After reading Frances Faviell’s memoir of the Blitz, A Chelsea Concerto, I was keen to read this book, written before A Chelsea Concerto but set in post-war Berlin. Frances’s husband was a senior civil servant in the British Administration in Berlin & Frances & their son, John, joined him in late 1946. Berlin was being administered by the four allies – Britain, the United States, France & the Soviet Union – in the uneasy years after the defeat of Hitler & before the Soviets divided Germany & took over the East.
During the War, Frances lived in Chelsea & helped many refugees with her practical kindness & friendship. Her life in Berlin is a continuation of that life in some ways. The contrast between the lavish social life of the Allied administration & the friendship she develops with the Altmann family is striking. She is exposed to the trauma inflicted by the war as well as the ongoing hardship of the defeated German people & her attempts to alleviate the hardship as much as she can for her friends.
Frau Maria Altmann lives with her husband, Oskar, & their children Fritz, Ursula & Lilli in a barely heated apartment stripped of anything that could be sold for food or fuel. Frances meets Frau Altmann one day when she sees the older woman collapse on the street. Taking her home, Frances discovers that Maria is depriving herself of food to help her children. The Altmanns had been a prosperous family but their belongings are gone & their savings are worthless. Ursula is working as a housemaid for a group of American servicemen & Lilli is a ballet dancer. Fritz, resentful of the allies & with a nostalgic longing for the Hitler Youth he was part of during the war, has become involved in the black market. Another son, Kurt, is missing in Russia. Their lives are made more difficult by the restrictions imposed on Berliners – the tiny electricity ration, the bans on fraternising with the British (the Americans were not so strict) & the lack of food & fuel even if they had any money to pay for it.
As Frau Altmann begins to trust Frances, she becomes more involved with the Altmanns. Assisted by her British driver, Stampie, she is able to help in practical ways. Stampie is adept at all the ways & means of getting hold of just about anything legally or not. He always has money & always knows someone who can help. He is supporting several needy families & has an answer for any problem. Frances also learns more of the Altmann’s story. The horror of the end of the war when the Russians arrived, looting & raping indiscriminately. Frau Altmann hid her daughters in the attic but Ursula couldn’t stand the cramped conditions & was raped several times. Frau Altmann grieves for Kurt & excuses Fritz for his rudeness & laziness but Lilli is the baby of the family & her father’s favourite.Oskar Altmann is a gentle man, bewildered by his change of circumstances & at a loss in this new world.
Frau Altmann has a more difficult relationship with Ursula who has embraced the way things are, talks English with an American accent & comes home with cigarettes, food & smart clothes given to her by her employers. Her mother doesn’t want to question how she gets the extras although she sees more than Ursula realises. She is practically supporting the family although her mother continues to disapprove of her behaviour & attitudes especially when she joins Fritz in his black market activities. Her rejection of the Church especially hurts her mother whose faith never wavers. Ursula becomes involved with Joe, an American who becomes her sole protector, & who wants to marry her & take her home with him to the States. Lilli is frail but, because the Russians love ballet, she is able to continue dancing & the company receive some privileges.Lilli’s health is a worry but her quiet determination to keep going masks her pain until it’s too late.
The Dancing Bear is an affecting & very moving story. By concentrating on the story of one family, Frances Faviell brings home the plight of many thousands more. Maria Altmann is a dignified, stoic woman who understands a great deal more about her children’s lives than they realise. Her blind spot is Fritz, a bitter, resentful young man dealing with the aftermath of the defeat of his country by flouting authority wherever possible. His search for somewhere to belong will take him far from his family. Life in Berlin was difficult for everyone. The Allied Command employees had trouble getting food & fuel but they were the victors & their problems paled beside that of the Berliners who had lived through Nazism & then the destruction of their city by the Russian troops. Frances is able to help the Altmanns with her contacts & Stampie is a miracle worker but the contrast between her daily life & that of her German friends & servants is very great.
There are so many fascinating characters in this book. Fritz’s place in his mother’s heart is taken by her nephew Max who spent much of the war as a prisoner in England, working on a Welsh farm. Max is in love with Ursula & his return to Berlin stirs up emotions that she is unwilling to acknowledge. One of Frances’s acquaintances is Frau von R, an unrepentant Nazi who grieves for the past & is hostile to the conquerors. Frances admires her honesty, unlike that of many others who denied that they were members of the Nazi Party or that they knew anything about the regime’s horrors. Oskar’s brother, Hermann, drinks to forget the present & to remember the glories of the past. Frances’s servant, Lotte, shows Frances her journal, written during the Russian invasion, with its matter-of-fact descriptions of rape & destruction. Frances is an artist & uses her talent to record the life around her. This edition of The Dancing Bear includes some delicate pencil drawings, including a lovely one of Lilli. I’ve read very few post-war memoirs & this one stands out because of the compassion with which it’s told. As in A Chelsea Concerto, Faviell doesn’t flinch from recording the brutal realities of life for these desperate people. The aftermath of war & the reality of living under occupation requires compromises that will test the Altmanns but also shows how strong the will to survive can be.
The Dancing Bear is another of the Furrowed Middlebrow list from Dean Street Press.