Stones from the River

by Ursula Hegi

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The changes in Germany from 1915 to 1952 are reflected in the lives of the inhabitants of Burgdorf. The village is a rich blend of characters: wealthy, poor, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, happy healthy families, and families with problems. Prior to the rise of Nazism, Burgdorf is a community that looks after its own. One resident, referred to as the "Unknown Benefactor," blesses individuals with gifts at the time of their greatest need. His secret identity gives the town a fairy-tale quality. Though there is some conflict and prejudice, friendships and marriages occur between Jews and Gentiles. As Nazism reaches its height, however, any alliance with Jews becomes illegal and potentially dangerous. The rise of Nazism, with its new laws and propaganda, divides the town. Those who join the party are suspicious of those who do not. Jews are becoming less involved as one by one their rights are taken away. When the full Nazi machine is in place, the very existence of people who do not fit in becomes at risk. Harmless misfits like the mentally handicapped Gerda and the "Man Who Touches His Heart" are taken away. Other characters, like Herr Neumeier, tone down their eccentricities to avoid being taken away. By the end of World War II women outnumber men in Burgdorf and few Jews remain.

The book begins with Trudi and how she came to be. Her parents, Leo and Gertrud, are separated when Leo serves in World War I. This separation provides the opportunity for Gertrud's act of adultery with Emil Hesping. Coincidentally Leo is injured in the war on the very same day. Gertrud feels responsible for Leo's injury because of her sin with Emil. When Leo and Gertrud are reunited, Trudi is conceived and born. Gertrud interprets the differentness of her baby as further punishment for her sexual transgression. She loses her sanity, rejecting the baby. Trudi is kept alive by the town women while Leo tries to care for a wife who keeps escaping her house and disrobing. He bears his wife's illness with bravery and calm. Eventually Leo puts Gertrud into an asylum, where she dies.

After Gertrud's death, Trudi's father is the rock in her life. He never remarries or enters into a close relationship with another woman. In a quiet way, he helps his neighbors. He is seen as a father confessor, and everyone seeks him out for advice and emotional comfort. Men can discuss their war experiences with him. Women likewise take their concerns to him. Commonly referred to as "Pope Leo" because of his chaste behavior, he seems unaware that he inflames the passions of the women of the town.

From a very young age, Trudi has many opportunities to meet the townsfolk because her father operates the pay-library. People visiting the pay-library say things around Trudi that they would not say around other children. Through her visionary eyes we see characters as she does, not just the external but what is deep inside them.

Because Trudi cannot hide the fact that she's different, her differences define her. As a child, Trudi spends a lot of time making sure she is not counted as one of the other "freaks" in the village, such as Gerda, the retarded girl who drools on herself. Even as a schoolgirl Trudi is chided by the teachers for competing with the boys with correct answers instead of sitting docilely like the other girls. When Trudi is rejected by her classmates, and later by men, she often acts out with revenge, using her stories to cause harm. Being different gives Trudi more freedom than...

(This entire section contains 800 words.)

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other German women have; she can make her own decisions and listen to her own counsel. Because she is not seen as desirable to men, she is not expected to marry and have the large family encouraged by the Fuehrer. Her character develops as she uses her difference to make her way in the world. After she spends time in jail, Trudi realizes that her dwarfism could make her interesting to the Nazis and that she must be more cautious. It is a long journey before Trudi accepts her dwarfism by recognizing that her difference can work to her advantage.

After World War II the characters left in the village go through another transition. As the victorious Americans occupy Burgdorf, many former Nazi Party members quickly hide any evidence of party involvement. They burn the portraits of Hitler that hung on their walls, get rid of party pins, and even go so far as to cut swastikas out of photographs. Often they rationalize, saying that Hitler meant well, or that everyone suffered just as much as the Jews. Only Trudi seems to see the truth, and only she realizes that no one can escape the responsibility of having lived in this time.


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Ilse Abramowitz
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.

Michel Abramowitz
Both a lawyer and photographer, prosperous Michel Abramowitz is wounded in World War I yet returns to Burgdorf to live an upper middle-class 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
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
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.

Matthias Berger
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.

Fräulein Birnsteig
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.

Flora Blau
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.

Martin Blau
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.

Hans-Jürgen Braunmeier
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.

Helmut Eberhardt
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.

Renate Eberhardt
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.

Emil Hesping
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.

Klaus Malter
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.

Gertrude Montag
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.

Leo Montag
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.

Trudi Montaga
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.

Erna Neimann
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.

Doktor Rosen
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.

Max Rudnick
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
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
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.

Unknown BenefactorSee Emil Hesping

Hedwig Weiler
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.




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