To identify the house where a main part of A Woman in Berlin takes place, I have been very lucky to come across a variety of sources, in archives, Marta Hillers’ estate and, not least, in the literature on Hans Wolfgang Hillers. An important book are Bruni Löbel’s memoirs in which she described her relationship with Hillers and the place they lived in in great detail.
Hillers’ attic apartment on the fourth floor of Manfred-von-Richthofen-Straße 13, near Tempelhof Airport and close to Marta Hillers’ former abode no. 31, consisted of three rooms, bathroom and kitchen and a long, narrow corridor. (It is interesting to note that the first edition of A Woman in Berlin reduced the space to two rooms, an attempt to render it unidentifiable.) From the spacious studio room with its large slanting window, a door led to a small balcony with a rusty iron railing, overlooking the courtyards of the complex.
Much has been speculated on the identity of Anonymous’ fiancé “Gerd“. Jens Bisky’s source “Frau S.” (I have a pretty good idea who she was but see no point in outing her here) believed it to be Hans Wolfgang Hillers. He appears in A Woman in Berlin in the person of Anonymous’ absent colleague, the owner of the attic apartment she takes refuge in after the destruction of her home.
The owner is a former colleague, and I was a frequent guest before he was called up. In keeping with the times, we used to barter with each other: his canned meat from Denmark for my French cognac, my French soap for the stockings he had from Prague. After I was bombed out I managed to get hold of him to tell him the news, and he said I could move in here. Last I heard he was in Vienna with a Wehrmacht censorship unit.(1)
The reference to Vienna isn’t just garbling the identity of the person, but rather a hidden allusion to Hillers’ job at Wien-Film AG till the end of October 1944 when he transferred to Prag-Film AG (both UFA subsidiaries).
Realising this, a discovery Marta makes in the attic apartment takes on a whole new meaning:
I found a letter wedged inside a drawer, addressed to the real tenant. I felt ashamed of reading it, but I read it all the same. A passionate love letter, which I flushed down the toilet.(2)
Jealousy? Or at least some hurting?
A joke, however, is her reference to the “few books“ of Hillers’ substantial library!
Marta was not immune to her cousin’s effect on women, and there is no doubt they entertained a sexual relationship at some point. Whether he was the man in her life in 1945 remains unknown. That there was a man is proven by a letter dated April 6 in which she refers to her “husband”, but it does not appear to have been a happy relationship. Tensions were running high, with each of the partners trying to hurt the other over trifles. One feels reminded of Anonymous’ description of the unbearable tension after the return of her fiancé.
There are several points against the assumption of Hans Wolfgang Hillers being “Gerd”. Hillers was no soldier; in fact, he was stationed in Prague at the time in his capacity as editor at Prag-Film. He was not a war orphan either. The question of marriage does not seem too plausible as Hillers was entertaining at least two romances at that time, an old one with actress Bruni Löbel and a new one with future bestseller writer Marie Louise Fischer, then a student working for Prag-Film. However, these frequent and well-known affairs might have been a factor in the breaking down of the relationship.
Hard to speculate upon is “Gerd’s” reaction to the tales of Anonymous and the widow. Hans Hillers was anything but a prude, yet it is not impossible he would have been taken aback by the way the women joked about their rapes.
Considering Marta Hillers changed details for the publication of her diary as to keep the anonymity of the persons involved, there are also several points speaking for Mrs. S.’s assumption. “Gerd’s“ manner of appearance and of speaking, his self-assuredness and his organisational talent all would fit Hans Hillers. The Markish woods wouldn’t have been an unusual place for Berliners trying to flee the city life, but one is reminded of Hans Hillers’ employment as a teacher for the son of dramatist Georg Kaiser who lived in the Mark. Moreover the question presents itself how Hillers managed to return from Prague when his compatriots there were interned and forced into slave labour? Did he sense the looming danger and trecked homeward, similar to „Gerd’s“ return in A Woman in Berlin? The numerous visitors that invaded the attic apartment after his moving in there could easily be explained with Hans Hillers’ large circle of acquaintances. Even “Gerd’s“ foraging trip to Pomerania did have its pendant in real life, though it happened weeks later and lead Hillers to the Magdeburger Börde (in Saxony-Anhalt), where acquaintances from his communist days, the writers’ couple Joachim Barckhausen and Elfriede Brüning, were living.
In the pattern of interchanging partners in the circle of friends around Marta and Hans Wolfgang Hillers, there emerges another possible candidate for “Gerd”, the painter and sculptor Hermann Gross. He had studied under Picasso in Paris and lived there with his girlfriend Hildegard Friedrichs who also features in A Woman in Berlin. In fact, Gross and Marta Hillers resided in Paris at the same time for about a year. Later on, Gross took over Hans Hillers’ flat in Landsberger Straße 32 and became a friend of the cousins Hillers. Hildegard Friedrichs, though separated by this time from Gross, joined their circle as well. During the Second World War, Gross served as a Luftwaffe Obergefreiter (leading aircraftsman) in a propaganda unit stationed in Paris until near the end of the war when he was hastily transferred to the Eastern front, just like it happened to “Gerd”. Gross, too, was not taken POW but returned to Berlin in some unknown way.
A quiet, gentle and cultivated man by all accounts, it seems very likely that Gross would have reacted strongly to the tales of and jokes about rape that must have been painful for him to hear.
(For Gross’ wartime work, see the paper of his biographer Robin Jackson: http://wlajournal.com/23_1/images/jackson.pdf)
Bruni Löbel described her neighbourhood: The cinema close to the underground station (today Platz der Luftbrücke), opposite the cinema the shop of butcher Netzer (“Hefter” of A Woman in Berlin); a little way up the street from no. 13, on the other side (meaning the other side of the cross street Schulenburgring – no. 13 is situated on the corner of Richthofen-Straße and Schulenburgring), the pub of Buchow (at Richthofen-Straße 17), and a bookshop on the corner opposite of no. 13. Its owner, Mrs. Löbel reports, had a trove of books forbidden by the Nazis hidden in her back room.
Marta, too, writes about the bookseller’s wife and her secret crate of books. Meta Nierendorf owned a gift and book shop in Manfred-von-Richthofen-Straße 14. However, most likely Anonymous’ booksellers are not Frau and Herr Nierendorf. Josef Nierendorf was a gallerist and art dealer; the couple did not live in Richthofen-Straße 13. Quite probably Marta mixed details of two separate couples in her account. She describes the bookseller as ”Bavarian, a gnarled stump of a man“. Bruni Löbel mentions the sales representative Max Werndl and his wife Grete, long-time neighbours from the house’s third floor. Max Werndl is a quite characteristic Bavarian name.
The cinema was the “Korso“ on the corner of Berliner Straße and Kaiserkorso, the little yard in front of it, which served as a temporary cemetery, is a parking lot today. Richthofen-Straße 17, however, has continued a pub.
In case of an air raid alarm, Bruni Löbel wrote, they had to get down five-and-a-half flights of stairs from the attic apartment to the bomb shelter. It was not accessible from inside the house, so they had to leave the building by its front door and run around the corner to the cellar entrance situated at a short distance.
According to Marta:
To get to the basement shelter we have to cross the street to the side entrance, climb down some stairs, then go along a corridor and across a square courtyard […]. Then down some more stairs, through more doors and corridors.(3)
The cellar entrance is indeed around the corner from the front entrance, in Schulenburgring.
In spite of its proximity to Tempelhof Airport, the attic apartment survived the bombings relatively well, Bruni Löbel reported. Only the window panes had been broken by the air pressure, and one night the ceiling cracked when the roof next to the apartment caught fire. Mrs. Löbel had to resort to buckets and umbrella when it was raining.
What’s more, the roof leaks as many of the tiles have been shattered or blown away.(4)
Other veterans of no. 13 besides the Werndls were the baker Karsch who had both his apartment and his shop in the house, and Herr M. of a juice factory, probably Anonymous’ “doctor of chemistry“.
We’re mostly upper and lower middle class, with a sprinkling of workers. I look around and take stock.
First is the baker’s wife, two plump red cheeks swaddled in a lambskin collar. […] The hunchbacked doctor of chemistry from the soft drink company, slumped over in his armchair like a gnome. […] Erna and Henni from the bakery, who are staying with their employer because it was impossible for them to make their way home. […]
[…] the baker who’s gone out to his allotment plot to bury his silver (he’s the only one in the building with a red Class III ticket) […].
Across from me is an elderly gentleman, a businessman, wrapped in blankets and sweating feverishly. Next to him is his wife, who speaks with a sharp Hamburg ‘s’, and their eighteen-year-old daughter, whom they call Stinchen, with the same ‘s’. […] The scrawny retired postmaster and his wife […]
The engineer from the third floor is also absent, along with his wife and son.(5)
A postmaster B. lived in the house since 1940. There were several “Kaufmann” – which can translate into businessman, merchant or clerk. One remembers Herr Pauli („Industriekaufmann“) and the Hamburg woman’s husband. An electrical engineer and an engineer; one of them possibly the “engineer from the third floor“ who went west with his wife and son.
In the case of the pharmacist’s widow who houses Marta after the hit in the fourth floor, details could have been intermingled. From 1937 to 1940 there was indeed a pharmacy in no. 13 whose owner L. kept being listed as a resident of the house beyond that year. Without more information it remains unknown whether he died between 1943 (the year of the last published street directory of Berlin) and April 1945 or whether the widow actually was the bereaved of a bank accountant who died in 1941.
Three elderly sisters, all dressmakers, huddled together like a big black pudding.(6)
The dressmaker sisters, too, are not easy to identify. Over the years, several dressmakers or siblings (meaning sisters, an expression peculiar to the Berlin street directory) lived in no. 13. Listed from 1940 to 1943 are a “glove maker“ and a “tailor“ as well as the Siblings S.
A tiny clue presents the first English edition of A Woman in Berlin. In it, the author describes how she – a few days after her own registration at the town hall of Tempelhof – accompanies the Hamburg woman and the widow there, whose turn it is now. The registration in all likelihood proceeded in the alphabetical order of the citizens’ last names.
Went to Bolle’s to use up the pale-blue milk coupons Gerd sent me for Christmas(7), Marta says in her diary. This was probably W. Wichmann, Manfred-von-Richthofen-Straße 15, a shop affiliated with the popular Berlin dairy Bolle.
The house no. 13 is still standing today, a vast building at the corner of Manfred-von-Richthofen-Straße and upper Schulenburgring including two backyards. Its entrance, ornamented in Jugendstil, with its pattern that is repeated in the window panes of the door, probably looks about the same as it did in Marta’s time.
Despite the war, Hans Wolfgang Hillers’ apartment remained the hub of an artists’ circle. A frequent visitor was a young man in uniform, former communist author and friend of Hans Hillers, Kurt W. Marek. In 1942, he published a book on his experiences as a soldier in Norway, Wir hielten Narvik (We held Narvik). Ostensibly, Wir hielten Narvik feigns valiant war propaganda. But not without reason Marek’s courageous editor Hans Zehrer had warned him beforehand that the Nazis might not take too kindly to it. (“Is it a coincidence,” he asked Marek, “that not once you mention the name Adolf Hitler?” – “No,” replied Marek.) In his diary-like narration, Marek criticises propaganda and buzzwords; fallen comrades aren’t sent off with pathos but with a sober “A shame, he was a good guy”; the soldiers amuse themselves by skiing, singing songs from the “golden 20s” so much hated by the Nazis, and wonder what folks back home would say if they knew their “heroism” consisted mainly of sitting in the snow and waiting.
Most likely Kurt Marek and Hans Wolfgang Hillers had become acquainted through their common political interest. While the historian Antony Beevor speculates in his introduction to the new English edition of A Woman in Berlin, Marek and the author might have met through their journalistic work, it’s probably more likely that Hans Hillers introduced them to each other. In 1935 they produced their first joint work, a radio play based on the series of articles written by Marta Hillers and Trude Sand, “Heimat Landstraße“.
Is Trude Sand the real-life “Gisela“, close friend of Anonymous? Many facts point to it. ”Gisela“ had had ambitions to be an actress before she became an editor. Trude Sand, as mentioned before, had had a training as an actress and dancer; in one of her articles she wrote about her time at a drama school, including the instructions in stage make-up that saved “Gisela“. According to a friend of Trude’s, it would have been quite in her character to take in and look after the two young women like “Gisela” did.
Another indication is the faith that “Gisela“ has found but doesn’t have the courage to own up to in front of her friend. (One may presume this is owing to a shared communist past.) In a booklet that Trude Sand published under an alias in 1947, a kind of travel guide to Lake Constance with a story to it, her heroine Susanne writes to her best friend Marta, a journalist living in Berlin(!):
When I lie awake and listen, all the grief of the present and that which had been mirrored in the lake as time went on, rises up before me, but also the certainty that life changes like the colours of the lake, so that one time it lies in bright sunshine (how often was it granted us to see it like this!), another time seethes and foams, destroys and throws flotsam upon the shore.
It is then that I understand the heavy truth of the word: In everything God works for good with those who love him. It is the right love of God that is rooted in awe of all living things and is nourished by the devotion to all things beautiful and good.(8)
In the summer of 1945, Trude Sand moved to Munich, started to work as an editor for a youth magazine again and took up her old interest in children’s theatre.
When did Marta make way for the apartment’s owner? Her diary ended in June 1945. Hans Wolfgang Hillers had returned to Berlin by July ’45. In all likelihood, it was then that Marta found herself new accommodations in Schulenburgring 5.
In career terms, the planning described in her diary had taken shape. With the licence and the British pounds of Cypriot Sinos Sinodoru (Marta changed him into a Hungarian) the Minerva publishing house was founded in 1945. The publicist Margret Boveri called Sinodoru in her own record of the time around war’s end, Tage des Überlebens (Days of Survival), one of the “most grotesque figures of Berlin’s intellectual life“. He had been banned from Cyprus at the age of sixteen because of his participation in arson at the British governor’s palace.
Under the licence of Minerva-Verlag a Russian primer was published in 1945 for use in schools in the then Soviet Zone. Part 1 was written by “M. Hillers” and illustrated by “H. Friedrichs”. Of the beginnings of this book Marta wrote in her diary:
The Hungarian is always cooking up something new. He heard somewhere that for now the only available paper will go for schoolbooks. So he adds schoolbooks to the publishing programme. He’s guessing there’ll be a great demand for contemporary German primers and Russian grammars; my assignment is to rack my brains about that.(9)
More than one freshly learned Russian word went into the book, bread, herrings, flour and even Anatol’s “singing” cock.
“H. Friedrichs“ was Marta’s acquaintance Hildegard Friedrichs who had married the engineer Franz Cornelsen in 1938. Before his change into a successful publisher (today, the Cornelsen-Verlag is one of the leading publishing houses of schoolbooks in Germany), Franz Cornelsen had been employed at Siemens, last as head of its foreign department. Owing to this is probably the job offer in Russia Soviet authorities made him, as Marta mentions. The Cornelsens lived in the famous “artists’ colony“ in Wilmersdorf where Marta walked to every day from Tempelhof to take part in the planning of their new publishing house.
The Cornelsens, as the facts easily reveal, are “Ilse R.” and her husband in Marta’s book. Here, too, Marta changed details, mainly concerning Hildegard’s multiple rape.
Around 3.30p.m. I set off for Charlottenburg to visit Ilse R., who worked as a fashion photographer and as an editor for a women’s magazine until she married an engineer, a specialist in armaments […].(10)
Ilse got it once in the basement, the other times on the second floor, in an empty apartment where they pushed her inside, using their rifle butts on her back. One of them wanted to keep his rifle with him when he lay down with her. That scared her, so she gestured to him to put his gun aside – which he did.
While Ilse and I discussed the subject, her husband stepped out […]. Her husband is tormenting himself with reproach for staying in the basement and not doing a thing while the Ivans took their pleasure with his wife. During the first rape, down in the basement, he was even within hearing range. It must have been a strange feeling for him.(11)
In reality, a friend of the Cornelsens had deserted during the last days of the war and hid at their place. His service pistol he had deposited in a drawer. When Soviet soldiers entered the apartment, they found the weapon. While they pointed it at Franz Cornelsen’s forehead, they raped Hildegard seven times in his presence.(12).
(1) Anonymous, 2005, p. 18-19
(2) ibid., p. 19
(3) ibid., p. 22-23
(4) ibid., p. 19
(5) ibid., p. 24-26
(6) ibid., p. 24
(7) ibid., p. 19
(8) Carola [i. e. Sand, Trude]: Liebe zum Bodensee. Stuttgart/Jungingen: Reise- und Verkehrsverlag, 1947, p. 51. Translation: Clarissa Schnabel
(9) Anonymous, 2005, p. 284
(10) ibid., p. 237
(11) ibid., p. 239
(12) Cornelsen, Dirk: Das zertretene Angelspiel. Essen: Klartext-Verlag, 2003, p. 175