Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Recent Read: A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous

Berlin is a fantastic city and one particular activity stood out above all the rest as my favorite. Berlin Underworlds Association is a nonprofit organization seeking to preserve what's under the surface in this city. In our case, we visited a World War II underground air raid bunker that has been preserved by the group, which conducts several tours a day there.

This tour takes place in a bunker attached to Gesundbrunnan underground station, which is the reason it is one of the few still in existence today (almost all of Berlin's 1,200 or so air raid shelters were destroyed after the war. By the way, Hitler had plans to build 3,000 across the city but the majority were never built).

Here are a few facts I learned (my brain was on overload by the end of this tour):

  • Air raids were only supposed to last less than an hour with the idea that more than one could take place on any given evening. Toward the end of the war, the British were bombing Berlin all night and the Americans bombed heavily all day. Because of this, Berliners carried their suitcases with them everywhere they went and wore layers of winter clothing, even in the summer, in case their homes were destroyed.
  • Room capacities were painted on the walls, and this capacity was determined by evaluating air quantity for short periods of time. Shelter capacity was most of the time double or triple the sum of the numbers painted on the walls.
  • Our tour guide said he's had two people on his tours in the past say they were born in that very shelter during an air raid.
  • We learned that in this city that was nearly leveled during World War II that debris is still being uncovered at construction sites and other places around Berlin. For example, a construction crew uncovered a live bomb in 1994 that blew up, killing three, seriously injuring eight, blowing off the entire side of the nearest building, and totaling every car parked on the block. Even today an average of one bomb is uncovered each month in Berlin.
  • Reflective paint on the walls was designed to make it light enough in the rooms to see or read a book if the power went out.
  • At the end of the war when the Russians marched into the city, some people remained in the air raid shelters for days out of fear and/or the fact that their homes had been destroyed. Unfortunately during the last days many people committed suicide in these shelters, often in bathroom stalls, the only place anyone had any privacy. 
  • Also when the city was invaded, Hitler thought their army would invade via the underground system, so he had them flooded with water. Instead of drowning members of the Russian army, 2,000 Germans who remained in these shelters were killed instead.
On this tour, the guide recommended a book called A Woman in Berlin written by an anonymous female journalist about the two months in 1945 while the city fell to the Russian army. The book was published in the 1950s in Europe (but not in Germany until later). The book has gotten further acclaim and circulation since the author's death in 2001, and her identity still has not been revealed.

I read the book over this past weekend and could not put it down. Rather than centering around the activity in an underground air raid shelter, the author writes about the inhabitants of her apartment building who band together, sell each other out, steal from each other and for each other, and protect each other as best they can during this terrible time.

The author describes one awful event after another: mass rape of women regardless of their age, having to house soldiers, being forced into labor duty and clearing debris, and on and on. No wonder people felt safer staying hidden in these bunkers. A Woman in Berlin is a powerful account of the atrocities of war, and was a great read.

No comments:

Post a Comment