Stones from the River
Stones from the River
Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi, is the story of a dwarf who lives in the fictional small town of Burgdorf, Germany, through the first half of the twentieth century. The novel is an intimate look at what it was like for ordinary people to live through the rise of Adolf Hitler and the devastation wrought by the Third Reich. The novel conveys the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust as these become apparent in the small town. The advent of Nazism provides the context for an in-depth analysis of certain universal psychological tendencies, chief among which are the search for identity through group membership, the desire for social acceptance, and the fear of ostracism.
The novel demonstrates the nature of difference and how policies of exclusion divide a community. It also exposes the ways in which the Catholic Church and the fascist state engendered fear and promoted discrimination. Townspeople are persuaded by beliefs about community solidarity and outsider status, and the plot enumerates the diverse human impulses and choices at work when various people live in close proximity over decades, weathering global conflict twice in their lives.
In her acknowledgments, Hegi thanks her godmother, Käte Capelle, who "broke the silence by documenting her memories of the war years." The novel exposes the little-known reality as it was experienced by the small-town German population. It addresses the common question about how decent Germans could have allowed the Holocaust to happen. Stones from the River was well received in 1994 when it first appeared, but it became a bestseller in 1997 when it was chosen for Oprah's Book Club list.
Ursula Hegi, author of Stones from the River and at least nine other books, was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, on May 23, 1946. When she was eighteen, she moved permanently to the United States, settling in New Hampshire, where she married and raised two sons. Though her academic degrees are variously reported, several sources indicate she received both her B.A. and M.A. from the University of New Hampshire in the late 1970s and that, after graduating, she remained at the university in a teaching position. Apparently in the 1990s, she lived in Spokane, Washington, and taught at Eastern Washington University. Thereafter, she lived in New York State and wrote full time. She has served as a conference participant or visiting professor at a number of academic institutions, including University of California at Irvine, University of North Dakota, University of New Hampshire, and Barnard College.
Though she began writing as a child, Hegi waited until she was in her forties to pursue a career in writing. As a German American, she was aware that Americans knew more about Germany's World War II history than many Germans did, who had reached their adulthood in a culture sworn to secrecy about the Holocaust. Some of Hegi's works draw upon a cluster of characters that were born before or during the world wars and lived part or all of their lives in the fictional town of Burgdorf, near Düsseldorf, Germany. Two of these works are Floating in My Mother's Palm (1981), a collection of interrelated stories, and the novel, Stones from the River (1994). Two Burgdorf residents who immigrated to the United States and their descendents are the focus of her novel The Vision of Emma Blau (2000), which tells the German-American, multigenerational story of a family-operated grand apartment house in New Hampshire. A cultural change of pace is Hegi's Sacred Time (2003), a work with three narrators, which tells the story of an extended Italian family living in the Bronx in the 1950s.
Hegi also wrote Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America (1997), a compilation of fifteen interviews with German-born immigrants in the United States, which explores problems of identity for Germans who must cope with the legacy of
Germany's Nazi past. In addition to this work and those mentioned above, Hegi has published two collections of short stories: Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories (1994) and Hotel of the Saints: Stories (2001). She is also the author of many reviews and other kinds of articles published in a variety of journals.
Hegi has received a number of grants and awards, including five PEN Syndicated Fiction Awards. She was nominated for a PEN Faulkner Award for Stones from the River, which in 1997 became a bestseller after it was chosen for inclusion by Oprah's Book Club.
The novel opens with a reflection on the time when the protagonist, Trudi Montag, as a child assumed that everyone had her gift for knowing "what went on inside others," a time predating her understanding of "the agony of being different." The narrator jumps ahead to Trudi's pubescent molestation by four boys. That event showed Trudi that praying does not change things. For the first three months after Trudi's birth, the unstable Gertrude Montag refuses to touch her baby, and the child is cared for by neighbor women.
Trudi's father, Leo Montag, returns from World War I in October 1914. He impregnates his wife immediately and resumes his work, running the pay-library. Gertrude gives birth July 23, 1915, to a dwarf daughter, who is called Trudi. Gertrude persists in abnormal, even scandalous behavior, and Leo takes to locking her into the third-floor sewing room. Soldiers return home, disheartened and humiliated. They take over the daily responsibilities that have been handled by the women.
Late in the fall 1918, Gertrude tells Trudi the story of her ride on Emil Hesping's motorcycle, how they fell and Gertrude got gravel under the skin of her left knee. On the day of this accident, or about that time, Gertrude had a brief sexual relationship with Emil. Gertrude believes now that her infidelity and the damage to her knee, which is its outward sign, caused Leo to be injured in his left knee on the same day while fighting on the Russian Front.
Leo takes Gertrude to Grafenburg, where she remains in an asylum for seven weeks. She comes home about Christmas time and suggests a sibling for Trudi, who rejects the idea. Gertrude tells Trudi that storks can be persuaded to deliver a baby if people leave sugar cubes on the windowsills over night. Because Trudi does not want a baby to come, she secretly eats the sugar. Born prematurely, the baby boy, Horst, dies. Trudi feels responsible for his death.
Gertrude returns to the asylum where she contracts pneumonia and dies. At the funeral reception, Trudi catches Herr Buttgereit kissing the baker's wife and senses intuitively the power of knowing what others do not want her to know. Talk at the party touches upon refugees moving into the area, and the locals are "united against newcomers." The unknown benefactor leaves a phonograph and some records in the pay-library, and the music comforts Trudi. She turns four and misses her mother "with a bottomless panic." Leo takes Trudi to see fireworks for her birthday. Secretly, Trudi visits Doktor Rosen, asking for a pill to make her grow.
Trudi hangs from doorframes in hopes of growing. Leo's sister, Helene Montag Blau, visits from the United States with her son, Robert. During the visit, Trudi and Robert become friends. Together, they discover a bee entangled in a spider web, and Robert cuts it gently free without tearing the web. After he leaves, Trudi becomes friends with Georg Weiler, who lives next door. His mother, Hedwig Weiler, dresses him like a little girl, refuses to cut his hair, and will not allow him to play with boys. The two children, outwardly so different looking, are ostracized by their peers.
During the flood of 1920, Franz Weiler drowns when he goes to the Rhein with some drinking buddies and entertains them by doing handstands on the dike. Frau Weiler insists Franz was en route to mass; however, the townspeople know otherwise. The point is made that the age-old local habit was to uphold the façade, to maintain family respectability. The narrator writes: "a complicity of silence … had served the town for centuries." A week later, the unknown benefactor gives Georg lederhosen (leather pants with leather suspenders), though his mother does not permit him to wear them.
When she was a little girl, Hedwig Weiler was sexually abused by her alcoholic stepfather, and she developed a belief that men's souls are contaminated. Her generalized distrust of Georg causes him to learn to lie. At Georg's urging, Trudi cuts his hair, though she anticipates that as he becomes more like other boys, she will lose him as a friend. Leo lovingly assures Hedwig that "it was time."
Trudi does the shopping: Anton Immers's butcher shop, Buttgereits's farm for white asparagus, and Braunmeiers's farm for eggs and milk. Trudi takes to swimming alone in the river. At Catholic school, the nuns find Trudi pushy and intrusive. Though she is bright and enthusiastic, she must learn to wait to be called on and not volunteer to answer questions. The children exclude her whenever they can from games, and the nuns do not help the situation. They teach the children religious precepts that encourage feelings of German superiority and prejudice toward non-Christians.
At the end of summer, the Eberhardts's pear tree is heavy with fruit, and the children eat pears, but their sweetness gags Trudi, who chokes whenever she tastes sugar and is reminded that she caused her brother's death. Renate Eberhardt has a baby, whom she names Helmut. He is beautiful, with golden hair and blue eyes, but Trudi intuits that Helmut could destroy his mother. Because Trudi has no friends, Leo buys her a little dog, that she names Seehund. Owning the dog makes Trudi appealing to Eva Rosen, and their friendship develops privately, though Eva ignores Trudi at school. Trudi asks the priest for the name of the patron saint of dwarfs; all he can suggest is St. Giles, patron saint of cripples.
In a confidential moment, Eva reveals that she is different, too. She has a red birthmark that spirals across her chest and around her nipples. Eva anticipates that when she has babies, she will lactate "red milk." Trudi does well in school but likes history best; she compares playground bullies to Napoleon. Leo tells her that Germans have a history of sacrificing everything for one leader, and this is because Germans fear chaos. Hans-Jürgen lures Eva and Trudi into the barn to see some kittens. He takes one up, swings it around, and throws it against the wall, killing it. When Hans burns a cat's paw, his father breaks his arm for having a match in the barn. When Eva shuns Trudi, Trudi tells Helga Stamm about the birthmark.
At age thirteen, Trudi attends a carnival and sees another dwarf, the circus entertainer, Pia, who has a trailer in which the furniture is scaled down to fit her body. Leo adjusts the furniture in the pay-library to fit Trudi's body. Trudi goes swimming alone and happens to see four boys swimming naked. When they spy her, the boys drag her into Hans-Jürgen's barn and molest her. One of the boys is Georg Weiler, her childhood friend. Alexander Sturm arrives and calls out to Frau Braunmeier, causing the boys to flee. Wrapped in a cow blanket, Trudi gets back to the river and collects her clothes. She throws stones in the river, calling them by the boys' names.
In the aftermath of this attack, Trudi refuses food, cannot sleep, and stays indoors wrapped in loose clothes and a blanket. She cannot bear to have Seehund with her, since the dog witnessed her degradation. She remains indoors all winter and into the spring. In April, the floods arrive, "loosen[ing] her rage." Trudi takes revenge on her assailants by spreading false stories about them. Her stories cause Fritz Hansen's bakery to lose business and Paul Weinhart to miss out on an apprenticeship. She tells Hans no woman will ever love him, but she holds off doing something to Georg Weiler. Helmut Eberhardt joins a youth group (soon to be the Hitler-Jugend [HJ]) and attempts to hurt Rainer Bilder, a morbidly obese boy.
A boycott of Jewish stores occurs and an anti- Semitic torch parade takes place, in which Helmut marches with a beatific look on his face, as though he is receiving communion. Hitler becomes chancellor, and Trudi sees him when she visits Düsseldorf. The priest's sermon against sins of the flesh causes people to borrow more romance novels from the pay-library. Trudi wonders why the priest never attacks novels about soldiers being killed in battle. Prayers for the fatherland become more common during mass. In the spring 1933, two hundred authors are labeled indecent, and their books are burned around the country; Leo and Trudi hide books by these authors in the pay-library. Ingrid Baum's religious fanaticism shows the extreme effect Catholicism can have on a conscientious person who believes she has sinned.
Klaus Malter, the eligible young dentist, begins socializing with Ingrid Baum and Trudi. Both young women are attracted to him, but Ingrid pulls back in strict piety, and Klaus rejects the idea of being involved with the dwarf Trudi. The Nazis come to power, and people take a wait-and-see attitude. Jews are identified as a political problem. Ilse and Michel Abramowitz lose their passports. Rainer Bilder disappears.
- As of 2006, Stones from the River was available in its entirety from Chivers Audiobooks.
Dressed neatly in his Hitler-Jugend uniform, ten-year-old Bruno Stosick hangs himself. His father, Günter Stosick, so objected to the group that he forced his son, a champion chess player, to withdraw. Trudi and Ingrid go to Düsseldorf to a movie and see an anti-Hitler flyer on the bus. The movie and the news bulletins are examples of Nazi propaganda. Back in Burgdorf, Fienchen Blomberg, a girl of nine, is stoned by Hitler-Jugend members.
Frau Weiler beats off the boys with a broom, warning she will tell their parents. Leo holds the girl while Doktor Rosen attends to her wounds. Next day, Frau Weiler is arrested for attacking children. Leo goes with her to the police station, swearing the boys were eighteen and the victim just a little child. Frau Weiler spends a week in jail, which enrages her. Leo tells her to be quiet and keep the vigil; they can help Jews more effectively if they act covertly. Günter Stosick is forced to resign from the chess club, and he and his wife are shunned during mass. Ingrid continues her blind faith in the absolute word of the Catholic Church, repeating the rosary and asserting that she is not the one to decide what is right and wrong. Though her father abused her, she believes it is she who is the unredeemable sinner.
More children join the political clubs: the boys join Hitler-Jugend; the girls join the Bund Deutscher Mädchen (Alliance of German Girls [BDM]). They are indoctrinated to be true to the Führer and not to trust their own judgment. One benefit of membership is these teens move more easily from school into apprenticeships and jobs.
Eva Rosen and Alexander Sturm marry one month before passage in September 1935 of the Nürnberg laws, which prohibit the intermarriage of Jews and Christians and deny Jews their German citizenship. Eva and Alexander have a costume party, in defiance of the laws that are shrinking the world of the Jews, and Eva wears a nun's habit. Seehund dies of old age. Trudi and Leo celebrate his fifty-first birthday. In the face of Jewish persecution, onlookers practice silence "nurtured by fear and complicity." When Anton Immers's son marries, the father entertains wedding guests with stories of his World War I service, and the guests begin telling their own stories of seeing him in battle.
In March 1938, German troops enter Austria, and feeling his age, Leo turns most of the library work over to Trudi. Pastor Beier hears confessions of Burgdorf women who love Leo, and the priest would like to hear more about "Leo Montag's successes," yet celibate Leo confesses only three times a year and never mentions a love interest. By contrast, Emil Hesping plays the field, but Lotte Simon always takes him back.
The 1938 spring of Anschluss (Germans in Austria), the Rhein floods again. Gifts from the unknown benefactor appear in many houses. Lotte Simon is arrested in front of her store, and its contents are confiscated. The storefront becomes the Hitler-Jugend headquarters. Trudi and Leo quickly take valuables from the milliner's apartment and hide them in the pay-library for safekeeping. When she returns four months later, Simon lives in a room elsewhere in town, a broken woman.
In November 1938, during Kristlenacht (Crystal Night), mobs vandalize Jewish stores and synagogues, wasting property and making a terrible mess for which the Jews are later taxed. Twelve hours before his wedding, Helmut Eberhardt and two other HJ members break into the Abramowitz house, destroying personal property and hauling off Michel Abramowitz to be beaten. Through the night Leo stands beside Ilse Abramowitz, waiting by the window. Finally, they see Michel crawling along in the street. At Helmut's wedding the next day, Trudi whispers to Renate what her son has done. Ruth Abramowitz comes to comfort her parents; she foolishly believes that being married to a Christian physician will protect her from the Nazis. The local synagogue is destroyed by fire; townspeople watch the fire, having learned "to take the horrible for granted."
Helmut and his wife move into the upstairs rooms of his mother's house, but he relentlessly badgers Renate to sign over the house to him. He wants to occupy the larger ground floor rooms and have her live upstairs. She refuses to buckle under his pressure. Resolute in her compassion and generosity for suffering people, Renate continues to befriend Jews, even though Helmut warns her that doing so is unpatriotic. In June 1939, Helmut warns her that she could be arrested. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invades Poland. Helmut turns in his mother, and she is arrested. By December, Jews must wear a yellow six-pointed star on their outer clothes. The following year, Hilde gives birth to a little boy, and Helmut is killed in action. Hilde lives upstairs with her son, keeping the downstairs clean and ready for the return of her mother-in-law. But Renate never comes home again.
Ingrid goes off to teach a large class of children, and Klaus Malter ends a six-year courtship in order to suddenly marry Jutta Sturm. Jews in many cities are forced into crowded housing.
At the age of twenty-six, Trudi answers a newspaper romance ad and meets Max Rudnick in Düsseldorf. Klaus Malter's mother, a professor and Christian, is arrested. Herr Blau turns away a young Jewish man who comes in the night seeking a hiding place. Afterward, Blau deeply regrets his refusal to help the man and seeks ways to make amends for it. Lotte Simon is relocated and later writes to Ilse Abramowitz about the labor camp conditions. Max pursues Trudi; he says her being a dwarf bothers her, not him.
Fourteen through Sixteen: 1942
Trudi discovers Erna Neimann and her son Konrad hiding under the pay-library and takes them in. Seeing an urgent need, Leo and Trudi develop the means to hide people, making house rules and excuses to discourage those who want to visit. With the help of Emil Hesping and Herr Blau, they dig an escape tunnel between the pay-library and the Blaus's house. Working together on the tunnel gives Trudi a new sense of community. Ilse Abramowitz says she would "rather be subjected to injustice … than to be the one who inflicts it on others." She predicts that the Germans "might survive, but they'll never recover."
Eva is questioned about her parents' escape by car to Switzerland. She has chosen to stay behind because of Alexander and is convinced if she were arrested Alexander would voluntarily go with her. Eva goes into hiding at the pay-library. Erna Neimann and Konrad must be moved to another hiding place, and for a special farewell dinner, Leo burns banned books and cooks a roast with vegetables. Eva decides to return for one night to her husband, but she is informed on by the butcher and arrested. Alexander cowers before the Gestapo, "paralyzed with fear," as his wife is taken away.
Matthias Berger gives a recital at Fräulein Birnsteig's estate in October 1942. Trudi makes a comment about the Nazi flags and is immediately arrested. After three weeks confined in the Theresienheim, the local convent hospital taken over by the Nazis, she is interrogated by the officer who arrested Lotte Simon. She sees right through this man, realizing at once that he does not believe in what he is doing and will be a suicide within the year. She tells him a story about a man born with his heart outside his body. The officer releases Trudi with a warning.
Trudi tells Max Rudnick that while she looks different on the outside, she is really like everyone else on the inside. Max says this is not so: "Each one of us is different." Every person is unique; even people who look and act alike are different from one another on the inside. Max and Trudi have a romantic and sexual relationship. Max is a watercolorist, and his room is decorated with paintings of buildings transformed into red and yellow flowers. These images signify sexual orgasm to Max, but they also foreshadow the destruction of Dresden in which he is killed.
In February 1943, Trudi learns that Max is married but has been separated from his wife for a long time. Ingrid returns to Burgdorf, pregnant. Her father persuades the father of her child, Ulrich Hebel, to come to Burgdorf and marry Ingrid, who gives birth to a daughter, Rita, one week after the wedding. Ingrid is convinced the baby is the outward sign of her depravity. Ingrid becomes pregnant again and then her husband is killed in action, and this second child, Karin, is born after Ingrid is widowed. Ingrid sees the facts surrounding her daughters' births as signs of her sinfulness.
Alexander Sturm joins the army. His guilt about abandoning Eva is so great that he hopes to be killed in battle. Hans-Jürgen is missing in action in Russia; Fritz Hanson returns to Burgdorf without his jaw. The identity of the unknown benefactor is revealed. Emil Hesping attempts to steal the small statue of Hitler and is shot in the act. The police realize he is the benefactor when they find a ledger in his apartment going back years, noting needs and clothing and shoe sizes of townspeople, and dates on which gifts were delivered. His brother, the bishop, visits Leo. They discuss Emil's courage and love. The bishop reveals that Emil embezzled money from the gym in order to pay for the gifts.
A postcard comes from Zurich; Erna and Konrad Neimann have made it safely into Switzerland. In June 1944, Michel Abramowitz dies in his sleep, and his wife is arrested after she takes her cane to the HJ headquarters, breaks up the interior and hurts the young men in there who were responsible for beating up her husband. After Ilse is deported, Leo acts like a widower again. He wants to get the Abramowitzs's valuables to Ruth in Dresden. He and Trudi drive there and search in vain for her. Alexander Sturm deserts, having had no success in getting himself killed in action. He returns to the attic where Eva was arrested and jumps from the window to his death.
Max gets a week off from the factory, and in February 1945, just before his thirty-eighth birthday, he agrees to take the Abramowitzs's valuables to Dresden and search for Ruth. He apparently is killed in the firebombing of Dresden in which thousands die. American tanks arrive in Burgdorf in March 1945.
People resolve not to discuss the war. Eva's parents are alive in Sweden. German POWs from Russia arrive, starving and in rags; German POWs from England arrive well-fed and in clean clothes. When Americans question local people about having supported the Nazis, these individuals disavow any such loyalty and seek supportive statements from Leo and Trudi. Babies are born; even the widowed midwife, Hilde Eberhardt, has or adopts a baby and names it Renate in memory of her mother-in-law. The town makes itself pretty again; the site of the synagogue is paved over, making a parking lot.
Trudi sees the "crippled state of her community." Jutta and Klaus have a baby, Hanna, and Jutta paints a picture that reminds Trudi of Alexander and Eva. Matthias Berger visits from the seminary and tells Trudi how he was sexually abused by other seminarians. He abhors his homosexuality and resolves to return to the seminary because being there, he believes, is good for his soul. In April 1947, Ingrid attempts to save her children from lives of sin by throwing them off a bridge. She believes this will expedite their innocent flight to heaven. Rita drowns, but witnesses save the baby, Karin. Ingrid slips further into a psychotic state and dies. Karin is raised by Ingrid's brother, Holger, and his wife, who together hide the fact of Ingrid's existence; Karin grows up believing that her uncle and aunt are her biological parents. In November 1948, Hans-Jürgen murders his girlfriend and her male companion; he is tried and people testify to his history as a psychopath, but Trudi does not tell what she knows about him. Rainer Bilder reappears, so thin people barely recognize him. Now a journalist, he interviews Hans-Jürgen in jail and writes an article that describes Hans- Jürgen as "lonely and troubled," seeming to blame the town more than Hans-Jürgen himself. The murderer is sent to the asylum at Grafenberg. Ironically, ten years later, the released Hans-Jürgen murders Rainer Bilder's brother.
After the war, anti-Semitism continues. Trudi spends time with little Hanna and notices as she continues to work in the library that she views her own stories differently, seeking their meaning rather than using them against her neighbors. Trudi makes a nice dinner for Leo's sixty-seventh birthday, and he dies the following afternoon. Hundreds attend his funeral, including Matthias who returns by train. At the reception held in Frau Blau's house, Trudi remarks that her father had predicted that war could come again, so long as Germany "has a need for violence to settle conflict." In the weeks following the funeral, Trudi finds many gifts left on the doorstep of the pay-library. The house feels large, but her grief is larger. In the final scene, Trudi broods about the nature of story, thinks about a dream in which she meets Georg and he asks her what will become of him. She feels enormous compassion for the people who have loved and lived in her stories, and she knows her story-making will continue.
Frau Ilse Abramowitz is like a mother to Trudi Montag, to whom she is more affectionate than her own children. She secretly loves the widowed Leo Montag, channeling her erotic attachment to him into maternal love for his dwarf daughter. Frau Abramowitz has what her husband, Michel, sees as a dangerous ability to adapt to the growing anti- Semitism, and when the Nazis come for the Abramowitzs's passports, she surrenders them without telling her husband, believing cooperation and obedience are safer than resistance. Generous and conciliatory, Frau Abramowitz insists that preserving one's dignity is essential; she also maintains it is better to be the persecuted than the persecutor. Yet after her husband dies, she takes her cane and literally breaks up the Hitler-Jugend office, whipping the young men there who previously broke into her home and brutally beat up her husband. Despite her lifelong philosophy of nonviolence, Ilse Abramowitz goes down fighting. She is arrested and dies in a concentration camp.
Both a lawyer and photographer, prosperous Michel Abramowitz is wounded in World War I yet returns to Burgdorf to live an upper middleclass life with his wife, Ilse, and their children, Ruth and Albert. Soon the household has a telephone, and the family enjoys outings in the countryside in their recently purchased 1908 Mercedes. In the years between the wars, Michel and Ilse Abramowitz travel widely, collecting photos of such remote places as China. When the Nazis gain power, Albert, now living in Argentina, tries repeatedly to get his parents out of Germany. By this time, Ruth is married to a Christian doctor who is so successful she believes she is not at risk. Herr Abramowitz is realistically pessimistic about the family's destiny within the Nazi state, and when he and his wife lose their home, he entrusts the family valuables to Leo Montag. Though he fears the worst, Michel Abramowitz has the luxury of dying at home in his sleep in 1944.
Sister Adelheid is caught celebrating mass and is locked up as insane. She aspires to being a priest, and for challenging the church hierarchy in this way, she is put under lock and key. To Trudi, Sister Adelheid confides that life in the convent is "Picky and petty and always the same." Sister Adelheid voices part of this novel's criticism of the Catholic Church, particularly its hierarchy, authoritarianism, and guilt-engendering control tactics.
Ingrid Baum and her family move to Burgdorf after World War I. Her father, who owns a bicycle shop, sexually abuses her as a child, a crime that goes unexposed. Rather than blaming her father, Ingrid attributes the cause of his abuse to her own depravity. As an adult, Ingrid prays several hours a day, subordinating herself totally to the will of the Catholic Church. Her abusive father continues to taunt her, and Ingrid is swallowed up by a fatal self-hatred. That she becomes pregnant out of wedlock and then gives birth to a second child after her husband's death proves conclusively to Ingrid that her nature is corrupt. In a psychotic attempt to rescue her daughters from sin, she decides to cast them off a bridge, drowning them in order to expedite their flight to heaven. She succeeds with her firstborn, Rita, but the infant Karin is rescued by passers-by. After Ingrid dies, Karin is raised by Ingrid's brother, Holger, and his wife, and she grows up believing them to be her biological parents. Karin is impregnated at age thirteen by her maternal grandfather.
Child prodigy Matthias Berger is the chosen pupil of Fräulein Birnsteig, the famous concert pianist who lives in an estate just outside Burgdorf. Matthias is tormented by his homosexual orientation; attempting to control those impulses, he enters the seminary where he is physically abused by other seminarians. When he confides in Trudi, she reminds him of what her father has said, that "much of what the church calls sin is simply being human." Not convinced by that unorthodox view, Matthias abandons his music and suppresses his sexual orientation by remaining in the seminary, a choice he believes is unsafe for his body but good for his soul.
The famous pianist and Jew, Fräulein Birnsteig owns an expensive estate in the countryside beyond Burgdorf. Annually, she gives a free concert for local children and their schoolteachers. Philanthropic in other ways, Fräulein Birnsteig selects one piano student each year to tutor free of charge. Nazis take over her estate during the war but allow her to continue to live there. She commits suicide in January 1945 after hearing that her adopted son has died in a concentration camp.
Elderly Flora Blau and her husband, Martin, live next door to the pay-library. Of Dutch descent, Flora Blau excels at cleaning, and the house always smells of fresh floor wax. She polishes her keys and rubs her windowsills so often that the child Trudi believes Frau Blau's one arthritic finger is bent from dusting too much. Having "powdered cheeks and a broken heart," Frau Blau longs for their son, Stefan, who in 1894 ran away to the United States.
Helene Montag Blau
Sister of Leo Montag and third wife of Stefan Blau, Helene Montag returns from the United States with her son, Robert, for a visit after her sister-in-law, Gertrude, dies. Robert is a good friend to Trudi during the five-week visit. Loyal always to the local people and town of her birth, Helene mails gifts, provisions, and money to help Leo and Trudi and others during the early years of World War II.
A retired tailor, elderly Herr Blau regrets that he once turned away a Jewish man who came to the house in the night seeking shelter. When Blau discovers that the Montags are hiding Jews, he offers to help, eager to exonerate himself. He sews clothes for the Jews and helps dig the escape tunnel that joins his house with the pay-library.
The sadistic Hans-Jürgen Braunmeier is a contemporary of Trudi Montag. He is physically abused by his father, but when Hans comes to school with bruises and a broken arm, no one steps in to help. Hans is also punished repeatedly in school for his antisocial conduct. The nuns exclude him from the annual piano concert and make sure St. Nicholas brings him no treats. In adulthood, Hans-Jürgen becomes a murderer.
Born in 1920 shortly after the death of his father, Helmut Eberhardt is the beautiful, blond, blue-eyed baby of the widowed Renate Eberhardt. However, as soon as Trudi touches baby Helmut, she knows he has "the power to destroy his mother." Helmut marries the midwife Hilde Sommer in 1938, and in 1940 she bears him a son, Adolf. Also in 1940, Helmut is killed in battle. Townspeople gather for his burial, sympathetic toward Hilde and yet glad Helmut is dead because they know he had his own loving mother arrested and taken away to a concentration camp where she died.
Hilde Sommer Eberhardt
The midwife Hilde Sommer Eberhardt is older and weighs more than her husband, Helmut. At first, she acquiesces to his domination, moving with him into the second floor of his mother's home and observing how he works on his mother to sign over the house to him. When Renate Eberhardt refuses to buckle under her son's pressure, Helmut has her arrested for being kind to Jews. During the war years and thereafter, Hilde lives with her son in the upstairs rooms, cleaning and maintaining the ground floor rooms in readiness for the return of her mother-in-law. Many years after the war, Hilde gives birth to or adopts a daughter, whom she names Renate. As a midwife, she is generous and dutiful, and the townspeople respect her for her loyalty to her mother-in-law's memory.
Generous, resolute Renate Eberhardt is beloved by her neighbors. She has a lush flower garden, with a lovely pear tree in the center. The garden conveys her love of life and nature as well as her lack of the typically Germanic need for order. She loves her son, Helmut, with a love that freezes after he becomes a ruthless, self-seeking autocrat. Very much living according to her own values, Frau Eberhardt continues to help Jews even after the Nazi laws forbid it, and she stands up to her son, refusing to sign over her house to him or retire out of his way to the second floor. Because he wants the house, Helmut turns in his mother for befriending Jews: she is arrested and taken to a concentration camp. As a soldier, Helmut is haunted by his mother's love for him. After Renate's disappearance, her pear tree bears only tainted fruit.
Though his brother is a bishop, Emil Hesping does not attend church. He avoids military service during World War I, remaining in Burgdorf and managing several gymnasiums. He is generally criticized for being a womanizer but tolerated as a charming, good-hearted person. He is a devoted friend of Leo Montag and feels an erotic attachment to Leo's wife, Gertrude, with whom he once had a sexual encounter. Hesping is discovered to be the town's unknown benefactor. The truth comes out that he has embezzled money from the gyms in order to purchase gifts and secretly deliver these to townspeople in need. During World War II, he assists Leo and Trudi in digging the escape tunnel, and he risks his life repeatedly by driving Jews from the Montag home to their next hiding place. Emil Hesping is murdered by the Nazis when he is caught trying to remove a statue of Hitler. Afterward, the bishop describes his brother as courageous, and Leo calls him the town's only hero.
Anton Immers Sr.
The butcher, Anton Immers, trades sausage for Kurt Heidenreich's World War I officer's uniform and has Michel Abramowitz take his portrait wearing it. This photograph hangs in the butcher shop, masking the fact that Immers was rejected for military service because of a curved spine, the result of a 1912 accident. Years later, Immers begins to "believe that fabrication," and eventually the townspeople do, too. During World War II, both he and his son are Nazi sympathizers and express strong anti-Semitic views.
Red-bearded Klaus Malter, a young dentist, opens a practice in Burgdorf and attracts the attention of several unmarried women. Both Ingrid Baum and Trudi Montag become attached to him; however, Ingrid refuses his attention, and he rejects the prospect of a relationship with the dwarf Trudi. For several years, he dates the prim Brigitte Raudschuss, but then suddenly he falls in love with Jutta Sturm, an eccentric artist, whom he marries.
The couple has one child, Hanna, whom Trudi loves as she would her own daughter.
Born in 1885, Gertrude Montag "absorbed the joys and pains of others," a sensitivity that either drives her crazy or manifests as a psychotic symptom. Three days after she gives birth to the dwarf daughter named after her, Gertrude runs away from home for the first of many times. In order to contain her and keep her safe, her husband, Leo, locks her in the third-floor sewing room, where Gertrude spends her days playing with cut-out paper dolls. Gertrude has an aversion to Emil Hesping, with whom she had a brief sexual encounter. Erratic, impulsive, and willful, Gertrude is committed to a neighboring mental institution on two occasions. Between these two stays, Gertrude gives birth prematurely to a son, Horst, who dies immediately. In 1919, during her second time in the institution, she contracts pneumonia and dies.
Self-described as a "reluctant" soldier, Leo Montag is the first casualty to return from World War I, a plate disk now lodged in his left knee. A reader and thinker, Leo is the third-generation owner of the pay-library. He has a gaze that makes others feel both "respected and sheltered." A good listener, he draws women to him but remains sexually neutral. Leo does not reveal himself to others or seek to be understood by them. Yet he receives without judgment and keeps the confidences of others. A reserved person generally, Leo is nonetheless an open critic of the Catholic Church and the Nazi Party. He treats others humanely and bravely defends those who are rejected or abused.
The dwarf Trudi Montag, only daughter of Gertrude and Leo Montag, is the protagonist of Stones from the River. She is blue-eyed and has lovely blond hair, two Aryan traits valued by the Nazis, yet her abnormal body type associates her with those other so-called undesirables whom the Nazis slated for medical experimentation and extermination. A storyteller by nature and a librarian by profession, Trudi buys and trades books, markets gossip, and twists news to suit her purposes. Seeking to be like others, to be loved for who she is, Trudi constantly experiences "the agony of being different." Capable of revenge, Trudi nonetheless finds love and a sense of self-worth as she comes to understand that difference is what makes individuals unique and acceptance and membership in a community are universal human desires.
The Jewish biologist, Erna Neimann, and her son, Konrad, take shelter under the pay-library where they are discovered by Trudi, who takes them in and protects them. Neimann brings word to the Montags about how in other cities Jews are being herded into certain houses and then shipped away in boxcars. By a mere accident of timing, she and her son escape similar deportation. Their presence in the pay-library instigates the creation of an escape tunnel between the pay-library and the Blaus's home next door. Of all the people hidden by the Montags, the Neimanns are the only ones who later write, revealing that they indeed reached safety in Zurich.
Pia is the first dwarf Trudi sees, a talented circus performer, whose trailer has scaled-down furniture and who speaks to Trudi about the fact that there are other dwarfs in the world. Pia has been married, and she has a normal-size adult son. Self-accepting, Pia speaks in defense of difference and on behalf of self-love and tolerance of others. Though she never sees Pia again, Trudi remembers her advice about how to love oneself.
The Jewish doctor in town is a woman with an invalid husband and one daughter, Eva. Doktor Rosen tells Trudi there is no pill that will make her grow, that her condition is genetic. Successful before the Third Reich comes to power, Doktor Rosen's practice suffers in the years leading up to World War II. She and her husband manage to find a car and drive out of Germany to safety in Switzerland. Making a fatal mistake, their daughter elects to remain behind with her Christian husband, Alexander Sturm.
A schoolteacher who has the bad luck to be overheard making a joke about Hitler, dim-sighted Max Rudnick loses his job and is obliged to move to Düsseldorf where he works first as a tutor and later in a factory. With a look in his eyes "too deep to be concerned about surfaces," Max falls in love with Trudi Montag, and they have a close, fulfilling relationship for more than a year. Max speaks for the importance of individuality and points out how Trudi uses her body type as a defense to keep people away.
Lotte Simon, a successful milliner and Jewish spinster, owns her own apartment and shop. While local women and those from nearby towns come to her for her stylish hats and completely trust her judgment in matters of fashion, Fräulein Simon remains an outsider. Over the years, she has an on-again off-again sexual relationship with Emil Hesping. Lotte Simon is arrested by the Nazis; her hats are confiscated; and the shop becomes the local headquarters for the Hitler-Jugend. She returns diminished after four months in captivity. Later she is deported to a labor camp. She writes to Ilse Abramowitz about conditions there and then is heard of no more.
Alexander Sturm inherits a toy factory and constructs an apartment building in Burgdorf. A Christian, he is nonetheless mesmerized by the beautiful Eva Rosen, whom he marries one month before the 1935 Nürnberg laws prohibiting such unions. To his great consternation and guilt, Alexander cowers when the Nazis arrest Eva. Later he enlists in the army, hoping to die in battle. When he emerges without even a wound from repeated military action, he deserts, returns to Burgdorf, and commits suicide by jumping from the window of the apartment building attic where Eva was arrested.
Eva Rosen Sturm
Eva Rosen, tall and beautiful, becomes a childhood friend of Trudi Montag. Eva has the looks Trudi envies, yet Eva has a large red birthmark across her chest, which makes her feel inferior to others. Eva experiences ostracism at the Catholic school because she is a Jew. Defiant and proud, she marries the Christian Alexander Sturm. Though she successfully hides in the pay-library, she is discovered in the Sturm apartment house and arrested. She dies in a concentration camp.
See Emil Hesping
Abused by her stepfather and then married to Franz Weiler, an abusive alcoholic, Hedwig Weiler runs the grocery store next door to the pay-library and after she is widowed raises her son Georg alone. Frau Weiler dresses her son in smocks like a girl and leaves his hair in long curls, wishing to keep him separate from the evil she believes lurks in most men's hearts. Georg and Trudi are childhood friends, but when she cuts his hair at his urging, she recognizes that his becoming like other boys separates him from her. Later with three friends, Georg participates in the molestation of Trudi Montag. He marries Helga Stamm, daughter of an unwed mother.
The story of the dwarf Trudi Montag directs attention to the experience of being different, both its discomforts and its power. The novel explores definitions of human deviation and what causes people to hide their own abnormalities and conform outwardly to communities based on apparent sameness. Trudi; her exhibitionistic manic mother, Gertrude; Georg Weiler next door whose mother dresses him like a girl; Rainer Bilder, the morbidly obese schoolboy; Eva Rosen with the birthmark across her nipples; drooling Gerda, and many others, all diverge in various ways from normal body type and/or a range of normal function, and they are treated in ways that convey their inferior status: they are ignored, rejected, ridiculed, shunned, or abused. They suffer low self-esteem, ostracism, loneliness.
These German townspeople value order, comeliness, obedience, and conformity. Aberrant individuals, even if they are tolerated, get aligned with what is to be avoided, with what is believed to be bad. The townspeople are united in their resistance to German refugees who move in after World War I. Newcomers, such as the Baums, who are very like long-time Burgdorf residents, are still viewed as outsiders, as is Fräulein Simon, the Jewish milliner. Women depend on her fashion sense and good taste but exclude her socially. Moreover, some abnormalities are more suggested than apparent; for example, some parents' sexual and physical abuse of their own children may go undetected, the parents treated as upstanding members of the community while the deviance is hidden (as in Ingrid's being sexually abused) or ignored (as in Hans-Jürgen's broken arm and bruises that no one inquires about).
Across the community, people seek group identity and conform to certain social modes of behavior. By so doing, they align themselves with the acceptable and detach themselves from what is believed to be unacceptable. One example of this tendency is shown in Anton Immers, the butcher, and the portrait he displays of himself in a World War I officer's uniform. The pretense of military service mitigates his shame in being found unfit to serve, and in time the pretense eclipses the fact that he did not serve. A different example is given in the story of the chess champion, Bruno Stosick, the boy who yearns to be like other seemingly ordinary children. Bruno secretly joins the Hitler-Jugend, seeking peer approval and club membership, but his anti-Nazi parents force him to withdraw from it. Without this group validation, the child plunges into depression and hangs himself. When the Nazis come to power, Bruno's father is forced out of the chess club, and no one sits near him and his wife during Catholic mass. By this time, explicit disapproval of the Nazis is dangerous, and others want to pass for having party loyalty or indeed are loyal to it. Former friends and neighbors shun Bruno's parents as if they are to blame for his suicide. In the butcher's case, the difference is a physical handicap; in the boy's case, the difference is an exceptional talent. In both cases, the person seeks group identity, the appearance of sameness in order to mask individual difference and gain group validation.
Topics For Further Study
- Investigate online the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum and read Elie Wiesel's Night. Give a presentation to your class, showing pictures of the museum and describing what happened at Auschwitz and other concentration camps during World War II, relying on Wiesel's eyewitness report in his book.
- A few Burgdorf women help Renate Eberhardt pack for her arrest and anticipated deportation. Do some research on what Jews were allowed to take in their suitcases and what happened to their possessions. Then choose a small suitcase or backpack and put in it the valuables you would choose to take with you if you were being deported. Unpack the bag in front of your class, explaining your choices and telling about what happened to the things the Jews packed.
- The medical term for Trudi Montag's genetic condition is achondroplastic dwarfism. Write a paper in which you explain the symptoms of her condition and its effects on Trudi as shown in the novel.
- Read Hegi's collection of short stories, Floating in My Mother's Palm, and write a paper on what you learn about Burgdorf and its residents that adds to your understanding of Stones from the River.
- Do some library research on Nazi propaganda films, and then write a paper on the subject, using the description Hegi gives of a film Ingrid Baum and Trudi Montag see in Düsseldorf as a starting point. How does the film they see communicate beliefs and values that convey anti-Semitism and support Nazi treatment of Jews? You might like to include in your discussion a Hollywood film that also incorporates propagandistic messages and explain those messages, too.
- Write a short story from the point of view of Eva Rosen Sturm, Renate Eberhardt, or Ilse Abramowitz, telling about the person's arrest and what happened to her after she was removed from Burgdorf.
Anti-Semitism and the Catholic Church
In a well-crafted novel, themes are closely interrelated: one idea builds on another. Anti- Semitism as it is dramatized in this novel is closely connected to the theme of difference. Hegi's novel implicates those in the Catholic Church who complied with the Third Reich, Christians whose beliefs about Jews seemed to justify their being cast out of the community. The novel faults the Church for conditioning its members into blind obedience, for persuading people to follow authoritarian dictates rather than to think for themselves. The parish priest sermonizes against the romance novels on loan at the pay-library but never denounces novels that celebrate war. Then, too, the church service changes, with prayers for the fatherland taking an increasingly prominent part.
At the same time that this visible compliance by the Catholic Church is criticized by Trudi and her father, reports surface about what happens when clergy resist the totalitarian state. The fugitive priest named Adolf who hides for a while in the pay-library reports being arrested while celebrating mass and escaping into a forest right before deportation to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Hiding in a cemetery, the priest experiences an all-consuming hunger that eclipses his faith in God. He looks around at the grave markers, which have been left standing for the Christian dead but which have been broken up if marking the graves of Jews. He says: "I thought I'd go insane. I could not understand how some people's graves could be marked while others were obliterated without evidence. It felt more horrible than any other injustice I'd ever known." After Emil Hesping is killed and he is revealed to have been the unknown benefactor, his brother the bishop talks with Leo about Emil's courage. The bishop admits that many bishops who openly resisted have been "pulled out of high positions." He notes only the bishop of Münster spoke out without being harmed. Emil's brother has been covertly instrumental in helping Jews move on from the pay-library, yet he resents having to work secretly, in what he calls "furious silence." Darkly, he and Leo agree that the extermination of Jews was the plan of the Third Reich from the very beginning.
The apparently compliant position of the Catholic Church regarding anti-Semitic policies is taken as justification by some Catholics for their feelings of resentment regarding Jewish prosperity after World War I. Jews in Burgdorf are prosperous and envied by others who struggle economically. Michel Abramowitz is able to buy a used Mercedes; Fräulein Simon owns her own thriving hat shop, Doktor Rosen has a successful medical practice. Outside town, the Jewish pianist, Fräulein Birnsteig lives in a sumptuous estate. Hegi's novel helps readers understand how it came to be that ordinary, church-going small-town people were swept along with a nationalistic political machine set on mobilizing the latent hatred of Jews in order to eradicate them.
Hegi does not idealize Jews. Some are commendable, some not so; each one is a complex human being, like those who persecute or protect them. The generosity and loyalty of the Abramowitzs is dramatized side-by-side with the failure of Erna Neimann, in hiding at the pay-library, to acknowledge the risk the Montags take on her behalf and the theft of silverware by another Jew in hiding there. Regarding those who either participated in the abuses of Jews or did nothing to stop them, the fact is that as the Third Reich gained power, the survival instinct of ordinary people took over. Persecuted or not, people found themselves fearing for their lives. It is perhaps easy to condemn people who cannot be kind to one another in civil times, but when each fears for his own life, kindness is for many the first social grace to go.
In sum, the novel invites readers to reflect on the role of the Catholic Church with regard to anti-Semitic policy and to acknowledge the importance of independent thinking and moral behavior, even when it contradicts the homily from the pulpit. Leo Montag makes it clear: kindness matters most. It is a precept that can be very hard to follow in life-threatening conditions.
The geographical location, landscape, buildings, along with the time in history and the seasons of the year, can be important parts of any novel's setting. In addition, the general environment, consisting of the social, economic, religious, and political world in which the characters live, creates a backdrop against which the novel's action is understood. The fictional town of Burgdorf, within walking distance of the Rhein River, easy driving distance of Düsseldorf, and a couple hours by car from Dresden, is the geographical setting. The novel includes details about the two Catholic churches; the Theresienheim convent hospital, which is later appropriated by the Gestapo; and the more remote Grafenburg asylum with its stone walls topped with jagged glass.
The pay-library is both home and business for Leo Montag and his daughter. Their bedrooms and the sewing room where Gertrude is confined are upstairs. Behind the library on the ground floor are the kitchen and living room. There is a cellar, and during the war a dirt tunnel from the cellar to the Blaus's cellar next door serves as an escape route for Jews in the event the house is searched by Gestapo. Under the house in the back is a dark place where Gertrude and Trudi crouch together and where Trudi discovers Erna and Konrad Neimann hiding. This building is Trudi's home, but it also serves as the center of the town. Stories are borrowed and exchanged here, both literally as patrons pay to borrow books and socially as Trudi gathers and exchanges gossip, altering news and reports of others when it suits her purposes.
This story cannot exist outside the national political and economic environment which frames it. The German defeat in World War I and the economic depression following, the blind obedience demanded by the Catholic Church, the rise of Adolf Hitler and his anti-Semitic platform, along with the Nazi organizations, such as the youth groups, intended to build a proud national identity, all combine to create the environment for and determine the nature of both plot and character.
Vividness and immediacy are achieved in descriptions which use words in unexpected, fresh ways. In metaphoric writing, comparisons between dissimilar things often convey exactly the picture the author has in mind. For example, the fireworks on Trudi's fourth birthday are described in terms of water: they "drenched the sky" with "showers of stars that shot up and spilled high," emphasizing the streaming movement of what is actually explosion and fire. But when describing heavy rains and people smoking as they watch the river approach flood stage, Hegi makes a surprising comparison to sewing and cloth: "Threads of cold rain stitched the earth to the gray sky," and townspeople at dawn stared at the rising water, "shrouded by the smoke from their cigarettes." The people work to reinforce the dykes in a constant rain, until "the sun finally untangled itself from the clouds." By contrast, Hegi compares the process of falling asleep to jumping in a lake: Erna Neimann finally falls asleep in the pay-library, "as though flinging herself into a bottomless lake." The beauty and strength of Hegi's prose is, in part, felt in the author's poetic use of metaphor to help readers imagine something all the more clearly because it is compared to something else.
The River as Symbol
A symbol is a figure of speech (meaning a word used in other than a literal sense) that both refers to something that exists objectively and suggests other levels of meaning at the same time. Quite different from metaphor or simile, the symbol retains this objective referent while it may have layers of additional meaning ascribed to it in a given text. According to A Handbook to Literature, some literary symbols are used so frequently that they embody "universal suggestions of meaning, as flowing water suggests time and eternity." Literally the Rhein River flows near Burgdorf; there is a dyke to protect the farmland and village from its repeated floods; and accidents occur along the river (as when Franz Weiler does handstands on the dyke, loses his balance, and drowns). On this level, the river is part of the novel's setting, an objective referent. In addition, the river symbolizes the action of storytelling, the ways in which narratives flow out, generated by certain people or events. Just as a river transports boats or objects along with its current, stories transport ideas and beliefs and allow people to be carried away imaginatively from their immediate lives into the world created by the narrative. In addition, the action of the river is compared to Trudi's ways of obtaining stories from her neighbors. Hegi writes:
As the river, she washed through the houses of people without being seen, got into their beds, their souls, as she flushed out their stories and fed on their worries about what she knew.… Whenever she became the river, the people matched her power only as a group.
Trudi takes Konrad imaginatively to the river by telling him stories about it: "she painted the Rhein for him with words that let him see." Throughout the decades of her life, Trudi would be able to envision the river as she did her stories: "It was like that with stories: she could see beneath their surface, know the undercurrents, the whirlpools that could take you down, the hidden clusters of rocks. Stories could blind you." In this novel, the river is both literally the water that marks the seasons of ebb and flood, and symbolically the nature of narrative, the flow of plot and the imaginative transport possible via stories and the storyteller who tells them.
Adolf Hitler's Rise to Power
In her acknowledgments, Hegi thanks Ilse-Margret Vogel and Rod Stackelberg for checking the novel for its historical accuracy. The novel presents a fictional story occurring within an accurately portrayed period in German history, making reference to specific historical events. Hegi's novel begins with Leo Montag being the first local soldier to return from World War I; he appears in town in October 1914, two months after the battle of Tannenburg on the Eastern Front in which the Germans defeated the Russians. But while the novel does not dwell on World War I, it does include the effects of the German defeat: shortages of goods and a struggling economy robbed of its civilian labor force. Hegi emphasizes how in the absence of their men, village women took over the business of ordinary life, becoming both self-reliant and cooperative. After the war, when German soldiers returned disillusioned by defeat, the women were relegated to their traditionally secondary status in family life, their concerns reduced to the lines for food and the challenge involved in getting dinner for their families.
Between the wars, in the years when Trudi grows into young adulthood, German society struggled financially, strapped with enormous war debt assigned to the nation by the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty, which brought an end to World War I, demilitarized a thirty-mile strip along the right bank of the Rhein and restricted German development of arms. The humiliations imposed on Germany by the treaty became a rallying cry for Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) in his rise to power. Facing frequent bankruptcies, demoralized, and struggling, small-town people became all the more competitive and angry, suspicious of outsiders, ready to assign blame. It was in this general discontent and economic depression that the Weimar Republic was established. Weimar was a democracy that would eventually permit Hitler to ascend to power. The novel traces, always from the small-town perspective looking out toward the national situation, the ominous and insidious social and political shifts, which were misconstrued as positive for quite some time.
Compare & Contrast
1940s: IG Farben produces xyklon-B (hydrogen cyanide [HCN]), a delousing chemical created by German Jew Fritz Haber for use in World War I, and supplies it to the SS (the Schutzstaffel, the military organization of the Nazi Party) to be used in gas chambers at Buchenwald and elsewhere.
Today: After the break up of IG Farben, several of its major companies remain in business. Two of these are Bayer and BASF.
1940s: Crystal Night, in which mobs vandalize and destroy synagogues and Jewish-owned shops across Germany, initiates hate crimes against Jews that continue throughout the early 1940s.
Today: In 1993, residents in Billings, Montana, squelch attacks by white supremacists against local Jews. Over ten thousand homes and businesses display a picture of a menorah in their windows in a show of solidarity with Jewish residents, and Christians crowd local synagogues for services rather than attending their own churches. The white supremacists are embarrassed and leave town. This kind of solidarity with Jews and other minorities who suffer prejudice continues into the new millennium.
1940s: The forced labor and extermination camp complex known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, located in Oswiecism, Poland, is run by Commandant Rudolf Höss. About 1.6 million people die here during the Holocaust, approximately 1.3 million Jews, along with an estimated 300,000 Soviet POWs, Polish Catholics, Gypsies, and other groups. In 1947, Höss is hanged at Auschwitz for war crimes.
Today: Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, in Oswiecism, Poland, has been visited by over twenty-five million people. From the 1990s on, an average of a half million visitors come annually to the museum. The museum has a website which shows pictures of the existing buildings and evidence gathered by the Allies of what the Nazis did here. Children under the age of fourteen are discouraged from visiting the museum.
Shortly after World War I, Hitler joined a military intelligence unit (the Press and Propaganda Department of Group Command IV of the Reichswehr), a right-wing group whose platform became extremely anti-Semitic. Hitler drew people and money into this group with his forceful speeches on the unfairness of the treaty. He advocated revoking civil rights for Jews and expelling Jews who came into Germany after World War I began. He blamed Jews for the prevailing economic instability, including high inflation, which gave the Christian German population some group on which to project its own shame in losing the war. He argued for nationalism, connecting Jews to internationalism. Hitler's group now called itself the National Socialist German Workers Party and adopted the red flag bearing the swastika as its symbol (the swastika was a symbol Hitler first saw on Catholic Church walls where he attended school as a child). By 1921, Hitler was chairman of the Nazi Party. By 1923, he advocated the overthrow of the Weimar Republic as too liberal and urged cleansing the Berlin government of all communists and Jews. He incited a revolution against the government, was tried for treason, and sent to prison, where he wrote his partly autobiographical political tract, Mein Kampf: My Struggle, which explains a lot about his development, his totalitarian philosophy, and the devastating effects it was to have in the Holocaust. In his book, Hitler claims that Jews bastardize the German race and corrupt the German national character and culture. He urges Germans not to marry Jews or Slavs. Released after five months, Hitler sought power through the electoral process. The conservative upper class thought Hitler was an uneducated demagogue, but he was popular among the working class.
In a complex series of maneuvers, Hitler won elective office and then dismantled the government that allowed that election, centralizing power in his office. By 1933, all political parties other than the Nazi Party were illegal, and all books considered disloyal to Nazism were ordered to be destroyed. By 1934, he had completed a purge of the Nazi Party to eliminate dissent. Heinrich Himmler supervised those political executions and took charge of the Gestapo, the secret police. A campaign against Jews (who numbered about 600,000 in Germany) began. The 1935 Nürnberg Laws defined a person as a Jew who had one Jewish grandparent, thus about 2.5 million Germans, in addition to the 600,000 who considered themselves Jews, were now targeted. These laws denied Jews citizenship and barred them from marrying non-Jews. (Interestingly, some historians speculate that Hitler's maternal grandfather, who was illegitimate, may have been half Jewish.)
Kristlenacht (Crystal Night) in 1938 was a campaign of mob violence in which synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses were attacked, the name coming from the broken glass that filled the city streets. By 1939, Jews were required to wear a yellow six-pointed star on their outer clothing. The failure of Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, to act openly in resistance to Nazi treatment of Jews is noted in Hegi's novel, in which many Christian clergy and congregations stood by in fear and did nothing, while others worked both openly and covertly against anti-Semitic actions. Increasingly, as the populace saw the cost of open resistance in human life and liberty, covert actions took over. Emil Hesping's brother, a Catholic bishop, remarks that only the bishop of Münster was able to openly criticize the Nazis without bringing immediate harm to himself. Father Adolf, the priest in hiding at the pay-library, reports being arrested for his anti-Nazi stance while celebrating mass. Hitler, who was himself a Roman Catholic, signed an agreement with the Vatican, assuring the continuance of Catholic services in Germany, yet these services were violated when anti-Nazi sentiments were expressed from the pulpit. Repeatedly critical of the Catholic Church, Leo Montag warns against the German love of a strong ruler, and the arbitrary rules of Catholicism that discourage independent thinking and promote political cooperation instead of solidarity with non-Christians against a totalitarian state.
Hitler was given credit for transforming unruly young people who joined the youth groups, for putting the unemployed back to work in civic programs, and for improving the economy. As conditions worsened for Jews, the Christian population saw improvements for themselves. Weekly news programs and movies promoted Nazi ideology.
World War II began when German troops invaded Poland in September 1939 and Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. The United States entered the war in December 1941. By 1944, the Allied forces occupied much of Europe, and German cities were being destroyed by air attacks. As extermination of Jews and many other so-called undesirables accelerated in concentration camps, Hitler recognized he had lost the war and committed suicide in Berlin in 1945.
Since its appearance in 1994 and continuing into the early 2000s, Hegi's Stones from the River has received wide-ranging and positive reviews, enhanced by the novel's 1997 selection for Oprah's
Book Club. Kitty Harmon, in a long Publishers Weekly review article, states that this novel is:
Hegi's attempt to understand the conspiracy of silence in towns like Burgdorf throughout Germany— a conspiracy that countenanced persecution of Jews during the war and enabled a community to quiet its conscience once the truths of the Holocaust were revealed.
Hegi is quoted in this review as remarking that once she came to the United States, she realized "Americans of [her] generation knew more about the Holocaust than [she] did." Discussion of the Nazi devastation was "absolutely taboo," she is quoted as saying. In Stones from the River, Hegi challenges that taboo by dramatizing how ordinary Germans coped, adapted, resisted, and conformed during the Third Reich. A 1994 review in Booklist notes: "Though Hegi's canvas is broad here, the focus is always on individual lives, not on the horrific events that swirl around them." A 1994 Publishers Weekly review notes that in this "powerful novel," protagonist Trudi Montag "exploits her gift" for drawing out people's secrets. The review also states that the book describes the "vast amnesia that grips formerly ardent Nazis" after World War II.
Commenting on Oprah's "reading revolution," a 1997 review by Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly, notes that because of the novel's selection, Scribner was advised to print "an extra billion copies," and Oprah Winfrey is quoted as saying that readers who finish the "big" novel will find rewards in it "just as big." Hegi's accomplishment is summed up in a 2002 review by Judith Robinson in Library Journal: Hegi depicts "the emergence of Nazi Germany on an intimate canvas of a small town and its humanly flawed population." Robinson notes that the novel helps readers start to understand how political shifts occur and gain sway and how an unsuspecting populace concerned with its own day-today obligations may be swept into something they never envisioned or invited. Another review in Booklist, this time of Hegi's Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America asserts that Hegi's work recognizes "the German—and human— capacity for evil."
Monahan has a Ph.D. in English and operates an editing service, The Inkwell Works. In the following essay, Monahan explores how storytelling conveys characterization and affects plot in Stones from the River.
Ursula Hegi's Stones from the River is about storytelling. It is about fairy tales and old wives' tales, about memories based on fiction, church-spawned morality tales, political agenda and film propaganda, and ultimately the writing of history. Storytelling is one way of selecting from and compressing complex, multifaceted human experience into the arbitrary linearity of chronology. In providing ways to understand self and world, stories perpetuate or mask the truth and shape individuals' beliefs about themselves and others. Storytelling can even shape events, putting a certain interpretation on past occurrences, influencing the outcome of present events, and giving direction to future choices and policy. The novel shows how stories provide formulas for denial, how fantasy augments reality for certain sexual or psychological purposes, and how old tales or mythologies assert their worldviews and cause some individuals to see the world in their terms. Ultimately, the novel is about the power of story.
The immediate setting, a small-town pay-library where the protagonist works as a librarian, is central to the novel's focus on storytelling. The dwarf Trudi Montag is both an insider and an outsider, a person who lives at the hub of the community and yet is somehow ignored when people speak privately to one another in her presence. She is literally a purveyor of stories, since she buys, organizes, and checks out novels to patrons. These people gather in the pay-library to visit; to confide in Trudi's father, Leo Montag; and to exchange news. As she matures, Trudi capitalizes on what she hears or knows about others, markets and trades gossip, and in revenge for being scorned and violated learns to punish offenders by making up false stories against them. Able to keep her own secrets, Trudi exposes the secrets of others as a kind of social currency.
Trudi's story is directly linked to the novel's central composite symbol, the river and the stones that come from it. A universal symbol for time, according to the definition given in A Handbook to Literature, the river seems to signify in this text the flow yet constancy of time as it moves across or through events. Within its banks, the river signals chronology, since events are commonly plotted in linear arrangement, as the chapter headings suggest by designating specific years. The stones mentioned in the title may then be the people who enact the events; at least that seems to be the message in the passage following Trudi's violation by four boys. Trudi throws stones into the river, assigning the boys' names to the stones, throwing several with the name of Georg Weiler, her next-door neighbor and early childhood friend. Add to this scene the description of Trudi, born of "two long and angular people" and yet shaped "like a pebble—round and solid" and one gets the correlation Hegi is drawing. Furthermore, an early story Gertrude tells Trudi, about the motorcycle fall with Emil Hesping in which gravel gets embedded in Gertrude's skin, connects the stony particles to the larger story of Gertrude and Hesping. Gertrude presses the child's fingers against her left knee to feel the stony bits, and the intuitive child takes "in the story beneath the anguish" and feels "the secret shaping itself into images." Even as a preschooler, little Trudi understands her mother's sense of guilt and the causal link Gertrude sees between her marital infidelity and Leo's injury on the same day and similarly in the left knee.
Since her home is a library, Trudi grows up surrounded literally with hundreds of stories. The wider culture of her hometown, Burgdorf, is also full of stories. Many of these project their own versions of the facts or actually hide the truth. One of these stories is asserted by the portrait of the butcher, Anton Immers, posing in a World War I officer's uniform. Deformed by an accident and bent to one side, Immers actually did not qualify for service. Yet the portrait tells another story, showing him dressed in a uniform and standing as erect as he can. When Immers looks at the portrait, he imagines having "fought in the war" and being "highly decorated." As time passes, he comes to believe the "fabrication," and the following generation is "fed that illusion as history." The story Hedwig Weiler tells about her husband's death is also a rewriting of events. She tells people Franz was en route to mass when he fell into the river and drowned. Eyewitnesses know that the inebriated Franz fell because he was entertaining his drinking buddies by doing handstands on the dyke. Yet "no one contradicted Frau Weiler." Rather, townspeople perpetuated "the façade." This "complicity of silence … had served the town for centuries." Hegi writes that only a few individuals "would preserve the texture of the truth" and not let "its fibers slip beneath the web of silence and collusion." It is this nexus of story-making and truth-withholding that is part of the novel's focus.
One old wives' tale or fairytale is used as a metaphor for human reproduction. To prepare Trudi for the advent of a sibling, Gertrude tells her daughter that storks are persuaded to deliver babies if sugar cubes are left for them on windowsills. Fearful that a normal baby would garner more parental love than she receives, Trudi secretly eats the sugar. Then when baby Horst is born prematurely and dies, Trudi believes she caused his death. Her mother had told her on another occasion that "people die if you don't love them enough"; Trudi did not "love" enough: she ate the sugar, and thus she killed her brother. Years afterward, and even when Trudi fully understands the stork story as myth, sugar continues to gag her with guilt. When Gertrude dies shortly after Horst and four-year-old Trudi is not permitted to feel for the gravel in her dead mother's knee (to prove the corpse's identity), Trudi fantasizes that the body in the coffin is not her mother's, that Gertrude is hiding and will come back as soon as Trudi grows taller. In these and other instances, a story is invented to work out a more acceptable vision of past or future events.
What Do I Read Next?
- An early work by Hegi is the collection of interrelated stories entitled Floating in My Mother's Palm (1990), which introduces many characters, including Trudi Montag, who appear in subsequent novels. These evocative, poetic stories take place in Burgdorf, Germany, the setting Hegi uses for Stones from the River.
- Readers of Stones from the River who would like to know more about the life Stefan Blau has after he immigrates to the United States may enjoy Hegi's The Vision of Emma Blau, which was published by Simon and Schuster in 2000. This novel tells the story of Stefan Blau's three wives—the third of whom is Leo Montag's sister, Helene—and the bicultural family's life in Blau's large apartment building in New Hampshire. The novel spans nearly a century and ends with the story of Blau's granddaughter, who is the woman named in its title.
- Hegi has written several other excellent novels. One of these is Sacred Time, first published by Simon and Schuster in 2003, which tells the story of three generations of an Italian family living in the Bronx. This novel employs three first-person narrators.
- Eva Hoffman's autobiography, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, available in a Penguin edition (2003), tells the story of Jewish immigrants to Canada who grow up in a world in which one culture predominates in the home and another in the world outside it. Hoffman's parents survived the Holocaust by hiding and running; Hoffman herself was born immediately after World War II, but her parents' experience colored her childhood.
- Ian McEwan's popular novel Atonement, which was published by Doubleday in 2002, is set in England, on one day in 1935 and a subsequent day during the British retreat from Dunkirk, early in World War II. Written in prose similar to that of Henry James, this novel is about an accusation that ruins two lives and a subsequent question about whether the accusation was true. The novel explores the way in which past events can be reexamined and reinterpreted years later.
- Corrie ten Boom's autobiography, The Hiding Place, available from Chosen Books (2006), tells the true-life story of a Christian family in the Netherlands who hid many Jews during World War II and whose members were finally arrested and taken to concentration camps. Ten Boom alone survived the camps.
An important illustration of how story connects with self-concept and can affect outcomes occurs when as a young adult Trudi is arrested and then interrogated by a Nazi officer. To manipulate the situation to her advantage, Trudi uses her intuitive understanding of people's beliefs and destinies. She senses that this officer does not believe in what he is doing and that he is destined to be a suicide within the year. When he asks her what it is like to be a "Zwerg" (dwarf), she knows it is a game and that she must play the dwarf and draw him into a story about being different. Trudi tells the officer a story of a man born with his heart on the outside of his chest cavity. She tells how the man had his suits designed to hide this abnormality, yet the heart pushed out visibly against the jacket. She tells the officer that in the man's dreams, "his chest was smooth, his heart safely anchored within his body." Trudi feels empowered, knowing that this story may save her life. She says she understands how the man felt because in her dreams she is tall. She tells the officer how as a child she hung from doorframes hoping to lengthen her body to conform to normal height, just like the man longed to be like other children when he was a little boy.
Using her intuition that the Nazi officer is hiding something about himself that makes him different from his fellow soldiers, Trudi draws him out by sympathetically telling a story about how difference makes one vulnerable to rejection and degradation. The story strikes such an immediate chord of sympathy with the officer that he begins feeding details into the story himself. Trudi has made a connection with him, linking her outward difference to his inner difference via the story. He knows the story she tells because it is as much his story as it is hers. During the Third Reich, a dwarf, even a blue-eyed, blond one, was destined to become "a medical experiment" and eventually be exterminated. By telling this particular story to this particular listener, Trudi penetrates the officer's outer conformity to a military identity in order to connect to his inner sense of his own separateness. He connects with the dwarf storyteller because he identifies with the man in her story. This connection causes him to release her. In this scene, as in many others, Hegi explores how storytelling can shape events and transform people's beliefs about themselves and about their culture and past.
Many other stories in the novel shape people's perception of the world. These include Eva Rosen's story about the cat in her father's bedroom window, Erna Neimann's story about the rich girl who takes Konrad's cat, Trudi's story about Hans- Jürgen's not being loved by any woman, Hanna's portrait of the swirling couple, and even Max Rudnick's watercolors of buildings transformed into red and yellow flowers. On the national scale, the propaganda machinery of the Third Reich produces films and newsreels, like those Ingrid Baum and Trudi see in Düsseldorf, that use stories to fuel a general atmosphere of hate, which in turn serves the anti-Semitic policies designed to achieve Hitler's Final Solution.
In Stones from the River, Hegi demonstrates how stories serve different purposes, how they come out of guilt and engender it (Gertrude's story of the bike accident), how they come out of rage and effect revenge (Trudi's stories about her assailants), how they satisfy certain kinds of longing (Trudi's sexual fantasies), how they seek to obscure physical inferiority within the costume of conformity (Immers' military portrait). Stories arise from fear or from a sense of the unknown, and they create connection or prove wrongdoing (the old women's explanation of why the pear tree's fruit is spoiled after Renate is betrayed by her son and sent to the death camps).
Pia's story of a glorious island initially gives thirteen-year-old Trudi the hope that dwarfs can live altogether in a place. She asks Pia, "‘Why can't we all be in one place?’" Pia responds, "‘We are. It's called earth.’" Pia understands what many people have yet to learn: that all humans live together in one place, here on the Earth, and being different is what each and every one of them has in common with all the rest. Pia tells Trudi to know that she is never alone and when she feels alone to give herself a big hug, to literally embrace her uniqueness. Out of this self-acceptance can come the courage to create community despite differences.
Some stories in the novel are designed to hide the truth or to revise historical record. The danger of historical revision is that it may allow evil to grow undercover. This danger is dramatized in the story of the hidden sexual abuse of Ingrid Baum by her father; Ingrid's existence is denied by her family, and her daughter, Karin, is at thirteen impregnated by her grandfather. Had the family faced the original abuse, Ingrid's life would have been different and that difference would have created a better life for Karin and Ingrid's other daughter, Rita. In this case and in other ways, the novel seems to suggest that, ultimately, the stones thrown in the river must be pulled to the surface and examined. Against a tide of interpretations and the perpetuation of chosen stories, one must seek the truth. Trudi recalls her father's insistence that "being kind is the most important thing." Stones from the River, which tells the stories that defined a small town in Germany, conveys this message: seek truth, act kindly. Doing so is possible in so far as one strives for and achieves some level of self-acceptance. The stories that matter are the ones that help people cherish their uniqueness and empower them to create community by acting kindly toward one another. Ultimately, Trudi realizes that for her the ongoing engagement with story-making seeks discernment about "what to enhance … what to relinquish. And what to embrace."
Source: Melodie Monahan, Critical Essay on Stones from the River, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Victoria J. Barnett
In the following review, Barnett discusses the outsider protagonist in Stones from the River, whose storytelling breaks the destructive silence, liberating those who have maintained, through the silence, "the illusion of a heile Welt (an intact world)" during the oppressive time of Nazism.
At the end of Margarethe von Trotta's film "The Leaden Time" (1981), the young son of a murdered terrorist turns to his aunt. "Tell me about my mother," he says. For the viewer, the mother's story seems to have ended; but for the boy the story is the beginning. As viewers leave the theater, they wonder: what version of the past will his aunt give him? Whether she tells the truth or lies, he will have to struggle to weave what he learns of the past into the meaning of his own existence.
Most of us want to understand the links between our own identities and those of our families, communities and countries. In Germany, this process is burdened by the legacy of Nazism. Asking questions about the past imposes moral responsibilities upon both the narrator and the listener.
Germans' deeply emotional debates about the past are not so much about facts as about meaning, about moral interpretation. In the "historians' debate" during the 1980s, for example, revisionist Ernst Nolte did not deny that millions of Jews were murdered. Nolte's argument was that mass murders came about almost accidentally: they were a lamentable step that the Nazi regime, under wartime pressures and dangerously threatened by the Soviet Union, found "necessary." In revisionist history, the death camps were just one more tragic cost of a war that included the bombings of European cities, the deaths of millions of soldiers, and the forced flight of millions of ethnic Germans from eastern Europe at the end of the war.
U.S. historian Charles Maier has called this "Bitburg history"—an attempt to put all the "victims of fascism" under the same historical label, thereby avoiding the problematic issue of who was morally responsible for this bloodshed. The historians' debate is really about identity, not history. Like the boy in von Trotta's film, Germans were asking who they are, where they came from, and whether the past offers them a foundation upon which to live.
The resulting tension—between the young and old, between those who seek to remember and those who would rather forget—has been a theme in German films, television programs and novels since the 1950s. It is the subject, for example, of the film "The Nasty Girl" (1990), based upon the true story of Anna Rosmus, a student in Passau. When she combed town archives to write a paper on Passau during the Nazi era, Rosmus uncovered disagreeable truths about some of the town's leading citizens. In the film the "nasty girl," originally the darling of her school and town, is ostracized and threatened by the townspeople once it becomes clear that she is after the truth, not pleasant fictions.
Her persistence makes her an outsider. In Germany after Nazism, outsiders refuse to keep silent. They collect secrets, they tell stories. Their lives no longer fit the patterns of a society that would rather forget. Postwar German fiction is populated with such characters. Often some physical or psychological attribute distinguishes them visibly from those around them. This raises echoes of the outsider status that the Nazis forced upon all those who did not fit "Aryan" ideals.
A recent addition to this group is Trudi Montag, the central character in Ursula Hegi's new novel. Trudi is a dwarf—which, of course, immediately brings to mind the other dwarf in postwar German literature, Oskar Matzerath in Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum. Although the two books are very different, each chronicles the life of an outsider who comes of age during the Nazi era.
Trudi is born an outsider. As opposed to Oskar (who decides to stop growing), Trudi desperately wants to grow, even hanging upside down in a futile attempt to stretch her short torso. But despite her longing for acceptance and friendship, Trudi recognizes early the morally stifling consequences of belonging. When she starts school, the nuns scold her for "pushiness," pointing out that other girls "kept silent even if they knew the answers." Throughout her life, Trudi's difference liberates her from expectations about women, and she evades the rules that constrain those who belong. Adults ignore her and say "things they would never say around other children. If she didn't remind people that she was there, she got to listen to all kinds of secrets." Stealthily, she begins to gather the stories people would rather conceal.
After Trudi is nearly raped by four village boys, she furiously throws stones for each boy into the river. Later, more methodically, she begins to gather stones and stories for all the people in her life. She piles by the river one stone for each story she knows: stories of anger, revenge, longing and love. Her stories are her power, for Trudi knows secrets about the villagers that they themselves do not know. Beneath the surface of normal life in Nazi Germany, Trudi sees madness and moral emptiness.
Because of their physical stature, Oskar and Trudi are treated as children, as powerless and irrelevant. Actually, both rapidly leave childlike innocence behind. Oskar's recognition of the world's absurdity and Trudi's vision of its secrets give each character a form of power.
With the beginning of the Third Reich, Trudi is no longer the only outsider in her village. In a selection process that begins long before the death camps, people either scuttle to become part of the Nazi mainstream or—because they think differently or are Jewish—they become outsiders. Those who become part of Nazi society lose their sense of who they and their neighbors are. Only those who remain outside retain the ability to see what is really happening. One of the most shocking incidents in Hegi's book comes long after Trudi's size has ceased to be in the forefront of her or the reader's mind. Arrested and interrogated by a Gestapo officer, she realizes that he sees her not as an opponent of the regime (she has been hiding Jews) but as a potential victim—as a dwarf who could easily fall under the euthanasia guidelines.
For both authors, the Third Reich is part of a continuum (for Hegi, of silence; for Grass, of moral chaos) that begins long before 1933 and is not broken after 1945. Further, they contend that the failure to deal honestly with the past ensures the continuance of moral corruption. This belief marked much of the literature that emerged from Gruppe 47, a collection of postwar writers that included Ingeborg Bachmann, Uwe Johnson, Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass. Much of their work concerns not only the past but lingering moral questions: What consequences does this confrontation with the Nazi past have for our own identity as moral beings? Was Nazism a moral aberration, or did it prove how easily moral values are weakened and corrupted?
For people of faith, of course, these are religious and spiritual questions as well. Yet the alienation of many of these writers and their fictional protagonists from the church is striking. Part of the reason is the poor record of the Protestant and Catholic churches under Nazism. In Stones from the River, the Catholic parish is a picture of conformity and hypocrisy. Though one of the priests and the bishop help the village's resistance group, they are alienated from "the Church," and their resistance takes place outside it. Everyone—from simple old farmers to Nazi informers—goes through the old rituals of the mass as though nothing were amiss. Through silence the villagers maintain the illusion of a heile Welt ("an intact world"); in its silence the church is part of that illusory world. "The silence of the war was in direct contradiction to [Trudi's] storytelling. It was much closer to the silence of the church—fostering belief instead of knowledge, smothering mystery, muffling truth."
Many writers were disillusioned by the churches' behavior both under Nazism and after the war, when organized religion accommodated to the new circumstances in East and West. Beneath this disillusionment, however, is the more fundamental problem of defining morality and asking what kind of ethical society might have been possible after the Nazi experience. This attitude is expressed by Trudi's father, Leo, who "never felt the division within the town as acutely as he did in the chapel. Once, the parish had felt like something whole, one body of people connected in one belief and many shared values … but now that belief had become tainted by those who used it to proclaim their superiority."
Nazism's corruption of people's values is so powerful that it shakes the very heart of Leo Montag's faith. The moral and religious values that before 1933 had seemed so strongly woven into all levels of society had unraveled so quickly under Nazism that it became difficult for many to believe in them at all. The surreal, chaotic world of Grass's Tin Drum and the stony hypocrisy of the Catholic Church in Heinrich Boll's The Clown (1963) are defiant postwar assertions that Germany can never return to "normal." When morality within religious or political institutions no longer seems possible, the only beings who can act as the voice of conscience are outsiders, symbolized in these novels by a dwarf and a clown.
What happens to these outsiders? Here, Grass and Hegi's novels have different outcomes. Against his will, Oskar Matzerath begins to grow after the war, and becomes symbolically entrapped by the guilt of the postwar world. In contrast, Trudi Montag finds ways to liberate others. She had initially gathered her stories and stones to gain power and revenge against those who had hurt her. But her purpose changes: "In the telling, she found, you reached a point where you could not go back, where—as the story changed—it transformed you, too. What mattered was to let each story flow through you."
Trudi comes to understand that her gift is not to make these stories happen, but to understand life itself. Through her stories, she has gained compassion. She uses her prophetic powers in a new way, to help herself and her listeners learn "what to enhance and what to relinquish. And what to embrace." This hopeful ending may be the product of the author's own distance from her native land. Born in Germany in 1946, Hegi has lived in the U.S. since 1965. But it may also be a product of the passage of time and of the process of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, or mastering the past, which has gone on now for 50 years.
This process has been more successful in the arts than in politics or history. Perhaps this is because fiction can better reveal the intersection between explicable human history and the deeper, irrational psychological currents that move individuals. How else can we explain Hitler's charisma, and the bizarre mixture of mythology and racism that suddenly became the governing principle of an entire society? How else can one explain the behavior of people raised in a highly developed, religious culture who, in the name of the "Aryan ideal," murdered millions of people in unspeakably barbaric ways?
The task of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung is to use its insights to alter human circumstances, just as the river in Hegi's book eventually shows Trudi the purpose of her stories: "… it would always be the nature of the river to remember the dead who lay buried beneath its surface. What the river was showing her now was that she could flow beyond the brokenness, redeem herself, and fuse once more."
The stories of the dead and the living in Trudi's river join the myriad stories—of dwarfs, terrorists' sons, "nasty girls" and others—that have been told since 1945 to fill a void. Had Germans, confronted by their children's questions during the 1950s and 1960s, responded with tears, anguish and remorse— with anything but explanations, self-justification and silence—they would have laid an entirely different foundation from which to look at the past and the future. If there is a single message that recurs in the work of postwar German writers and filmmakers, it is the destruction wrought, both during and after the Third Reich, by silence.
Source: Victoria J. Barnett, "Stones from the River," in the Christian Century, Vol. 111, No. 23, August 10, 1994, pp. 755-57.
In the following interview, Hegi talks about wrestling with her country's past and the "conspiracy of silence" in Stones from the River.
In the years after Ursula Hegi's arrival in the U.S. at the age of 18, she intentionally turned her back on Germany, the country of her birth. She married an American, became an American citizen and chose America as the setting for her first two books. Now in her late 40s, Hegi finds that it's not possible to reject one's origins, especially in the ease of 20th-eentury Germany. "The older I get," she says, "the more I realize that I am inescapably encumbered by the heritage of my country's history."
Hegi began revisiting that heritage in Floating in My Mother's Palm, a highly praised novel published by Poseidon in 1990. In it Hegi introduces various inhabitants of a fictional German town called Burgdorf. Like Hanna, the narrator of Floating, Hegi grew up in a small town near Dusseldorf in the 1950s, observing the foibles and flashes of generosity of people within a tight, small community. Now, with Poseidon's publication of Stones from the River (Fiction Forecasts, Jan. 17), Hegi extends her portrayal of Burgdorf's characters and the exploration of her own heritage to include the several decades preceding her birth: the years leading up to World War II, the war itself and its immediate aftermath. The stories in the two books are interwoven with such seamless ease that readers will find it difficult to believe that the new book was not written first.
Stones from the River is Hegi's attempt to understand the conspiracy of silence in towns like Burgdorf throughout Germany—a conspiracy that countenanced persecution of Jews during the war and enabled a community to quiet its conscience once the truths of the Holocaust were revealed. "When I came to this country," Hegi says, "I found that Americans of my generation knew more about the Holocaust than I did. When I was growing up you could not ask about it; it was absolutely taboo. We grew up with the silence. It was normal and familiar; these are terrible words considering the circumstances." Like the narrator in Floating, Hegi wryly recounts how history lessons in school started with the classic Greeks and Romans, ended with World War I and began all over again with ancient Greece and Rome. "We knew a lot about those old Greeks and Romans," she says.
Hegi weighs her words carefully and often asks if there isn't a better term to describe this or that emotion, as if entreating her interviewer to respect her words and not give them nuances she doesn't mean them to have. She speaks English flawlessly but with a pronounced accent, and her long blonde hair and rosy complexion reveal her Teutonic ancestry. Hegi says that sometimes she dreads it when people ask her where she's from. "I wish I could say some other country, not Germany. As a German, I feel implicated by what happened."
Still, Hegi had no intention of digging up the unspeakable parts of her country's past in her third novel. In fact, she recalls emphatically denying, in an interview with National Public Radio's Bob Edwards, that she would be revisiting the inhabitants of Burgdorf in her next book. But, she recalls, as soon as she left the studio, the voice of Trudi, a character in Floating, began speaking inside her head, demanding her "own book." This almost mystical connection with Trudi continued: not long afterward, Hegi and her companion, Gordon Gagllano, were driving from Portland to home near Spokane, Washington, listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, when she got the urge to jot down some notes. Soon she had filled half a legal pad, often with complete passages that appear unchanged in Stones. "Trudi was in that car with us—even Gordon felt her presence," she says.
Trudi is a Zwerg, a dwarf whose handicap sets her apart from the community. This "otherness" mirrors her refusal to take part in the complicity of silence and enables her neighbors to confide in her. She collects their stories and uses them to barter for information, divulging or withholding or changing details as needed and thus developing her own power in the community. Hegi says that Trudi did not become the protagonist of Stones because of her physical deformity, but because she was already a fully developed character in Floating whose voice cried out to be heard.
When asked about the inevitable comparisons with The Tin Drum, Hegi shrugs. "Yes, I know, ‘another novel about a dwarf in Germany during the war.’ It worried me in the beginning—well, it stopped me for about five minutes. But the character was so strong in her insistence to be heard that to stop writing wasn't possible."
A faculty research grant in 1986 enabled Hegi to return to Germany for the first time in 15 years to research background material for Floating. This was immeasurably helpful, she says. "It added a whole layer of sensuousness—the sounds, the smells, the tastes—that you can only get from being there." When she visited her hometown, she looked around for the Zwerg she remembered from her childhood, a woman whom she had barely known but who, she says, "obviously must have made a big impression on me." Having failed to find her, Hegi was sitting in a cafe when the object of her search appeared at her table, having heard that Hegi was looking for her. Instead of replying to Hegi's tentative questions about some of her relatives, the woman shot back, "I hear you've been divorced." Only after Hegi had shared the details of her marital breakup would the gossipy Zwerg tell her about her grandparents. It was this bartering for information that contributed to the development of Trudi's character.
Although Trudi's voice presented itself to Hegi "whole and complete, like a gift," the process of fleshing out the narrative was much more difficult. Hegi took a second trip to Germany before finishing Stones, visiting the concentration camp at Buchenwald and other similar sites. This time, research was not the purpose. Hegi was compelled to make what she feels was a pilgrimage. "I was afraid to go [to the camp]," she says, "but as a Germanborn woman I felt I had to. Writing the book was what gave me the courage."
To provide details of the period, Hegi immersed herself in historical material on the Holocaust, reading dozens of books and collections of journals written by concentration camp inmates. "There were many, many times when I wished I could leave the research alone, but I couldn't.
It was an important part of my own journey, of integrating the past within myself."
Serendipity had a hand in furnishing some of the most helpful details. A German-American writer named IlseMargret Vogel, who called Hegi to congratulate her after the publication of Floating, was able to provide much material about the Resistance movement during the war; she was the first person who talked openly to Hegi about that time. Their conversations gave Hegi the courage to write to her godmother and ask for information, despite the fact that the older woman had previously refused to talk about the war years. Her godmother complied by recording her memories on tape. To Hegi, this constituted a gift of major proportions. "One sentence would become an entire story," she says.
She continues to be pessimistic about the interest of the German people in their tarnished past. Although she'd like Stones to be published in Germany "more than anywhere else in the world," she expects that it would make her the target of criticism there. "I would be tearing open the silence," she says, "something that even now many people aren't ready to face. I've come a long way in the past five or six years. Three years ago, even, we couldn't have had this conversation." In fact, it is an approach-avoidance dynamic that fuels much of her writing. Hegi says she is drawn to write about things that she doesn't dare look at but needs desperately to figure out—"the things that won't leave me alone."
Hegi's development as a writer came in fits and starts. While growing up in Germany, she wanted to write but lacked craft and encouragement. She wrote a novel after arriving in the States but collected enough rejection letters from publishers to convince herself to destroy the manuscript and stop writing altogether for three years. At the age of 28, with two sons, aged five and one, Hegi enrolled at the University of New Hampshire for a B.A. and then an M.A. and she stayed on to lecture in the English department until her divorce in 1984. On arriving at UNH she found herself within a community of writers and impulsively wrote "writer" as her occupation on a passport application. Soon thereafter, agent Gail Hochman sold her first novel, Intrusions, for publication by Viking in 1981. The University of Idaho Press issued a decade's collection of her stories in 1988. Hegi favored a university press because she surmised they would keep a short-story collection in print much longer, "and they did—it's still available in hardcover after six years."
Kathy Anderson at Poseidon was the first editor to make an offer for Floating and ironically lost her job the week the novel received a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review. Poseidon editor Ann Patty subsequently signed Hegi to a two-book contract and edited Stones. Hegi was uneasy about the transition, but when Patty called after reading the manuscript and said, "Trudi is the dwarf in all of us," she knew they would work well together. Now that Patty, too, has left Poseidon and the imprint is closing, Hegi has been assigned to Mark Gompertz at Simon & Schuster, at Gail Hochman's request. Hegi is approaching her 15-year anniversary with Hochman and says that the consistent connection with her agent has been invaluable while dealing with a procession of editors.
Hegi lives in Nine Mile Falls in eastern Washington with Gagliano, an architect, and a black mutt they named Moses ("as in, found by the river"). When weather permits, she kayaks on or swims across the Spokane River in front of their home. She is tenured at Eastern Washington University, where she teaches courses in fiction writing and literature in the M.F.A. program; she also serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.
For someone who feels so strongly about human rights, Hegi became politically aware relatively recently. Citing one incident that spurred her activism, she recalls a demonstration against a neo- Nazi group across the border in Hayden Lake, Idaho. She had decided not to participate in the event, believing it was a mistake to attract more media attention to white supremacist agendas, and was in her car driving elsewhere when a sudden insight flooded her mind. She realized that this was "exactly what happened in Germany—the silence. In the beginning everyone considered the Nazis a bunch of thugs; no one took them seriously." She phoned Gordon to meet her, and they joined the thousand people who had gathered in protest. "It was important that each and every one of us was there," she says.
Hegi has finished her next novel, called Salt Dancers, which is set in the Pacific Northwest. She is currently working on two new projects, waiting to see which will take over. The Passion of Emma Blau is the third novel with origins in Burgdorf, beginning with the immigration of Helene, a character who appears in Stones, to the U.S., and tracing the stories of successive generations of German- Americans. She is also developing a nonfiction work on the experience of being German in America.
When asked if she considers herself a German- American, Hegi hesitates, and it is the German side of the designation that gives her pause. "I don't really know," she says. "It doesn't have to do with choice. America is my country of choice, and I feel a connection to it even though it's not perfect. I have very little connection to my country of origin."
And yet Hegi says that in writing Stones her relationship with her native land altered more than she expected, and it will probably continue to change. "In the early years here, I went out of my way to avoid meeting other Germans," she says. "Now I seek them out in order to understand."
Source: Kitty Harmon, "Ursula Hegi: The German-Born Novelist Continues to Confront Her Native Country's Past," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 11, March 14, 1994, pp. 52-53.
Harmon, Kitty, "Ursula Hegi: The German-born Novelist Continues to Confront Her Native Country's Past," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 11, March 14, 1994, pp. 52-54.
Hegi, Ursula, Stones from the River, Scribner, 1994.
Holman, C. Hugh, and William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature, Macmillan, 1986, p. 494.
Ott, Bill, Review of Stones from the River, in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 14, March 15, 1994, p. 1327.
Review of Stones from the River, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 3, January 17, 1994, p. 400.
Review of Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America, in Booklist, Vol. 93, No. 21, July 1997, p. 1793.
Robinson, Judith, Review of Stones from the River, in Library Journal, Vol. 127, No. 6, April 1, 2002, p. 159.
Schwarzbaum, Lisa, Review of Stones from the River, in Entertainment Weekly, No. 371, March 21, 1997, pp. 65-67.
Adelson, Betty M., Dwarfism: Medical and Psychological Aspects of Profound Short Stature, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Adelson, a psychologist and the mother of an adult dwarf daughter, summarizes how dwarfism was understood and treated during the twentieth century. She examines social factors that affect the dwarf community and describes the day-to-day challenges that dwarf individuals face.
Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Knopf, 1997.
Thoroughly researched and documented, Goldhagen's book disproves myths that suggest that ordinary Germans did not know what was happening during the reign of the Third Reich. Indeed, Goldhagen documents how tens of thousands of ordinary Germans engaged in hunting down and exterminating Jews.
Kautz, Fred, The German Historians: "Hitler's Willing Executioners" and Daniel Goldhagen, Black Rose Books, 2002.
Kautz summarizes Goldhagen's book and then examines the rejection of it by three important German historians: Eberhard Jackel, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, and Hans Mommsen. Kautz looks at the way these scholars evaluated Goldhagen's work and makes some cautionary remarks about the writing of history.
Mamet, David, The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews, Knopf, 2006.
A provocative writer, Mamet explores modern anti- Semitism and connects it to the way some Jews internalize that hatred. The title uses the metaphor of the Wicked Son, the child at the Passover Seder who asks about the story's meaning. Mamet analyzes how some Jews seek meaning anywhere but in Judaism and how in the eyes of the non-Jewish world, Judaism remains the religion of the Wicked Son.
O'Brien, Mary Elizabeth, Nazi Cinema as Enchantment: The Politics of Entertainment in the Third Reich, Camden House, 2006.
O'Brien's book analyzes the propaganda films produced during Hitler's regime and how they seduced German audiences, offering anti-Semitism couched in traditional values, community identity, and the hope for a better standard of living. In her analysis of thirteen films, O'Brien shows how Germans were enchanted by happy depictions of Aryan family life and messages that justified the Nazi regime.
Ulrich, Herbert, Hitler's Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Ulrich analyzes how the Nazis used millions of foreigners as forced labor in Germany during World War II. Ulrich explores the workers from the point of view of the Nazi leadership and also from the point of view of the workers themselves.