Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A book

I fell into a book last night.  Sure, this happens regularly, but not like this. Trust me, this book was so gripping I read far into the night, and was reaching for it practically before I opened my eyes this morning.  Let me tell you about it.

A few days ago it was on the counter in the kitchen when I got up in the morning.  J's girlfriend passed it along to me.  Because we'd never had a conversation about books or reading, I'm wondering what J told her about me that was so dead on.  Dead on...and I don't mean to be punny, though you might think so by the end of this post.

A Woman In Berlin is the name, subtitled "Eight weeks in the conquered city."  Written about the seige of Berlin in April of 1945 by the Russian Army. it is the most honest, unflinching portrait of war I've ever read.  And I've read a few.  Bagdhad Burning, also by an anonymous woman in Iraq after the current war started, was a first a blog, and is also extremely compelling reading.  And, of course, I've read The Diary of Anne Frank.  A time or a dozen.  But this woman in Berlin, depicting the brutality of the occupation is overwhelmingly horrible.  But like an accident on the freeway, I couldn't turn my face away.  Really.  J's girlfriend thought I might be turned off by the explicit sexual episodes but it wasn't pornographic, it was rape.  Repeated, unceasing rape, not only of this woman, but of thousands--between 95,000 and 130,000 in Berlin alone in those days when the Russians took over.

Several things have been tumbling around in my head all day, as a result of this book.  One is that in my simple math, I've looked at the Germans in WWII as our enemies and the Russians as our allies.  And, as far as that goes, it's true. But it's not the whole story.  It wasn't those women who created the death camps.  Yes, they'd been mesmerized by a madman (to put the best possible spin on it), but by 1945, many of them--many, many of them--wished him dead and wished the war over.  Were the majority of those people any more culpable in that war than we average Americans are culpable in the one we're in now?  If so, to what extent?  By the time the Russians bombed Berlin, and marched in to rape every woman they could lay their...er, hands on, those women no longer called their fuhrer by name.  Indeed, he'd become like that bad guy in Harry Potter--'he who shall not be named.'  They were so busy trying to find food, trying to stay alive, they cared very little about anything else.  And as a prize for surviving the war, they were violated. 

 It's also true that the Russians had lived under seige from the Germans for 700 days before the war turned.  They'd starved, been massacred, raped and pillaged.  These Russians who strode into Berlin carried that with them.  And they were men at war, men who'd been away from home for as long as four years without leave.  Men who'd grown up in Stalinist Russia, where life might have even been harder than war.

This all makes me wonder what I'd be made of in the place of that woman.  I remember the sunny Tuesday morning when planes flew into skyscrapers.  After sitting in front of the TV for hours, I went out into our backyard to play with our dogs.  That day I'd intended to mail my first query letters to publishers and agents, with the first 30 pages of my novel.  It was three weeks before I mailed those letters, and then, only to agencies on the west coast, rather than New York.  But that day as I stood at my fence throwing tennis balls and talking to my neighbor, I really thought it might be the beginning of war, and the ending of life as we knew it.  I couldn't imagine that we'd just go on as usual.  And I couldn't imagine what damage would be done to us, to our children, to their psyches from living through such a moment, such a seige as the one that looked to be coming.

But Wednesday came. Then October, then 2002.  And the world kept spinning, the kids kept growing, and our lives were barely disrupted.  Even the war has barely touched us, except philosophically.  And philosophy is merely a sieve in comparison to what actual soldiers, actual victims live through.  I can't imagine it.  I really can't.  I can't imagine the brutality of rape, the degradation of occupation in one's home, one's life, one's very person.  I'd like to turn my face away, to pretend such things are only nightmares, only horror movies.  But they are not.   And so I read about it.  Lean into this woman's experience, allow it to flow over my life.  Giving me perspective, propelling me to pray.  Maybe it sounds crazy to pray for those women who lived through those eight weeks in Berlin 64 years ago (though I'd really like to), but it isn't crazy to pray for their descendents, and to pray for those women who live in war-torn places in this century.

It's what I can do.  Maybe it's what we all can do.  Should do, we who live easy lives far from the range of bombs, or even the range or violence.  If it's true that we're all created in His image, it must also be true that we must all share together in the pain of others.  We must.

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