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Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there; I do not sleep, I am a thousand winds that blow, … the diamond glints on snow,… the sun on ripened grain,… the gentle autumn rain,… the morning’s hush, … the swift uplifting rush, Of quiet birds in circled flight,… the soft stars that shine at night. – Mary Elizabeth Frye, Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep

A couple evenings ago, a good friend and I met up for dinner after work at a little Vietnamese restaurant at Karlsplatz. The white-shirted, black bow-tied Vietnamese waiter interrupted us. “Sorry, Jennifer, your table by the window will be ready soon.” I stopped mid-sentence. We already had a table. True, wedged by the door, not very gemütlich, but nevertheless one of the rare tables in the beloved restaurant. Not only had my friend apparently snagged us the best seat in the house, but she was obviously on a first-name basis with the man wielding the ultimate power to determine all the diners’ fates. “Jennifer?”

Graves at Cemetery of the Nameless

Graves at Cemetery of the Nameless

There’s something comforting about people knowing your name. I venture even if you end up with some unfortunate name like Engelbert Humperdinck, you get used to your name, and it grows on you. And can there be any sound sweeter than that special someone whispering your name in the dark?

Perhaps that’s part of the tragedy of the picturesque little plots resting under the shady elms along the bank of the Danube – that rather than names, towering over the overgrown mounds of day lilies are crosses bearing inscriptions of dates, male or female and “Nameless” or “Unknown.”

I was a young child when I first visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, DC. And even at that tender age, I distinctly remember the profound sadness that struck me that someone had left this world, someone who had laughed, and cried and loved and no one knew they had gone. Or perhaps that they had even lived. No one to shoulder a pack on Memorial Day bearing his name in remembrance of him.

Chapel of the Resurrection at the Cemetery of the Nameless in Vienna

Chapel of the Resurrection at the Cemetery of the Nameless in Vienna

I had long heard of and wanted to visit the Cemetery of the Nameless. Once, years ago, at the prospect of soon returning to the States, I actually ventured on a bus that I believed would take me there. I ended up spending the day somewhere completely different. A good day. But not where I meant to go.

So this past weekend, on a Sunday drive back from wine country, the after-rain sun illuminating the world in a friendly glow of promise, with nothing but the road and a lust for life, I punched the “Friedhof der Namenlosen” address into the “Navi.” Not such an easy task since Google refused to betray the address. How Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy managed to find it before sunrise is beyond me. But I’ve always liked a challenge.

Peculiar Chicken Rabbit Grave at the Cemetery of the Nameless

Peculiar Chicken Rabbit Grave at the Cemetery of the Nameless

So I entered the address to the Gasthaus zum Friedhof der Namenlosen (the restaurant with the same name that I ventured would be close by): Albern 54, 1110 Vienna. Despite the Navi, we still almost missed the turn and found ourselves on back roads by the Danube seaport surrounded by menacingly tall buildings with tiny windows, mammoth-sized cranes, concrete silo structures and unattended weeds and overgrowth. In Anytown America, this would have been just another Miracle Mile back alley but in a country where the guys at the dump yard adorn their break-time containers with flower boxes, this placed seemed eerie. And the perfect place to dump a body. Or two. Or a few hundred.

And that’s exactly what the Danube had done here for decades. On the shore of current kilometer 1918, the Danube washed up the remains of Viennese who had grown “life tired” (Lebensmüde) and ended their lives in her cold wet womb.

Entrance Wall Cemetery of the Nameless

Entrance Wall Cemetery of the Nameless

The old cemetery (1840 – 1900) existed on the opposite shore side and the 478 nameless souls who rest there are now only memorialized by a cross. The flow of the Danube flooded the original cemetery so often that in 1900 Vienna moved the cemetery to an area behind a high water dam to where it now stands today. In 1935 the tiny Resurrection Chapel was erected. In 1940 the last burials took place here. Changes in the Danube current stopped the bodies from washing up to shore here years ago and those who get “life tired” nowadays are buried in Vienna’s Central Cemetery. Of the 104 accidental, self-induced and forced victims of drownings buried in the Cemetery of the Nameless, only 43 have been identified – 61 remain nameless.

Rare Sign for the Cemetery of the Nameless

Rare Sign for the Cemetery of the Nameless

As you stroll through the tiny garden of graves, one particular plot is bound to catch your eye with a weathered stuffed elephant and bright orange ribbons tied to his cross: “Here lies Wilhelm Töhn. Drowned by another on June 1, 1904 at age 11.”

But little Willy is not alone. The candles, flowers, toys and stuffed animals adorning many of the graves are testament that perhaps those who died here will forever remain unknown, but they will never be forgotten. The Worker-Fisher-Club (Arbeiter-Fischer-Verein) makes sure of that. Every year, on the afternoon of the first Sunday after All Saint’s Day (November 1), they build a raft and decorate it with wreathes, flowers and a symbolic gravestone with burning candles and send it off down the Danube in remembrance of the desperate souls who tried to find a final peace forsaken them in life.

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Poem on the wall of the Cemetery

Cemetery of the Nameless Grave marked "Unknown"

Cemetery of the Nameless Grave marked “Unknown”

Deep in the shade of old elm trees
Crosses gaze here upon gloomy
bank edges
Though no epitaphs
share who sleeps beneath
the cool sand

So silent in the wide eyes
Even the Danube’s
blue surges are held back
For those who sleep here together
who the floods washed ashore
Silent and lonely

All who join together here
Driven by desperation into the cold
Womb of the waves
So the crosses loom
Like the cross that they carried

Count von Wickenburg (rough translation: KC Blau)


The Spoils go to the Victor – Book Review of A Woman in Berlin

For most of history anonymous was a woman. — Virgina Woolf

Anonymous. A Woman in Berlin: Diary 20 April 1945 to June 1945. London: Virago, 2006. Print.

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary is one of those rare books that you end up reading by chance and think to yourself, “Why hadn’t I ever heard of this book before? Why aren’t people talking about this? Why didn’t Oprah Winfrey get her hands on this?”

Book cover of A Woman in Berlin

A Woman in Berlin

The story of war, told from the perspective of one of war’s spoils – a young woman filled with hope and ready to jump back up every time she is kicked and held down. She is funny, insightful and optimistic and for all these reasons, an inspiration to all women and men and a light of hope for humanity in a seemingly inhumane world.

The subtitle of the book is “Diary 20 April 1945 to 22 June 1945” but the book is much richer than a simple play-by-play of a young woman’s experience for two months in her worn torn city. Perhaps because the author was a journalist before the war, the book is a thoughtfully written, at times objective eye-witness account of Berlin as the victorious Russian forces greedily devour the spoils of the vanquished city – women, property and resources.

When the book begins, the narrator is a 34 year old woman living alone in war-torn Berlin hunkering down with her neighbors in the local bomb shelter and scavenging for food.  Rumors abound that the Russians draw ever nearer and women exchange at first in hushed tones, and later in downright vulgar terms what dark fate is marching toward them.  The author is afraid but she writes, “But there comes a time when you’re so mortally tired you stop being afraid. That’s probably how soldiers sleep on the front, amid all the filth.” (Anonymous 49)

Only the resilient survive

The women are repeatedly raped, degraded, worked, and used as the men see fit and still they continue to get up in the morning and live. “What will become of us? I feel so dirty, I don’t want to touch anything, least of all my own skin.” (Anonymous 80) The author’s ability to speak basic Russian is perhaps a blessing and curse. “By the same token it’s also easier for those who don’t understand a word of Russian. For them the Russians are more alien; they can talk themselves into the idea that these men aren’t people but savages, mere animals.” (Anonymous 99) Because of her language skills, she is fetched to prevent a rape. Together with another Russian soldier, she talks the two perpetrators out of raping a neighbor only to have the two wait for the third soldier to leave so they can ambush and rape her instead.

Perhaps one of the great casualties of war – besides the death of innocence — is women’s view of men. “These days I keep noticing how my feelings toward men –and the feelings of all the other woman – are changing. We feel sorry for them; they seem so miserable and powerless. The weaker sex. Deep down we women are experiencing a kind of collective disappointment. …Among the many defeats at the end of the war is the defeat of the male sex.” (Anonymous 62)

To the victor go the spoils

She and the other women learn to align themselves with specific men to assert some kind of control over the situation. “I…feel as if I’m performing on the stage. I couldn’t care less about the lot of them! I’ve never been so removed from myself, so alienated. All my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live. They shall not destroy me.” (Anonymous 87) Later she writes, “…as long as I’m nothing more than a spoil of war I intend to stay dead and numb, without feeling.”

Rape becomes so common that women exchange their stories about it over tea in a manner once reserved for the news of the day. “…here we’re dealing with a collective experience, something foreseen and feared many times in advance, that happened to women right and left, all somehow part of the bargain. And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. All the women help the other, by speaking about it, airing their pain and allowing others to air theirs and spit out what they’ve suffered.” (Anonymous 174).

Together they manage, survive and persevere. And as a kind of order is established and life begins to return to a new kind of normal, the survivors of the war – women and men — must acknowledge there is no return to the blissful ignorance of the prewar error.  If the husbands, fiancés and boyfriends return from the front, the women silently wonder what they did to the women in the villages they had conquered. And the men are confronted with a new, stronger, more outspoken woman, a woman not so easily bossed around and impressed with muscle force and one that has most likely survived ordeals he would rather not know.

But return to life also puts an end to the collective sharing of the rape experience of the women, placing an invisible muzzle on the women best evidenced perhaps most sadly and blatantly in the author’s experience with the publication of her diaries. Ten years after the war, the diaries were first published in English-speaking countries and not until five years after that, a German edition followed in Switzerland in 1960. But reaction to the book in the German-speaking world was negative and accusations were hurled that the author was tainting the good name of German women with her tales of rape and survival. The backlash was so tremendous that the author refused to allow publication again in her lifetime. A Woman in Berlin was first republished in 2003 but the identity of the author still remains secret. A woman who managed to survive ongoing rape and humiliation had to publish under Anonymous.

“All I can do is touch my small circle… What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still, the dark and amazing adventure of life beckons. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity, and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.” (Anonymous 206)

Read this book. Don’t skip the foreword. Then pass it along for someone else to read. The lessons extend beyond Berlin in WWII, way back to Cicero who considered the rape of women in war a mere property crime and the ancient Greeks who considered it socially acceptable behavior to Bosnia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and the list goes on and on.  The Women under Siege project includes information about how sexualized violence is used as a weapon of war. These atrocities must be shared until they are stopped.

Perhaps of interest: Guardian Article by Gloria Steinem and Lauren Wolfe on how collective raping is used by some men to fortify a false image of manhood,”Sexual violence against women is the result of the cult of masculinity.”

Also worth checking out: Ms. Lauren Wolfe’s Women’s Media Center project on sexualized violence in conflict, Women under Siege.