Click here to read reviewer Bobby Blades' take on A Woman in Berlin.
The collateral damage of war affects the innocent most profoundly, regardless of time or place. This novel addresses the predicament of those caught in Berlin in World War II when the Russians invade, just prior to the end of the war. The city is literally devastated, with little food or hope, still refusing to concede so close to the end of their struggle.
Covering eight weeks in 1945, A Woman in Berlin is essentially the story of one young woman who pits herself against all odds, desperate to survive and begin anew the rest of her life. Still-attractive, the protagonist has been living with a widow and an elderly man since her apartment was decimated by a barrage of bombs. Having salvaged what she can, joint cooperation allows the trio to survive the worst of the hardships, until the arrival of their new oppressors.
Long inured to nightly bombings and midnight races to the basements of their destroyed apartments for shelter, the German citizens hide from the chaos in the dark caves of their buildings, bound together by courage and tenacity, their nerves frayed by a constant state of fear. Now they must accept the added humiliation of their circumstances, easy prey for Russian soldiers who scramble through the city in search of women, carrying the females to shadowy staircases where resistance is futile.
Silently the women endure, as does the protagonist, creating a semblance of safety, dissociating from the ravaging of their bodies: "Again I have to reflect on the consequences of being alone in the world, in the midst of fear and adversity." The city is a mix of the elderly, the infirm, women, and children; the only men remaining are debilitated or former troops trying to avoid capture.
Their collective resources are few - rotten vegetables, rationed bread, threadbare clothing. Caught in a limbo of fear and vaguely hopeful expectations, their future is virtually nonexistent: "Nothing in this country belongs to us anymore, nothing but the moment at hand." The only hope is to make friends with the Russians, offering what little comforts are available, hiding their nubile daughters in attics until the occupiers depart.
With peace on the horizon, the protagonist secretly anticipates her new life, one removed from the ugly realities of a decimated Berlin, made stronger by her ordeal but broken, too, by the physical abuse and months of scrambling for food and shelter. Many are broken down, their health failing, their spirits rising slightly as the end of the war nears.
The woman’s changes are impossible for her to articulate; she is more self-sufficient, yet irrevocably altered by these final days in the city, gradually creeping from the shadows into the sunlight: "I only know that I want to survive- against all sense and reason, just like an animal." A timely reminder of the human face of war, the anonymous victims left behind in the rubble piece their lives together with remnants.