What does it mean–rape?..It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything–but it’s not.
I just read the book “A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City” and I keep turning around in my head. It’s an unbelievable account of mass rapes perpetrated by the Red Army at the end of World War 2. The anonymous author worked as a journalist before and after the war and spoke passable Russian. It’s unbelievable this book came to be at all, especially when one considers how well-written it is. Republished in 2004 after the author’s death, it’s disturbingly relevant today:
I look at the 16 year old girl, up to now the only person I know who lost her virginity to the Russians. She has the same dumb, self-satisfied look she always had. I try to imagine how it would have been if my first experience had come in this way. But I stop myself–it’s unimaginable. One thing is for sure: if this were peacetime and a girl had been raped by some vagrant, there’d be the whole peacetime hoopla of reporting the crime, taking the statement, questioning witnesses, arrest and confrontation, news reports and neighborhood gossip–and the girl would have reacted differently, would have suffered a different kind of shock. But here we’re dealing with a collective experience, something foreseen and feared many times in advance that happened to women right and left, all somehow part of the bargain. And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. All the women help each other by speaking about it, airing their pain, and allowing others to air theirs and spit out what they’ve suffered. Which of course doesn’t mean that creatures more delicate than this cheeky little Berlin girl won’t fall apart or suffer for the rest of their lives.
The 16-year old girl was raped by 3 Russians and afterwards proudly declared that they all immediately went for her and didn’t even glance at her sister.
It’s strange to think of a situation where rape can be so normalized that it can be joked about and taken lightly or even seen as a matter of pride:
It seems he left [the widow] with a compliment. At first she didn’t want to reveal it, but finally she told us: “Ukrainian woman–like this. You–like this.” The first “like this” he illustrated with a circle formed by both his thumbs and forefingers, the second “like this” with a single thumb and forefinger.
The widow still hate nightmares about it later, but she felt free to discuss it with everyone. Usually, rape is dealt with silently. It’s simply not discussed. I was attacked and nearly raped two weeks shy of my 16 birthday. Afterwards, I emailed one friend and told her about it, but she was the only one and even today so few people know. How do you bring that up in conversation? And yet, among the friends I have told about it, a surprising number of them have similar experiences. One of my high school friends was raped at a party. She woke up feeling pain ‘down there.’ Another friend had something slipped in her drink at a bar. Another was molested by a family friend as a child. They say that one in three women will experience some sort of sexual abuse in her lifetime. Detractors say that these numbers are highly inflated and include women who regretted having sex and decided to ‘cry rape’ later. I have no difficulty believing they’re accurate.
The women in the book run the entire gauntlet of emotions after being raped, from disassociation:
I remember the strange vision I had this morning, something like a daydream, while I was trying in vain to fall asleep after Petka left. It was as if I were flat on my bed and seeing myself lying there when a luminous white being rose from my body, a kind of angel, but without wings, that floated high into there air…Of course it’s just a fantasy, a pipe dream, a means of escape–my true self simply leaving my body behind, my poor besmirched, abused body. Breaking away and floating off, unblemished, into a white beyond. It can’t be me that this is happening to, so I’m expelling it all from me.
I’m constantly repulsed by my own skin. I don’t want to touch myself, can barely look at my own body. I can’t help but think about the little child I was, once upon a time…
Judging from their speech the two women behind me were well-bred ladies. One said: “You know, I was completely numb. I’m very small there, my husband always took that into consideration.” Apparently she’d been raped repeatedly and attempted to poison herself. Then I hear her say, “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I later learned that your somach has to have enough acid inside for the stuff to work. I couldn’t keep it down.”
“And now?” The other asked quietly.
“Well, life goes on. The best part was over anyway. I’m just glad my husband didn’t have to live through this.”
And then acceptance. The author realizes early on that it’s better to have “one wolf to keep the rest of the pack away” and works her “way up from supply train to major,” the major being wounded and surprisingly sensitive, for a rapist:
Please give me your hand.” I stare at [the major]…He takes my hand and clasps it firmly with both of his, then says, with pathetic eyes and trembling lips, “Forgive me. It’s been so long since I had a woman.” He shouldn’t have said that. Next thing I know I’m lying with my face in his lap sobbing and bawling and howling all the grief in my soul. I feel him stroking my hair…A little later in the dark I tell him how miserable and sore I am and ask him to be gentle. He is gentle and silently tender, is soon finished and lets me sleep.
This is perhaps the most important thing that most people miss in discussions about rape. It isn’t about the ability to say yes to sex. It’s about the ability to say no. If someone is passed out and they can’t say no, you can’t assume he/she is saying ‘yes’ because they aren’t capable of consenting, one way or another. Annonymous could not say “no.” She was going to be raped whether she wanted to or not. The only power remaining to her was the ability to choose who was going to do the raping.
In spite of what they’re gonig through, the author and other women she encounters seem to concern themselves with their men’s feelings more than their own:
While Ilse and I discussed the subject, her husband stepped out to visit their neighbor, as he put it, to get the latest news for me off a crystal set. As he left, Ilse grimaced. “Yes, well, he can’t really bear to hear about that.” Her husband is tormenting himself with reproach for staying in the basement and not doing a thing while the Ivans took their pleasure with his wife. During the first rape, down in the basement, he was even within hearing range. It must have been a strange feeling for him.
I know a lot of people who are very passionate about guns and a woman’s right to bear arms–the great equalizer, and “when seconds count, cops are only minutes away.” But in this situation, any action by anyone to defend themselves with firearms would have been construed as a counterinsurgency under martial law. So the men did nothing because they were powerless to do anything:
These days I keep noticing how my feelings toward men–and the feelings of all other women–are changing. We feel sorry for them; they seem so miserable and powerless. The weaker sex. Deep down we women are experiencing a kind of collective disappointment. The Nazi world- ruled by men, glorifying the strong man– is beginning to crumble, and with it the myth of “Man.” In earlier wars men could claim that the privilege of killing for the father land was theirs and theirs alone. Today we women, too, have a share. That has transformed us, emboldened us. Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex.
When Alpha was 3 months old, we went to Finland for my husband’s grandfather’s funeral and rode in the entryway on a severely overcrowded train. With us was a really drunk Finnish guy, who wanted to talk to DH the entire time. At one point, he approached Alpha and me aggressively and I swear, I have never seen my husband move that fast–to protect me and his son. It crazy, but comforting to know that he would totally stand up for me. What reaction would you have knowing that your husband couldn’t?
The baker comes stumbling toward me down the hall, white as his flour, holding out his hands. “They have my wife…” His voice breaks. For a second I feel I’m acting in a play. A middle-class baker can’t possibly move like that, can’t speak with such emotion put so much feeling into his voice, bare his soul that way, his heart so torn.
An Ivan grabbed the bookseller’s wife as she was coming back with water…The woman shrieked and her husband came running out of the apartment, making straight for the Ivan and shouting, “You damned bastard! You prick!” As the saga has it, the Russian piped down, shriveled up and backed off. So it can be done after all…I’m convinced that this particular woman will never forget her husband’s fit of courage, or perhaps you could say it was love. And you can hear the respect in the way the men tell the story, too
The only other story the author recounts where a man tried to protect his wife, he ended up getting shot and dying. Even more tragic, his wife was Jewish and the author explains how he had such a hard time during the war because of it, but refused to divorce her or leave her because he knew what would happen to her. So much of what happens in this book is senseless, so easily avoidable. So many people who poison themselves, a woman who runs out of a building and dies trying to evade Russians, others who get blown up waiting for water:
Beauty hurts. We’re so full of death.
Then her fiancé returns home and it’s interesting that, although she mentions all women will have to pretend she in particular was spared or their men will never want to touch them again, she does precisely the opposite with Gerd:
If I was in a good mood and told stories about our experiences over the last few weeks, then he got really angry. “You’ve all turned into a bunch of shameless bitches, everyone one of you in the building. Don’t you realize?…It’s horrible being around you. You’ve lost all sense of measure…”
I gave Gerd my diaries (there are three notebooks full). He sat down with them for a while and then returned them to me, saying he couldn’t find his way through my scribbling and the notes stuck inside with all the shorthand and abbreviations. “For example, what’s that supposed to mean?” He asked, pointing to “Schdg.” I had to laugh: “Schändung” of course–rape. He looked at me as if I were out of my mind but said nothing more.
Gerd only echoes society’s opinion the first time this book was published in the 1950s, when it was roundly condemned as “shameful to German women.” In a scarier way, Gerd’s words echo those of many Americans today. Remember, if it’s “rape-rape,” you won’t get pregnant! Your body has a way of just shutting down! Or those who claim “she was asking for it” or get annoyed when women get raped and actually want the perpetrators brought to justice instead of keeping quiet and letting it all go away. At least here, that can happen. The bigger shame for Germany in the 1950s if you ask me isn’t the way the women behaved, but they had to shut up about it afterwards and pretend that nothing happened so as to spare the menfolk’s feeling.
The author confesses she herself doesn’t know how many times she was raped. I guess after a while, you lose count, but I make a rough estimate of at least 15 times. At least. It’s darkly amusing how after a while, her concern is less with the rape itself than with the fact the rapist just ripped her last pair of whole underwear.
I don’t think this book shames German women at all. If anything, it shows how amazingly badass they were to go through all that they did. They endured the carpet bombing (by Americans, hence the saying “Better a Russky on top than a Yank overhead”), the deprivations of the last few weeks before the Soviets invaded, the rapes of the last few weeks of the war, then got up, brushed themselves off and became the infamous Trümmerfrauen, moving mountains of rubble with buckets to clear streets and rebuild homes. They were tough as nails. A German guy I knew in college told me German women scared him. After reading this book, I can understand why.