The Rape of the German Women

A German bestseller that describes the Soviet conquest of Berlin as a series of rapes perpetrated by soldiers of the Red Army comes out this week in Hebrew. Why is the local publisher concealing the name of the author?

In the summer of 1954, a book was published in the United States which was described as the diary of a German woman that was written during the Soviet conquest of Berlin. At the book's center were the acts of rape perpetrated by the Soviet soldiers against the women of the city, including the author herself.

The Cold War was at its height; America liked books that portrayed the Russians as human beasts. Within a few months of the book's publication, the 10th anniversary of the German defeat was marked and the book was translated into more languages. The book was not published in Germany until 1959 and was afterward forgotten - until two years ago, when it was republished and became an immediate bestseller. This week it is being published in Hebrew ("A Woman in Berlin," Am Oved Publishing House).

One of the reasons that the Second World War has retained its dominant place in Western memory is that it was fought amid the cities of Europe. It turns out that it is easier to internalize the suffering of a woman who is raped on the staircase of a modern apartment building in Berlin than the agony of a woman who is raped by American soldiers in a straw hut in Vietnam, say, or the suffering of a woman in an African tribe.

The German culture of memory has gone through many phases and is today focused on the suffering of the Germans themselves. Many of them were in fact victims of war crimes, including the bombing of cities, mass expulsions and murders, and rape and pillage by the occupation soldiers. Visitors to the excellent exhibition about Germany in 1945, which was recently held at the new museum of history in Berlin, learned that the Nazi regime is to blame not only for the death of the Jews and other peoples but also for the destruction and partition of Germany. The visitors included many young people and children; they want to know what their grandparents experienced in the war and how the new Germany was born, the one their parents grew up in. The commercial success of "A Woman in Berlin" also reflects this tendency.

The Israeli version of the book raises several problems. The woman's story is totally severed from any historical context. The reader might think that one day, out of the blue, the Red Army entered Berlin and started to rape its women. The author reconstructs the daily life of the tenants of the building in which she lives, an almost all-female community. How they go to the grocery store, under aerial bombings, how they get along without electricity, without water, without men. And then the Russians appear. It is a monumental drama, familiar from films and also from Antony Beevor's book "The Fall of Berlin." Some of the rapes are described in minute technical and gynecological detail.

The author interweaves the descriptions with all manner of literary and philosophical ruminations and also expresses her disappointment with German men, but does not ask herself how far she has fallen victim to the Nazi tyranny and to the atrocities which the Nazis perpetrated in her name, too; she bears a share of the responsibility. If she ever had Jewish neighbors, there is no mention of them in the book, until the author hears a radio report about the concentration camps - she supposedly did not know about them earlier - and shuts off the radio. The author was about 22 when the Nazis took power, a journalist at the start of her career; she did not oppose the regime. The annihilation of the Jews in the East was considered a secret, but anyone who read newspapers knew about the concentration camps in Germany.

The book is not only divorced from any historical context, but also from the identity of its author. She is called "Anonymous." Together with the title of the book, "A Woman in Berlin," the reader is supposed to believe that this is a saga whose value transcends that of a particular woman in specific historical circumstances and reflects "a far more profound historical truth than the factual truth that is behind details in a particular ID card," as Ilana Hammerman writes in an afterword to the Hebrew edition.

The author made the publication of her book conditional on the preservation of her anonymity. However, Martha Hillers - for that is her name - died a few years ago and her name has been made public, first in a journalistic investigation that sought, with much justification, to ensure that the book was not another fabrication in the wake of the Hitler diaries and the bestselling Holocaust memoir by Binjamin Wilkomirski, "Fragments," which turned out to be a hoax. The Berlin book is apparently not a fake, though there is no way of knowing for certain when Hillers wrote it and how much editing it underwent.

Am Oved, the Israeli publisher, chose to preserve the author's anonymity. Maybe that was a condition for publishing the book in Hebrew. Be that as it may, the circumstances of the publication in Israel are different from those in Germany, because in the meantime it takes only a minute and a half to find Hillers' name and life story on the Internet, in German or English. The concealment of her name in Israel thus does not look like a gesture of decency, but a commercial gimmick.

Images of the Soviet conquest of Berlin and the story of Martha Hillers in particular do indeed summon up reflections about the adaptability of human beings, as Hammerman says in the afterword. But Israelis do not need the rape of German women in order to be amazed at human adaptability: the subject has been raised many times in the wake of the stories of Holocaust survivors.

"A Woman in Berlin" is fascinating precisely in its factual historical context - the first chapter in the story of the new Germany, which is entirely a story of adaptability. Those Germans who found themselves under Soviet occupation adapted to the Communist tyranny the Soviet Union forced on the eastern part of their country; those who lived in the western part adopted the values of the American democracy that the United States forced on them. Both groups alike adapted to the values of the countries that destroyed and conquered and divided their country with the same speed as they previously adapted to the Nazi regime.

What is `Kadima'?

It was 112 years ago that Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language, got into trouble because of one word and was thrown into prison. The word was kadima (Hebrew for "forward"). It appeared in an article that was published in Ben Yehuda's newspaper, Hatzvi, and was written by his father-in-law, Shlomo Naftali Herz Jonas. It was a routine piece in the spirit of Hannukah, which concluded with a call "to gather strength and go forward, forward not like a crab that goes backward." The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rivals of Ben Yehuda and Jonas in Jerusalem succeeded in persuading the Ottoman authorities that this was a call to revolt, and Ben Yehuda was sentenced to one year in prison. He was released only after a worldwide storm of protest. This is one of the great episodes in the history of the Hebrew press in this country; as of last week, all the papers Ben Yehuda edited can be accessed on the Internet site of the Jewish National and University Library (

Kadima is a word that is all politics, a call to go ahead; it also comes from kadim, which means not only "east" but also a wind that brings a great deal of dust and sand with it; it is a metaphor for nonsensical prattle. One who pursues kadim is pursuing something he has no chance of obtaining. Kadima leads to kedima, which is also a very political word, referring to priority; dmei kedima means money on account of a deal that has not yet been done.

Since the appearance of the word kadima in the Bible, 15 times, it has become a well-worn term beloved of founders of Zionist associations, newspapers, political parties and all kinds of commercial institutions and companies. Jewish students in Vienna called their organization Kadima in 1882. The name was suggested to them by the writer Peretz Smolenskin, both to express a direction and an attachment to the ancestral land in the East. Y.L. Pinsker, one of the fathers of the Zionist idea, was an honorary member of the association.

This week it was reported that the owner of an Internet site called "Kadima" relinquished it in favor of Ariel Sharon's new party, but if you type in "kadima" in Google the first thing you get to is a Jewish community in Seattle called Kadima. It belongs to the Reconstructionist Federation, one of the four largest Jewish movements in the United States. The movement plans to contest a place in the next Zionist Congress. In its platform it identifies the term "Land of Israel" with the words "State of Israel," but of course does not mean to attack Sharon from the right with this. The Kadima community in Seattle describes itself as progressive, peace-loving and welcoming also gays and lesbians.

If you type in "kadima" on Google's Hebrew site you get more than 36,000 possibilities, headed by links that lead to a diaper service for adults, not necessarily politicians: home delivery, fast, reliable and discreet.

The tail of the ethnic ox

Shimon Peres lost no time this week dissociating himself from the bizarre remarks made by his brother Gigi on Army Radio, including a description of Labor leader Amir Peretz's people as "Phalanges from North Africa." In Barcelona, where Shimon Peres happened to be this week, there are plenty of people who can explain to him that Franco's Phalanges took their name from the reconnaissance patrols of Alexander the Great. In the United States there is still a far-right party which draws its inspiration from the Christian Phalanges in Lebanon and also passionately supports the Israel Defense Forces.

In the Israeli political lexicon, Gigi Peres' Phalanges will be remembered as the young brothers of the tshach'tshachim, which in turn were the offspring of "Morocco-knife." Peres' brother revived the "ethnic demon," a few people in Labor said angrily, because as we know the demon has been officially dead - not even the tip of its tail survived - since Peretz liquidated it once and for all in a kind of festive pulsa denura ceremony.

However, the attempt to stifle the ethnic demon is nothing but one way to make use of it, because it is not dead, of course. Not as long as Shas and Shinui are around; not as long as there is such a pronounced correlation between origin and social status; not as long as people open their bags for every Ethiopian native who happens to be standing in front of a restaurant - because if he's Ethiopian he must be a security guard; not as long as foreign workers have to hide in clothes closets from their informing neighbors; and not as long as renovation contractors promise their clients "Hebrew [Jewish] work." Israeli society is rife with many manifestations of racism and discrimination; ignoring their existence does not help eliminate them.

As it happens, many, perhaps most Israelis formulate their political attitudes partially on the basis of their ethnic origin. Similarly, they take account of the ethnic origin of the parties' candidates. This phenomenon is part of the political culture in Israel and all the signs show that it is not going to disappear anytime soon. In a multicultural society there is also no necessity for it to disappear. Amir Peretz may become the first Mizrahi - Jew of Middle Eastern or North African descent - prime minister. His worldview is anchored in his biography, just like the worldview of Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres. That is a legitimate subject for consideration, discussion and debate.