The women of Berlin were all different now. Not one of them were untouched. They were skins separated from their souls. The women they had been before the Red Army entered Berlin’s city limits and before Hitler had shot himself in the head were all dead even if their lungs still took in air and their hearts were still beating wildly against the inside of their tortured bodies.
(from A Berlin Story)
Quick summary: A Berlin Story is the first novella in Tiffani Burnett-Velez’s Embers of War series set in the days immediately after the end of World War II. The novella follows Annalise Bergen, a 19-year-old pulled out of hiding by a group of Red Army soldiers and chained to a wardrobe for two weeks after they began raping their way through the city. Annalise, whose mother was a Russian dancer, has a hard time comprehending that these monsters are from her mother’s homeland, yet she also believes that the Germans are getting what they deserve for the atrocities committed by the Nazis. After being saved by a Ukranian officer, Annalise tries to make a new life for herself, living in the remains of her family’s apartment building and spending the day hauling rubble in buckets for the little bit of food provided by the Americans. She catches the eye of a friendly American private, Aaron, and begins to hope for better days to come, but those hopes are dashed by the tensions between the Soviets and the Americans and the ultimate division of the city.
Why I wanted to read it: I was in the mood for something short, and I’ve long been drawn to stories about Berlin in the aftermath of the war because of the stories my mother has told me about her aunt, who unfortunately was a victim of rape when the Soviets entered the city.
What I liked: Burnett-Velez deftly paints a portrait of Berlin as a city of battered, starving, hopeless people. I couldn’t help but admire Annalise because she refused to give up despite knowing that her experiences would haunt her forever and that she would never be able discuss them. From my vantage point as the reader, I wanted to yell at her to stop when she left the American tent for displaced persons or walked the streets at night, but I could understand her motivations for those decisions. Despite being such a short work, there were several times I had to put it down because the scenes were too difficult to process, such as when Annalise is forced to take clothes off a woman who had been shot to death in the street along with her baby. As much as I wanted to turn away, Burnett-Velez made the ruins of Berlin come to life, and that is what makes this novella so fantastic.
What I disliked: There were a few grammatical errors in the text and some instances where the third-person narrative shifted to first person for a moment, which seemed more of an editorial issue and not intentional. These issues didn’t prevent me from liking the novella, but I might have given it a 5-star rating had it been a bit more polished. There’s also a cliffhanger ending, but the pages leading up to the ending were exciting, so I guess what I really dislike is that the next installment isn’t yet available and I am dying to know what happens next!
Final thoughts: A Berlin Story is short but powerful and deep. It is full of contrasts, from the differences in how the Soviets and the Americans treated the Germans to the differences between the horrors Annalise endured for two weeks at the hands of the Soviets and the horrors her roommate Rebecca endured for years in a Nazis concentration camp. There are glimpses of humanity in the midst of inhumanity, and it is sure to make readers ponder the idea of blame, whether German civilians deserved harsh treatment for the actions of the Nazis and, in particular, whether a teenage girl should feel like she deserved to be raped by the conquering soldiers as punishment for the atrocities committed by her country. I didn’t expect to be blown away by this novella, but now I can’t wait to find out what happens next in Annalise’s story.
Disclosure: A Berlin Story is from my personal library.
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