German prisoners of war in Berlin in early 1945
Two remarkably candid diaries from spring 1945 help to shed some light on what really happened.
The first is by Vladimir Gelfand who was a Jewish lieutenant from central Ukraine. His son, Vitaly, found the diary when he was clearing out his father’s papers after he died.
“Dad had seen such horrors on his way to Berlin”, he told me. “He went through so many villages in which the Nazis had killed everyone, even small children. And he saw evidence of rape.”
As the Red Army advanced into what the Soviet press called ‘the lair of the fascist beast’, posters drummed home the message: ‘Soldier: You are now on German soil. The hour of revenge has struck!’
One of the most revealing passages in Lieutenant Gelfand’s diary is when he came across a group of German women fleeing on the outskirts of Berlin.
“With horror on their faces”, he writes, “they told me what had happened on the first night of the Red Army’s arrival. ‘They poked here’, explained the German girl, lifting up her skirt. ‘No less than twenty men,’ she burst into tears.
‘Stay here,’ the girl suddenly threw herself at me, ‘sleep with me! You can do whatever you want with me, but only you!’”
Vladimir Gelfand saw first-hand the horrors of the mass rape
Gelfand’s description of the traumatised girl and her desperate attempt to fend off further gang rapes is echoed in another remarkable diary, written by a German journalist in her early thirties.
Called ‘A Woman in Berlin’, it later became a bestseller – although for decades nobody knew the author’s name. She started writing on April 20th 1945, just 10 days before Hitler’s suicide.
The anonymous woman in the diary constantly questions her own assumptions and those of the people around her.
As she and her neighbours are hiding in the basement of their apartment block, they joke “better a Russky on top than a Yank overhead” – rape is preferable to being pulverised by bombs. When the soldiers reach the basement and try to haul the women out she uses her Russian language skills to dissuade them – but minutes later she is ambushed and brutally raped.
Eventually the diarist realises that she needs to find one ‘wolf’ to stave off gang rape by the ‘male beasts’. She shares her bed with a senior officer from Leningrad with whom she discusses literature and the meaning of life.
“By no means could it be said that the major is raping me”, she writes. “Am I doing it for bacon, butter, sugar, candles, canned meat? To some extent I’m sure I am. In addition I like the major and the less he wants from me as a man, the more I like him as a person.”
When the diary was first published in 1959, her frank account of the choices she made to survive was attacked for ‘besmirching the honour’ of German women.
New research on sexual violence committed by all the Allied forces – American, British and French as well as Soviet troops – is still emerging. But the rapes, once the stuff of water pump conversations in the aftermath of liberation, slid under the official radar – few reported it and even fewer would listen
Besides the social stigma, in East Germany it was sacrilegious to criticise Soviet ‘heroes’ who had defeated Fascism, while across the Wall in the West, the guilt for Nazi crimes made German suffering untouchable.
But in 2008, there was a movie adaptation of the Berlin woman’s diary called Anonyma. The film had a cathartic effect in Germany and encouraged many women to come forward, including Ingeborg Bullert.
Ingeborg, aged 90, now lives in Hamburg. When the Soviet assault on Berlin began, Ingeborg – like the woman diarist – took refuge in the cellar of her building, but was raped at gunpoint by two Russians after she went upstairs to find a piece of string to use as a wick.