Stones from the River

by Ursula Hegi

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Historical Context

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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.

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...

(This entire section contains 1121 words.)

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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.

Literary Style

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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.

Metaphoric Language
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.

Literary Techniques

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This is a historical novel written in the third person. Historical events are accurately presented in chronological order. Incidents such as the Jewish boycott, Kristallnacht, and the bombing of Dresden become more personalized as they are worked into the fates of the characters. Hegi, who lived in Germany from her birth in 1946 until 1964, sprinkles German words and phrases (with translations) throughout the book.

The opening line in Stones from the River is: "As a child Trudi Montag thought everyone knew what went on inside others." Stones is told through the point of view of the "other," Trudi. She is a nearly omniscient third person. Her perception is heightened because she has always been on the outside. She foresees the future. She seems to have the ability to make her vengeful wishes toward others come true.

Throughout the book, Hegi uses stones and the river metaphorically. One of Trudi's earliest memories is of the fragments of gravel embedded in her mother's knee. Nobody but Trudi and her mother know they are there, because you cannot see them. But they can be felt under her mother's skin, if you know where to look. To Gertrud, these stones represent "secret kernels of sin." Stones are like secrets, Trudi realizes. They disappear under the water after you throw them in. She feels that the people's silence about the war is like the rocks hidden by the river in the spring that become visible in the summer.

Trudi often goes to the river for enjoyment or solace. One day when she feels acutely the pain of rejection, Trudi makes a pile of stones, each one representing a separate loss or disappointment in her life. She returns periodically to the pile of stones because it makes her feel safe.

Trudi feels at one with the river. It is in the river that Trudi first feels long and graceful. Her insight into the lives of others is like the intrusion of the river when it floods and seeps into their houses. She identifies with the flowing river as it separates around rocks and becomes whole again; she learns that she too can flow beyond the disconnectedness she feels after the war.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Hegi's novel Stones from the River examines modern German history, particularly how ordinary German citizens, through their silence, became participants in the Holocaust.

1. Why do you think the author chooses a dwarf to be the character through whose eyes we see the events and people of this book?

2. Why can Trudi see things that others cannot? How does her almost magical ability to foresee and influence the future tie in with the themes of secrecy and "otherness"?

3. What is it about Trudi's relationship with Hanna that makes Trudi uneasy?

4. Why is it difficult to accept someone who is different from everyone else? Why is it so important to be accepted? Would Trudi have been a different person if she had not been born a dwarf?

5. Organized religion seems to have a great influence on the people of Burgdorf as Trudi is growing up. How then can Burgdorf's Christians turn their backs on their upbringing and religious training when they witness the persecution of their Jewish friends and neighbors? How does the role of the church change during the course of the book?

6. Several characters in Stones from the River join the Nazi Party and swear allegiance to Hitler. Do you think the average German citizen was aware of the extent of the killing at the death camps? Was it the responsibility of each person to find out? If they knew about the death camps, why did not more people resist? Use characters from the novel to illustrate your point.

7. The citizens of Burgdorf refuse to talk about the war when it is over. They tell Trudi that "It's not good to dwell on the things that were terrible." Why does Trudi disagree? What are the townspeople afraid of?

8. How might the current generation of Germans deal with the "guilt" of their country's transgressions against Jews? How does this compare with the feelings of white Americans toward slavery and Jim Crow? How does this compare with the feelings of white Americans toward the treatment of Native Americans?

Social Concerns

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The ultimate social concern of Ursula Hegi is the question of what it means to be German after World War II. Born in Germany in 1946, she grew up relatively ignorant of the war and the Holocaust. Her emigration to America at age eighteen gave her an awareness of a different view of Germany. Hegi has done years of research, including visits to Germany to interview people who lived through the war. Her novel Stones from the River is an attempt to break the silence regarding the uglier aspects of modern Germany history.

Stones from the River follows the fates of the residents of a fictional town near Dusseldorf from 1915 to 1952. Burgdorf, Germany, is an average small town in which most of the residents know one another. It is a town where neighbors help one another through individual crises, rejoice in each other's happiness, and grieve together in times of sorrow. But it is also a town where children exclude a dwarf classmate from their school games, where young boys torture animals and gang-rape young girls, and where incest occurs in families. There are religious differences, but intermarriage is generally accepted, and close friendships cross lines of religion.

Through this work of fiction, Hegi examines what happens during the pre-World War II years that leads to the silence about Hitler and the Holocaust after the war ends. Through each character, she shows how it is possible for ordinary Germans to deny or justify what is happening to their Jewish neighbors.

Beginning by exploring the lives of disabled and/or disenchanted veterans and war widows and the national dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Versailles, Hegi shows how the lives of German citizens are fractured by World War I. Hitler's rise to power and the growing feelings of nationalism seem to heal the nation, at the cost of the freedom and rights of Jews. The new political climate changes Burgdorf by destroying the close interdependence of the members of this community. The influence of the Catholic Church is diminished; suspicion, silence, and propaganda replace open communication. The Holocaust and Nazism take their toll on Germany as the country suffers an even greater defeat in World War II. Not only is Germany defeated, but it earns a legacy of shame because of its attempt to annihilate the Jewish people in Europe.

Being "other" is another major social concern in this book. Stones from the River is told primarily through the eyes of Trudi Montag, a Catholic girl who happens to be a dwarf. Because she is excluded, she has a unique view of the people in Burgdorf and the events that are unfolding around her.

A new class of "others" is created by both wars. Some veterans come back from World War I emotionally deranged and unable to resume their former place in the community, like "The Man Who Touches His Heart." Formerly a biology teacher, he wanders the town performing the same wordless ritual with his hands. Other veterans come back physically maimed, like Fritz Hansen, whose hideous disfigurement causes people to avoid him.

Being "other" means being at risk during the Third Reich. Responding to Hitler's emphasis on the superiority of the Aryan race, Nazis target Jews as the "other"; the mentally handicapped, homosexuals, and Gypsies are also sent to death camps.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 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.

Literary Precedents

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A novel that may have set a precedent for Stones from the River is The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. Grass, born in 1927 in Danzig, became the literary spokesman for the German generation that grew up in the Nazi era. When The Tin Drum was published in 1959 (as Die Blechtrommel), it created a furor in Germany. Like Stones, The Tin Drum brings to life average people living under Nazi rule as seen through the eyes of the "other," a dwarf named Oskar. Oskar registers his protest at the horrors of German/ Polish society in Danzig during the reign of Nazism by refusing to grow after the age of three. By banging on his tin drum and shrieking with a voice so shrill that it can shatter glass, he registers his objections to the horrors and injustices of German occupation. The book has become a postwar classic that offers a profound perspective on both German history and the larger human condition.

Hegi, born in 1946, may well be the literary spokesperson for the generation that grew up in Germany after the war. Through her novel, Hegi attempts to break through the silence about the Holocaust and the war that she experienced in Germany in the forties and fifties. Initially published in English, Stones from the River is now available in German. Hegi believes that many Germans are not yet ready to face this topic. She presents a story of the events of the Nazi era that would lead to feelings of guilt and shame for many Germans. In Stones from the River, when a neighbor accuses her of losing pride in her Vaterland, Trudi answers, "I am burdened by being German. We all are."


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An abridgment of Stones from the River, read and adapted for audio by Ursula Hegi, is available through Simon & Schuster Audio on four cassettes. Running time is approximately four and a half hours.

Die Andere, the German translation of Stones from the River, is now available in Germany.

Media Adaptations

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As of 2006, Stones from the River was available in its entirety from Chivers Audiobooks.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Further Reading
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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide