Harrowing Memoir: German Woman Writes Ground-Breaking Account of WW2 Rape

By Susanne Beyer

Gabriele Köpp was repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers in 1945, when she was just 15. Now, at the age of 80, she has become the first German woman to write a book under her own name about the sexual violence she experienced during World War II.

By the time a person turns 80, her life has consisted of 29,200 days. In the case of Gabriele Köpp, that life has included a high-school education and a training program as a physical and technical assistant. It has also included an affinity for "pure mathematics," as Köpp calls it, and for physics.

She is fascinated with the power of the tiniest particles, or, quoting Goethe, with "what holds the world together in its innermost self." Because of her fascination for elementary particles, she went on to earn a doctorate in physics and eventually became a university professor.

Her life has also included many friendships, primarily with men, from doctoral students to colleagues to Nobel laureates. And there are also eight godchildren in her life.

Photo Gallery

2  Photos
Photo Gallery: Fourteen Days in Hell

Nevertheless, for Gabriele Köpp, what happened in the space of only 14 days was enough to cast a dark shadow over the rest of her life, the remainder of those 29,200 days.

No Home to Return To

Köpp is sitting in an armchair in her Berlin apartment, talking about those 14 days. She serves freshly brewed coffee with condensed milk out of a can. She smokes the long, thin Kim brand of cigarettes, which have become rare in Germany.

There are black-and-white photographs of her mother, her father and her sisters hanging on the walls. They are all dead. There are also photos of her parents' house, including exterior and interior views. The house was in Schneidemühl, a town in the former German region of Pomerania; today the town is called Pila and is located in northwestern Poland. Where the house stood is nothing but a meadow today.

Köpp describes the photos with German words from a distant era: the Salon with its chandelier, her father's Herrenzimmer ("study"). Her pronunciation also betrays her roots. She says "Tack" instead of "Tag" (the informal version of "Guten Tag," or "hello"), just like many others who originally come from regions that were once German and are now Polish.

Köpp's apartment is not one of those long-occupied flats that contain layer upon layer of the possessions its occupant has accumulated over the years. She only took the apartment about 10 years ago, when she retired from her position at the Technical University of Aachen in western Germany and moved to Berlin. When asked whether she thinks it's unusual for someone to move at that age, she waves her hand dismissively. It doesn't really matter, she says, because she never had a home to which she could return.

But 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."

During those 14 days, Köpp was raped, again and again. She was 15 years old, and she knew nothing about sex.

'Door to Hell'

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.

There is "A Woman in Berlin," the famous confessions of a woman who was raped in World War II, which was first published in the 1950s and republished in 2003. But the woman was unwilling to disclose her identity, and it wasn't until after her death that it was revealed that the anonymous author was a journalist. To this day, there are doubts as to whether she truly wrote the book alone or whether there was a co-author who helped her to distance herself from the horrific events and, with distance, to achieve a voice -- a surprisingly free, confident and even flippant voice.

Köpp lacks this voice. She describes the first few days of her escape with precision, sequence by sequence, almost cinematically, but it is clear that she is not a practiced author. Nevertheless, her account is so gripping precisely because it was not polished for the sake of putting beautiful language on paper. Her story exerts a pull on the reader that stems from the authenticity of her words and experiences. And when the author herself is unable to comprehend what she experienced, even her voice reaches its limits.

Köpp couldn't find the words to describe the rapes themselves. She writes of a "place of horror" and a "door to hell," and she describes the rapists as "brutes" and "scoundrels." When asked why she was unable to describe exactly what happened to her, in all its horror, she shrugs her shoulders and says: "I can't even say the word" -- rape.

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1. Not Enough
muhammad Aslam Khan 02/27/2010
The victim of rape by Russian soldiers finally told all but I find the commentary in your article grossly deficient. In fact your write up at one point has tried to justify the barbarian act by linking it as retaliatory act to the German soldiers' excesses. It is fine way to commit to fire fight but what if, that is the accepted war psyche to stoop so low to torture of women, one asks, German excesses could have been justified the same way. I am not pleading to do so but the fact is the jornalism does not bury the ashes and skirt around the truth. Instead it faces it squarely.By any angle, Soviets committed horrors would gradually surface because they were the victorious and Germany was vanquished. Their stock is safely three times more than world attributes to Nazis. Best wishes.
2. Harrowing Memoir(s)
Artemesia 02/27/2010
I am not sure if Gabriele Köpp is "the he first German woman to write a book under her own name about the sexual violence she experienced during World War II." Reference: ISBN 978-0978265410 Lost Years by Margarete Mueller
3. Frauen in Deutschland
symewinston 02/28/2010
"The essence of a nation," the French historian Ernest Renan said in 1882, is that its citizens have much in common, but "that they have forgotten many things." The Germans, it could be said, have forgotten things that most nations never knew. No single country has struggled so openly to reckon with its history, and the process has not been a short one. Germany has spent decades coming to terms with the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazi regime, but the penumbra of shame around these crimes also obscured the suffering visited on German civilians, 600,000 of whom were killed by Allied firebombing of cities like Dresden and Hamburg. It is hard to believe that people who call themselves Christians are so full of hatred and so empty of compassion for the suffering of the German people during the war. The suffering of German women by the Russians, and not only of German but Jewish women as well is harrowingly described by a the anonymous diarist who wrote “Eine Frau in Berlin” (A Woman In Berlin) a book in which A 34-year-old woman provides a firsthand account of the Russian takeover of Berlin in the spring of 1945. The first rapes in East Prussia were an eruption of pure rage, bloody revenge for Wehrmacht atrocities on Soviet soil in the march to Stalingrad; soldiers destroyed homes, raped women -- some as young as 12 -- and killed children. But revenge could not have been the sole motive, for even Soviet prisoners of war and Jewish survivors were not safe; some, as young as 16, were raped by the soldiers who set them free. By the time the first libidinous Soviet wandered into the diarist's cellar a few months later -- pointing menacingly to a teenage girl and asking "How many year?" -- German women appeared to the Red Army simply as rightful spoils of war. Though the precise statistics will never be known, existing estimates are breathtaking: 2 million women were raped in Germany, many of them more than once. In Berlin alone, hospital statistics indicate between 95,000 and 130,000 rape victims. Many women killed themselves rather than "concede" -- as some women put it -- to the Soviets; some men killed themselves and their wives rather than suffer the indignity of rape. The diarist (the anonymous author of “Eine Frau in Berlin) and her neighbors sweat out waves of air raids, knowing all too well that the respite from American and British bombers will only come with the Soviet occupation: "Better a Russki on top," they joke nervously, "than a Yank overhead." "Our fate is rolling in from the east," the diarist laments, and early reports leave little room for optimism: "Let's be honest," one woman in the cellar ventures, "none of us is still a virgin, right?" The proliferation of tales of individual atrocities often takes on the numb character of pornography: an endless litany of crimes against dignity, the same scenarios of cruelty replayed again and again; anyone who has pored over human rights reports soon finds that the accumulated evidence begins to dull as the brutalities mount. Yet here the opposite is true. The stories from those around her only multiply the disgust: a friend raped four times; a Jewish woman raped while her husband, shot by the Russians, bleeds to death; a woman whose three rapists smear marmalade and coffee grounds in her hair, just for kicks; the rape of "a twelve-year old girl ... who was tall for her age"; the soldiers who "took the sixteen-year-old on the chaise longue in the kitchen"; one woman raped by "at least twenty men," with "her breasts, all bruised and bitten." The diarist's emotional register remains unfailingly calm. Her dispassionate chronicle of the disasters of war suggests a kind of stoic heroism, though she is quick to point out that her own travails have been minor by comparison: "It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything -- but it's not." The diarist resolves after her third rape to take refuge with a senior officer, "a single wolf to keep away the pack." But this gambit is not entirely successful; after her first benevolent rapist disappears, she is forced to take up with another one.
4. German victims
symewinston 02/28/2010
Zitat von sysopGabriele Köpp was repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers in 1945, when she was just 15. Now, at the age of 80, she has become the first German woman to write a book under her own name about the sexual violence she experienced during World War II. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,680354,00.html
A harrowing and sad story; but what a brave, stoic woman she is. and she was not the only one as the book "Eine Frau in Berlin" tells us. To think that some people in this forum say that victims such as this one, deserve their rape, for supporting Hitler. How cold hearted and hateful some people can be.
5. Germans women raped by Soviets in during and after WWII
nevai 02/28/2010
Zitat von sysopGabriele Köpp was repeatedly raped by Russian soldiers in 1945, when she was just 15. Now, at the age of 80, she has become the first German woman to write a book under her own name about the sexual violence she experienced during World War II. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,680354,00.html
It might sound cruel, but I have little sympathy for those German women who were raped by the Soviets during and after WWII. I view it as part of the punishment that the Germans received for the unspeakable crimes they committed against the Soviet Union. I am not even talking about the murder of the Jews and other Untermenschen or the crimes against other European nations. Just for what they did to the Soviet Union, Germany would have justly deserved to be totally eliminated. They are lucky they weren't. Ditto about Austria, Hungary, and the other allies of Germany. Please note that I have no particular sympathy for the Soviet Union either. Yet another evil empire. I am glad to see that the current Germany is a different country and that the Germans succeeded to rejoin the Western civilization. Sincerely, Paul Nevai Columbus, Ohio, USA
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