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.
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.