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Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis

A Woman In Berlin


A New York Times Book Review Editors' ChoiceFor eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. "With bald honesty and brutal lyricism" (Elle), the anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. "Spare and unpredictable, minutely observed and utterly free of self-pity" (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland), A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject--the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.A Woman in Berlin stands as "one of the essential books for understanding war and life" (A. S. Byatt, author of Possession).




A Woman in Berlin


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A Woman in Berlin is a difficult read, but a rewarding one. The strong text, written by such an open minded woman who lived through the most difficult of times, is an ode to human strength and survival against the odds. She looks a horrific situation in the eye, observes its truth, and writes it down for future generations.


In The Unwomanly Face of War, Alexievich chronicles the experiences of the Soviet women who fought on the front lines, on the home front, and in the occupied territories. These women - more than a million in total - were nurses and doctors, pilots, tank drivers, machine-gunners, and snipers. They battled alongside men, and yet, after the victory, their efforts and sacrifices were forgotten.


For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. "With bald honesty and brutal lyricism" (Elle), the anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. "Spare and unpredictable, minutely observed and utterly free of self-pity" (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland), A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex World War II relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject - the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.


The long-hidden diary of a young Polish woman's life during the Holocaust, translated for the first time into English. Renia Spiegel was born in 1924 to an upper-middle class Jewish family living in Southeastern Poland, near what was at that time the border with Romania. At the start of 1939, Renia began a diary. By the fall of 1939, Renia and her younger sister, Elizabeth (née Ariana), were staying with their grandparents in Przemysl just as the German and Soviet armies invaded Poland. Cut off from their mother, who was in Warsaw, Renia and her family were plunged into war.


It is unlikely that the anonymous woman in Berlin intended to craft the kind of indictment of militarized masculinity she manages to. But like a horror movie, in this tale, predatory masculinity lurks around every corner, in every stairwell and every abandoned apartment. Drunk on rationed vodka, prideful at being the victors, or often merely bored, the Soviet troops perpetrated, however unsystematically, a campaign of horror on German women. Just a few days after their arrival, merely walking a few blocks without being attacked seemed a considerable achievement. One mother locks her daughter, a teenaged virgin, in a cramped attic space to protect her from certain assault.


The director has said that's he was impressed with the author's absolute lack of sentimentality, and the film, like the movie's anonymous heroine, certainly has no illusions about anyone it depicts, including the heroine herself and the moody Russian officer, Andrej (Evgeny Sidikhin), to whom she turns for protection. Rather than allowing herself to be raped by anyone, she chooses to hook up with someone powerful - and certainly isn't the only Berlin woman to do so.


The woman, well played by Nina Hoss ("Jerichow," "Yella"), was intelligent and sophisticated, as we see in a flashback, and had no doubts about Germany's eventual triumph. By 1945, she and other shocked women (and a few old men) are crouching in bomb shelters in a ruined city, hungry and fearful about the arrival of the Russians. The women know what's in store for them.


The point is that the author is an ordinary woman, but in some ways she is extraordinary. When her diary starts on 20th April 1945, she has already lived through years of war and her fiance has gone to the front. She begins her diary because she knows, somehow, that she is now living through history.


Her story is a mixture of life threatening adventure and the mundanity of being in hiding. She is unemployed and so must either keep busy at home (where sometimes she must stay in a single room to avoid detection) or walk the streets of Berlin from morning til night. More than once she has to repel the advances of men offering her help in return for sexual favours, though one a few occasions she decides to give in rather than face the Gestapo. Similar to the anonymous woman she realises that it is sometimes better not to fight in order to live.


A German woman (Hoss), reduced to desperate straits during the Soviet occupation of Berlin, tries to survive the invasion of Berlin by the Soviet troops during the last days of World War II. Based on the diary published under the name Anonyma.


First is the baker's wife, two plump red cheeks swaddled in a lambskin collar. Then the pharmacist's widow, who finished a training course in first aid and who sometimes lays out cards on two chairs pushed together and reads them for the other women. Frau Lehmann, whose husband is missing in the East and who is now a pillow for the sleeping infant on her arm and four-year-old Lutz asleep on her lap, his shoelaces dangling. The young man in gray trousers and horn-rimmed glasses who on closer inspection turns out to be a young woman. Three elderly sisters, all dressmakers, huddled together like a big black pudding. The refugee girl from Königsberg in East Prussia, wearing the few old rags she's managed to piece together. Then there's Schmidt, who was bombed out and reassigned here, Schmidt the curtain wholesaler without curtains, always chatting away despite his years. The bookselling husband and wife who spent several years in Paris and often speak French to each other in low voices ...


I've just been listening to a woman of forty who was bombed out of her home in Adlershof and moved in here with her mother. Apparently a high-explosive bomb buried itself in her neighbor's garden and completely demolished her own house, which she had bought with her savings. The pig she'd been fattening up was flung all the way into the rafters. "It wasn't fit to eat after that." The married couple next door to her also met their maker. People retrieved what parts of them they could from the rubble of the building and the mess in the garden. The funeral was very nice. An all-male choir from the Tailors' Guild sang at the graveside. But everything ended in confusion when the sirens cut in right during the "Rock of Ages" and the grave diggers had to practically throw the coffin in the ground. You could hear the contents bumping about inside. And now for the punch line, the narrator chuckling in advance, although so far her story hasn't been all that funny: "And imagine, three days later their daughter is going through the garden looking for anything of use, and right behind the rain barrel she stumbles on one of her papa's arms."


A devastating book. It is matter-of-fact, makes no attempt to score political points, does not attempt to solicit sympathy for its protagonist, and yet is among the most chilling indictments of war I have ever read. Everybody, in particular every woman, ought to read it.


The diary begins on Friday 20 April 1945 and continues for just over two months until 22 June. It is written by an anonymous 34-year-old woman, whose husband is away fighting in the German Army. She has been bombed out of her own apartment and is now living in a furnished attic room owned by a former colleague, who has also been called up.


An image from the street: a man pushing a wheelbarrow with a dead woman on top, stiff as a board. Loose grey strands of hair fluttering, a blue kitchen apron. Her withered legs in grey stockings sticking out the end of the wheelbarrow. Hardly anyone gave her a second glance. Just like when they used to ignore the rubbish being hauled away.


Wow you were saying at book group what an impact this book had one you and reading this and seeing the quotes I can definitley see why you liked it so much. She sounds in many ways a remarkable woman who captures the war like it hasnt really been captured before. I might pop this one on my birthday wishlist, thanks for telling us all about it Kim. 041b061a72


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