It has long been known that a huge number of German women suffered from a tidal wave of rape and sexual abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers in the closing days of World War II. Some estimates have put the number of women raped at over two million. As described in recent works such as Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945 and Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, this abuse was in some ways instituted (whether intentionally or not) by Soviet propaganda which emphasized to Russian soldiers that they must avenge the rape of Mother Russia, and inflict a humiliation on the German homeland which would assure it would never again attack them.
Regardless of the causes, this epidemic of abuse held an especially dark place in the German post-war experience. Although the abuse itself was well known, it was almost never discussed in the first person. No German woman had written about her experiences of abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers under her own name until this year. (A few anonymous books have been written, most famously A Woman in Berlin, and a very small number of studies based on interviews with survivors have been conducted, though due to unwillingness to talk about that time in Germany’s history, by the time people became willing to discuss the topic many of the original victims were already dead.)
Der Spiegel features an extended article about Gabriele Köpp, the first German woman to write a memoir under her own name about these experiences. Köpp is now 80. In 1945, she was just 15.
Köpp has now written a book about those 14 days and about the rapes, titled “Warum war ich bloss ein Mädchen?” (“Why Did I Have to Be a Girl?”). The book is an unprecedented document, because it is the first work of its kind written voluntarily by a woman who was raped in the final months of World War II, and who, years later, described the experiences and made them into the central theme of a book….
… Köpp isn’t interested in issues like the loss of one’s home and the controversy over Germans displaced from Eastern Europe after World War II. “People get together in clubs for that sort of thing,” she says. “It’s not for me.” Nevertheless, the things she experienced during a 14-day period while she was fleeing from her homeland were so traumatic that she still has trouble sleeping today. There are times when she cannot eat, and she is much thinner than she wants to be. She wears slim-cut jeans with a shirt and vest. Her thighs look thin enough to encircle with two hands.
Köpp has lived a full life in which she had everything — everything but romantic love. It was her bad luck, she says. Women outnumbered men after the war, and none of the few men that remained happened to be right for her. “Besides,” she adds, “I wouldn’t have been able to feel anything, anyway.”
The article is harrowing and important reading. Read the whole thing.
Sometimes reading about the effect of historical events on people seems to suggest a dramatic plot all on its own. I remember thinking, when reading about the late 17th and early 18th century generational transitions in New England about how much dramatic material must have been created by two trends: The younger generation often lacked the personal religious conversion experiences of the older generation, while the older generation held that people who had not experienced a true personal conversion should not be allowed full membership in the church. Further, land in the New England townships was all owned, and so sons could not own their own land until their fathers either gave them land or died. The only alternative was to abandon by the church and the town and move farther west in search of open land. Talk about a recipe for generational resentment and strive. Dozens of novels worth of dark familiar drama seemed to spring from the history book’s page.
Here too decades worth of mis-understanding and strife between generations seem to spring from the page — between the pre-war generation and the war generation; between the war generation and the 60s generation:
The horrific experiences also affected the subsequent generations. “A mother with post-traumatic stress symptoms can have trouble forming an attachment to her children in their early years,” says Kuwert. Mothers who are burdened by their own, repressed feelings have problems reacting to and regulating the emotions of their children. According to the theory, these children grow up in an atmosphere of fragility and nameless threat. According to Kuwert, nothing is as stressful as the experience of rape and torture.
On the evening of Jan. 25, 1945, Köpp was packing her things, preparing to flee. Her mother told her to hurry, because the Russians were approaching the town, and she said that she would join her later. Köpp wanted to talk to her mother on that evening, but she was silent and barely spoke with her daughter, not even to warn her about the many things that could happen while she was fleeing. “In a sense, she allowed me to run headlong onto a knife,” Köpp writes today, as an old woman.
On Jan. 26, 1945, Köpp and her older sister left the house. She would later learn that Soviet soldiers liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp the following day, Jan. 27. The ordeal that was about to begin for Gabriele Köpp had its roots in the crimes committed by her fellow Germans.
She hardly remembers saying goodbye to her mother. In fact, she writes, she has only recently allowed herself to think that there may have been no goodbyes at all.
She boarded a freight train with heavy sliding doors. The city had already come under artillery fire. At the time, she says, she never dreamed that it would be decades before she could return home. Peering through the small windows in the freight car, she realized that the train was traveling south, and not leaving the city in a northerly direction, as she had believed.
She knew that Russian tanks had encircled the south. After a short time, she heard the sound of artillery fire, and the train came to a stop. The locomotive had apparently been hit. The sliding doors were locked, and the only way to get out of the car was to crawl through one of the high windows. She was an athletic girl and managed to pull herself up to the window, and a soldier pushed her through the small opening. Her sister remained behind in the train. She would never see her again.
That afternoon, she hid under a table in a room filled with refugees. When the soldiers came to the building, asking for girls, the older women called out: “Where’s little Gabi?” and pulled her out from underneath the table. “I feel hatred rising up inside of me,” she writes. She was dragged off to a ransacked house. “I have no tears,” she writes. The next morning, it was the women, once again, who “pushed” her into the arms of a “greedy officer.” “I despise these women,” she writes.
She wrote a letter to her mother in her light-blue pocket calendar, even though she had no idea where her mother was: “There is no one here to come to my aid. If only you were here. I’m so afraid, because I no longer have my ‘illness’ (ed’s note: menstruation) any more. It’s been almost 10 weeks now. I’m sure you could help me. If only dear God wasn’t doing this to me. Oh, dear mother, if only I hadn’t left without you.”
Her menstrual cycle was interrupted for seven years, a widespread phenomenon some gynecologists called the “Russians’ disease.”
When Köpp finally found her mother in Hamburg, after being a refugee for 15 months, she wanted to show her the letter. But the mother, who had not expected to see her daughter again, greeted her coldly, holding out her cheek to be kissed.
The mother also told her to keep quiet about everything she had experienced while fleeing, although she could write it down if she wished. Köpp followed her mother’s advice. She was 16 when she wrote the notes that she quotes in her book today, notes that she has since donated to the House of History in Bonn.
In conversation, Köpp repeatedly mentions the betrayal by the women and her disappointment in her mother for not wanting to listen to her, and perhaps not even wanting to have her as a daughter anymore. “I could have talked to my father, but he was dead,” she says. She searches for reasons to explain her mother’s behavior, speculating that perhaps the mother felt guilty for having sent her and her sister on their journey alone.
There are so many built-in generational conflicts here. The mother afraid to talk to her daughter about what happened to her. The fragility of the culture and traditions rebuilt by a bruised war generation, and then torn into by the ’60s generation as if this stability which was sought in contrast to the violence and turbulence of the Nazi decade were itself at fault for the evils of the past. Nothing teaches an understanding of tragedy like history.