Tales of Survival: A Woman in Berlin and Gone to Ground

I decided to write about both these books in one post for several reasons. They share obvious themes for one, and they complement each other in that one is written by a free German woman, an ‘ordinary citizen’, and the other is written by a Jewish German woman who spent the war in hiding. They have the same setting and certain things in common, but they are two distinct stories and that must be acknowledged and appreciated by the reader – though they can be compared.

They are very individual stories. Other women in similar circumstances will have had completely different experiences, for better or worse. In some ways these two women were lucky – they were not imprisoned or sent to the camps, and they survived the war. But they were deeply unfortunate to be Berliners at that time. They both suffered for it enormously.

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First let’s talk about A Woman in Berlin. It was written and published anonymously, though some have identified the author as journalist Marta Hillers. I’m not sure if Hillers ever confirmed this herself, and honestly it doesn’t matter too much to me. The author wanted to be anonymous, to depict a ‘snapshot’ of her experience rather than to talk about herself.

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.

I have called her extraordinary largely because of her personal strength. She loses more or less everything and yet she does not break down or give up – she always carries on. She see people around her, some of whom she knows well, either give in to despair or be arrested and disappear. Looking back on the book it is clear she is living in a state of depression and trauma, forcing herself to carry on.

When A Woman in Berlin was first published in German in 1953, it was ‘ignored or reviled’, largely because of its depiction of rape. The author and almost every other woman in the book is raped at least once by Soviet soldiers, and no one in Germany at the time wanted to know about this. The book was published in America in 1954, and it seems that non-German audiences were more receptive. As time has passed both German and non-German readers have come to understand and see that the painful reality of what happened to these women must be acknowledged. Reading about these assaults is horrifying, but the women prove that you can live on after something like that and that your world does not have to end. This is partly because life goes on regardless, but also because it must. The author and her fellow women see that if they do not carry on things will only get worse.

It is difficult to explain what it is really like to read A Woman in Berlin; I can only say that it was one of the most intense and emotional books I have ever read. The writing is clear and pragmatic, but still lyrical and full of beauty where it can be found. Gone to Ground shares this trait – the author seeks out life and beauty where she can.

Marie Jalowicz was a German Jew living in Berlin when the War began. She carried out forced labour at the Siemens factory until 1941 when she realised that her situation was too precarious. When some post was delivered to her she told the postman that her ‘neighbour’ Marie had been deported. Unsurprised by this the postman noted that she had ‘gone east’ and that was that. Marie then took on the identity of a non-Jewish friend, including forged papers, and lived as a ‘U-boat’ – one of 1700 Jews who lived in hiding in Berlin during the War.

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Marie Jalowicz in the 1940s (image: timesofisrael.com)

Her story is incredible, and I was overawed by her bravery and resilience. She stays with friends and colleagues, acquaintances, really anyone who will take her in and not report her, and she has to move every few days and weeks. There is a huge cast of supporting characters who help her along the way, some more remarkable than others but all of them literal life-savers. Marie is forced to take risks and more than once she is just a knife’s edge away from being discovered. This makes reading Gone to Ground and intense and exciting experience, but also very emotional. Marie loses both her parents early on, and everyone she know seems to be desperate in one way or another. Too afraid to write anything down, she keeps a mental diary of things to remember and as a way to process everything that happens to her.

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.

At the very end of the book the Soviet soldiers arrive in Berlin. At this point she is staying with the non-Jewish friend under whose identity she has been living, and they are both raped. Marie is very matter of fact about the whole thing and does not involve her emotions, even when she hears her friend screaming. She reasons that this is still preferable to being sent to a concentration camp. Despite this it is still utterly horrifying.

Gone to Ground was put together by Marie’s son Hermann. He knew his mother had a remarkable story about the War and towards the end of her life he persuaded her to record her story on several tapes. In the Afterword he writes about this experience and how he reacted to his mother’s story. He writes that she remembers everything.

I would highly recommend these books to anyone interested in life in Berlin during the Second World War. They are unforgettable books that remind us of the experience of the War outside of the Holocaust itself, and that even those that were not persecuted by the Nazis also suffered terrible experiences.

The only thing I must say is that they are not ‘easy’ and will have an emotional toll. But they are more than worth it.

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I read the 2005 Virago paperback edition of A Woman in Berlin and the 2016 Clerkenwell Press/Serpent’s Tail paperback edition of Gone to Ground (both pictured above).

Purchase A Woman in Berlin from Foyles and Wordery.

Purchase Gone to Ground from Foyles and Wordery.

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3 thoughts on “Tales of Survival: A Woman in Berlin and Gone to Ground”

  1. Did you read them one after the other? I can imagine that must be rather emotionally draining. I’ve made a note of these, as they sound like exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to me. A bit of a different perspective on war, the ‘home’ horrors one might say.

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  2. Marta Hillers never confirmed her authorship publicly (after all, she had passed on when the new edition was published, and the German first edition of 1959 didn’t get a rerun), but it is listed in her will. She even did some corrections of the original text before her death.
    I agree, she was an extraordinary and quite fascinating woman, not just during the events of 1945, but her whole life. If you’re interested, I offer an abridged English translation of her biography on my website, starting here: https://clarissaschnabel.wordpress.com/2014/10/21/the-life-and-times-of-marta-dietschy-hillers-introduction/

    I’m still not sure about the “reviled or ignored” part. The book didn’t get many reviews at all, mainly because it was promoted in only one ad (that I know of, at least) and because it had stiff competition from the German translation of “Lolita” that came out at the same time (and absolutely every newspaper wrote on it!). I was looking for those negative reviews that were rumoured to be out there, but could only find one. The three other reviews that I managed to dig up were positive. So I’ve come to the conclusion that the supposed outrage that followed “A Woman in Berlin”s publication in ’59 is mostly a myth. Hans Magnus Enzensberger mentions it in his afterword to the new English translation, and it appears before the end credits of Max Färberböck’s film adaptation, so I’m guessing any mention of it on Wikipedia and in subsequent articles on the net originate from those two sources.

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