Sunday, April 11, 2010

review :: A Woman in Berlin


Admittedly, I usually do not read the front matter of a book, even though I know it is there for a perfectly good reason--to enhance the reading experience!

A Woman in Berlin is prefaced by a foreword, an introduction, and a translator's note. I read all three before diving into the book itself, and I'm really glad I did. Without having done so I would have missed out on some of the social and cultural context surrounding the events. I did not know, for example, that German women were not supposed to discuss the reality of rape--it was seen as shameful.  

I purchased this book while going through a World War II reading phase, during which I read The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman (a graphic novel) and Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi, both of which I would recommend.

Stones from the River was the first World War II book I had read that was written from the point of view of a German. While I of course knew that not every German followed and believed in Hitler's regime, it had never occurred to me to sympathize for them. They were victims too.  That realization is what made me really want to read more from that perspective about this epic event in world history.

A Woman in Berlin is not a gripping tale. It is a diary of eight weeks in the Russian-conquered city of Berlin during the spring of 1945, and as such, it is brutal and honest and personal. The author was a journalist, pre- and post-war. Her powers of observation come shining through in her accounts of what transpired to her and her neighbors during the Russian occupation. Full of courage and intellect, this is a poignant and personal portrayal of the effects of war and defeat, a stunning glimpse of what humanity is capable of surviving.

There are some heartbreakingly vulnerable comments in the diary, as well as evident moments of gumption, so that you truly do get a feel for who this woman was and what she was like. I did find myself wondering, after I reached the end, what happened to her  and in her life after the diary. That sense of mystery is just one of the alluring threads that keeps this story alive in your mind long after you've closed the cover.

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