Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945
I ran into an old friend at a bookstore a few days ago, Princess Marie Vassiltchikov—known to her confidants as Missy. She is the author of "Berlin Diaries 1940-1945" which portrays her journey from a delightful if seemingly shallow aristocrat at the beginning of the book to a volunteer nurse in the charnel houses of hospitals under bombardment by the end. Marie Vassiltchikov worked in the German Foreign Office until 1944 as a translator from English and French into German. She had a unique view of those terrible years in Berlin--a civilian but an employee of the German government, a foreigner but married into one of the noble families of Germany, an aristocrat but not fazed by having to scrounge for food in the ruins. She was a staunch friend of many of the people involved in the attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944.
The story of the Vassiltchikov family is intriguing in itself. So-called White Russians (to distinguish them from the Soviet Red Russians) the family had large estates in Lithuania as well as Russia. They are related to, in-laws with or friends of families like Metternich, Hohenzollern, Radziwill and Bismark. Even the legendary Thrun-und-Taxis bunch turn up late in the book. Missy is comfortable among the oldest noble families of the German speaking world as well as the petit-bourgeoisie women that she works with at the Foreign Office and the displaced peasant women from Russia with whom she attends Mass.
The book was written in a matter of fact, almost laconic style. The author knew English and French almost as well as she knew her native Russian. Writing in English in the evenings or following day while the events recounted are still fresh in her mind she paints an astonishing word picture of the collapse of the Third Reich.
For example, her description of bombings and their aftermath is interspersed with accounts of everyday life in a war-time capital:
Monday, 22 November "Staying at the office late, as we have a boring conference. It is raining cats and dogs. Today is Georgie’s birthday."
Tuesday, 23 November "Last night the greater part of central Berlin was destroyed." This is followed by a long and very detailed description of how she and her family survived the first saturation bombing and resulting fires of that part of Berlin. It is all the more harrowing for its matter of factness and detailed description of how her house and those around it were damaged. An excerpt: "At every crash the house shook. The air pressure was dreadful and the noise deafening. For the first time I understood what the expression bomb carpet means. At one point there was a shower of broken glass and all three doors of the basement flew into the room, torn off their hinges...The crashes followed one another and were ear-splitting it seemed as if nothing could save us."
Wednesday, 24 November As Missy tried to get to work she saw more of the effects of the air raid: "As I continued down Lutzowstrasse the devastation grew worse; many buildings were still burning and I had to keep to the middle of the street which was difficult on account of the numerous wrecked trams. On the Lutzowplatz all the houses were burned out. I had to climb over mounds of smoking rubble, leaking water pipes and other wreckage to get across. The bridge over the river Spree was undamaged but on the other side all the buildings were destroyed. By now the sight of those endless rows of burnt-out or still burning buildings had got the better of me and I was beginning to feel panicky. The whole district, many of its houses so familiar to me, had been wiped out in just one night. I started to run and kept on running until a building collapsed as I passed..."
Missy relocated from Berlin to Vienna where she served as a nurse trying to help badly burned Luftwaffe officers and men. As a member of the former aristocracy in Russia she would not be treated well by the advancing Soviet army. After watching most of the émigré community flee she got on the last westbound train from Vienna before the rails were closed. By this time the reader (at least this reader) was so involved with her life that he was worried that she wouldn’t make it out in time—even though he knew that Princess Marie Vassiltchikov died in London in 1978.
There are several pages of pictures, many of which show Missy as a strikingly beautiful young woman.
A wonderful book that I recommend to all.
Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945
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