is her neighbour’s husband, where is her boyfriend, what is the news from the front, where is Herr Hitler and his group of bandits now? Do Nazis walking the street, knowing that defeat is imminent, still feel comfortable declaring their party status? What is the news from the concentration camps, thousands upon thousands dead she hears. There is no news service, no electricity, no running water ,no heat. It’s cold and miserable. She’s moved in with her neighbour and sleeps with a Russian officer to keep fed, does this make her a whore? She is raped, her neighbour is raped. She is raped again and then again. And it’s vital that she find protection through an officer who sings drunken Russian songs, whispers secrets in her ear, longs for love, brings her food which she shares. This makes her of value to her neighbour. It keeps her alive.
The Russians occupy the city breaking into apartments and homes. And when nightfall they help themselves to everything. This story is no picnic. Yet what makes it compelling is its utter lack of sentimentality. The chronicler of this story doesn’t feel sorry for herself, she eyes the world around her with an intelligent, sardonic eye. She uses the Russian she sleeps with to her advantage. She’s kind and funny. But she is not sentimental. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself. Perhaps not even for others. She witnesses the ravages of war in all its human mundanity.
I was sad when this book ended. I wanted to talk to this person all night long and drink whiskey. Undoubtedly we’d have some laughs at the folly of men, of political rogues and at the strangeness and cruelty of the upside down world. She is as contemporary as anyone I know. There is a universality about her writing that seems so specific to her. I’m in love.
Sometimes people ask “Who would you spend an evening with? ” I would spend an evening talking to this woman any time.