Tag Archives: nazi germany

Review and Commentary: “Stones From the River” by Ursula Hegi

Although I often read history, especially books regarding World War II and Germany, memoirs, collected memories, analysis into the various horrors and sheer arrogant stupidity of what the Nazis and others did, I seldom, if ever, read fiction books about those times.

This book, however, caught my eye because the central character was a Zwerg, or dwarf, one of the many groups considered “unfit to live” which were summarily done away with under the Nazi regime. Secondly, this character, Trudi Montag’s best friend as a child was a boy named George whose mother dressed him as a girl and kept his hair long. Without reading anything further into the short synopsis on the back of the novel, I thought it might be about their personal interactions, regarding their “disabilities”, with those who meant for them to die. In the end, the book is about far more.

My Background

I like living in Germany. It’s where I was born, though not my ethnicity, and was one of my favorite places in the world to live by simply existing. Doing my thing, and being allowed to do so. A separate space. This is quite shocking to some people, those who still look on Germany as Nazi, intolerant and ugly. Whatever one thinks of modern Germany and its population, whether one is insistent on their culpability and propensity to commit evil acts, or is merely doubtful in some way, few people know the depth of the self-loathing, national examination and fury of descendants of “those ones” who participated, “looked the other way” or somehow minimized what happened. Though it is considered a more “unreligious” Christian country, many are insistent almost nearing religious fervor, that one be allowed to live or do what they wish, within universal bounds. That can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it.

The Holocaust is taught in schools, and students are required to learn about it, but it’s a subject few Germans except scholars or other academicians will discuss with “outsiders”. It’s a subject if brought up, the faces shut down, become wary or misdirective, or if they are the outspoken sort, they will question why you are pursuing the topic. Some, usually the younger generations, don’t want to hear about it anymore because they are sick and tired of the still accusatory comments or jokes made towards them, their people and country. Australia, Spain, the UK, the USA, France, the core EU (or previous EU partners) were all colonizer invaders who attempted genocide, and in some populations succeeded, because of their beliefs of superiority and manifest destiny. It is still happening in areas of Asia and Africa, and the effects of genocide are on-going in the Americas, the Pacific Islands and Australia.

Review:

I initially found the book difficult to get into, not because of topic, but because of style, which was choppy and sporadic, with a POV which toggled between an omnipotent viewer and the main character as an infant and toddler who made observations about individuals and situations that would be impossible for a child of that age. Often there were snippets of thoughts or memories provided as if from old age looking backwards, yet it was in early childhood details. Many other facts are merely implied. You have to ascertain a conclusion from information presented, and you’re often left doubting or wondering if you understood something correctly.

The setting is a small village in Germany, one of the many burgs which often surround or are near a larger, cosmopolitan city. Hegi is excellent at setting a mood so you can “see” and feel what it’s like to live in such a place: the little relationships, the jealousies, the short-lived boasts and affairs which kept everyone just a certain distance apart yet always together. There are good people and bad people, ones you ultimately as a reader can judge as such, yet the author makes no such attempt. She gives you the information, you can draw your own conclusions.

You are drawn into the world of Trudi Montag, her father owns a book circulation library and is a former injured veteran of WWI. She is visibly different, painfully and emotionally aware of the fact, yet with ingenius courage survives and keeps a dignity so many thoughtlessly attempt to brush away. That very difference, Trudi’s birth, her dwarfism is yet another trigger into her mother’s slow descent into madness, and poignantly we observe the bittersweet nature of a child’s desire to please and make happy a parent who soon is helpless against their own compulsions.

As other peers grow taller, grow up and pursue the nature courses of life, Trudi feels trapped yet determined to also grow in all ways, but her obsession with being “normal” teaches hard yet important lessons which keep her alive during the years to come. Unrequited love, secret abuse, solitary agony and loneliness. Trudi is small in stature but hugely spirited, fierce and passionate in her hates and personal battles.

Characterization is extremely important to this writer, even if the amount of names and descriptions can be confusing at times, with each person Hegi shows aspects of the German character, its idiosyncracies, faults and positives. About midway through, Hegi finally hits her stride, as the inevitable events we now know as history, begin to unfold. Almost frenetically we are drawn along in the emotional flood knowing what is going to happen, but as we’ve been made to care for each person, reluctant to progress already realizing the inevitable.

Conclusion:

For some who are more narrow-minded, they will not take away from the book the knowledge Hegi is trying to impart: that although virtually all Germans of that time knew and felt something very wrong was occurring, and they knew the basis on which it was focused, the ridding of the fatherland of Jews, some resisted and helped those Jews or others as they could with risk to their own lives. Some more than others. Others not at all, but many in some way or another did. It’s easier with hindsight to proclaim what one would have done in such a situation, but Hegi excels at showing just how normal people can change, and how the world around can change you.

For those who’ve studied facism, you’ll clearly see the examples of what type of attitude a police state creates in its populace. One most notable is the willingess to turn in others to prove their own loyalty, even children against parents, sibling to sibling, old friends of old friends. And later, to minimize or justify those acts. To conveniently forget what roled they played.

Yet the book is not a political statement. It is not a justification. It is not a mediation. It is starkly plain as seen through Trudi Montag’s eyes what people are and can be. As a little person who was often ignored or dismissed, her insight is brutally honest yet acceptable as truth. It is a character which I often find in Germans today, the willingness (if they allow you in) to harshly examine self, to admit to weaknesses or wrongdoing of thought or deed, but with a pragmatism which accepts those facts but is unwilling to be dismayed by them. Life goes on. Again, for good or bad, as this tendency can be problematic in actually caring that one’s own actions can negatively impact others even if it feels good for you. That’s colonialism still at work.

As an editor, I would have been compelled to “clean up” Hegi’s writing, make it more coherent and flowing, yet it would have lost the sparkle which makes unique her voice. As a reader, I found it challenging, but overall this book is extremely successful. I would strongly consider it one not to be missed. Although they make hundreds of films these days about anything and everything, this is a book I would love to see adapted for film. With its snippet like quality, it would be perfect for the big screen.

A bittersweet and wonderful gem. I am glad I didn’t put this one to the side simply because I don’t often read contemporary fiction or because the stamp on my copy proclaimed it a “Oprah’s Book Club Selection”. I would have been much less having not read it. It really is near perfect in it’s view of German life of the era, the complexities underlying an entire country and people’s past which continues to haunt with a darkly golden light.

Note: This is a repost. For some reason this review got deleted when WP changed formats some months ago. I just realized this.

Description: From the author of Floating in My Mother’s Palm. Born in the small German town of Burdorf, Trudi Montag is a Zwerg–a dwarf–who yearns to stretch and grow and be like everyone else. But as she matures to become the town’s librarian and unofficial historian, Trudi learns that being different is a secret that everybody shares.

  • Paperback, 525 pages
  • Published January 25th 2011
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster(first published 1994)
  • ISBN: 068484477X (ISBN13: 9780684844770)
  • Source: Self-Purchase

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review & Personal Commentary on “Night” by Elie Wiesel

Review: Just thinking of people in the modern age, who might have endured suffering, pain and agony and understandably may have been terrible, unspeakable, unthinkable, yet who still have had the opportunity to read this book, have a computer with internet connection and then type up and post a review of it…yet can still critique writing style and include a dismissiveness based on that?

That leaves me speechless but reaffirms my observation that many of those who have not really suffered the unimaginable, yet have such access, continue to be the ones to negatively or poorly rate a work of personal, agonizing minimalism which contains such profound revelations and truth.

I stopped to reread “Night” this week, and it places in great perspective whatever mundane pain, thought or complaint I might have in life right now, in general. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t negate anyone’s current situation, but it does give you a wider range in which to observe your own life.

I am a student of WW2 and Holocaust literature and history. I am also a person who was born and spent much time in Germany interacting with and interviewing those who remember firsthand, or those who were 1st gen survivors or ones who directly remember on a variety factors: NOT just because their parents might have been involved, but those who survived and endured the “survivors guilt” that maybe they shouldn’t have.

One of the things I’ve noted is that, because the events have replayed to the level of infinity in their minds, sometimes when they recount, it does sometimes come across as bloodless, or too cool. This is part of the psychological mechanisms of the brain which enact to protect that person. Sometimes the level of self-absorption and intentness of having some kind of entertainment from works of horrific history, or a desire to learn of ugly history but not really wishing to “know” of it, actually horrifies me.

Description: In Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night, a scholarly, Orthodox teenager is wracked with guilt at having survived the horror of the Holocaust & the genocidal campaign that consumed his family. His memories of the nightmare worlds of Auschwitz-Birkenau & Buchenwald present him with an intolerable question: how can the god he once so fervently believed in have allowed these monstrous events to occur? There are no easy answers in this harrowing book, which probes life’s essential riddles with the lucid anguish only great literature achieves. It marks the crucial first step in Wiesel’s lifelong project to bear witness for those who died.

Note: First published in 1958, there are many editions of “Night”, in several different languages. Mine is a self- purchased copy, 1982 edition.

Please visit http://www.eliewieselfoundation.org/eliewiesel.aspx.

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Filed under Memoir, Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Men with the Pink Triangle by Heinz Heger

Review: This was a long-awaited read for me. It was a read I had to prepare myself for, before I could actually read it. I’m a scholar of WW2 and Holocaust literature and have a large collection of material, but for a topic dealing even more closely with myself and being, I had to take time to ground myself.

Whether you are just a passing person who might wish to learn about what homosexuals suffered in concentration camps (and there were fewer comparatively and earlier in the Nazi regime directly), or someone who is looking for a wider view of all inmates who were interred or murdered, this memoir can provide views into life in the camps, especially for certain populations. What is does beyond that is provide a glimpse into the ugly aspects of “male” life, and the unique, sexual brutality so-called “straight” men have perpetrated against homosexuals who’ve expressed or more openly or innocently (depending on your perspective) their attraction and love of those of their own gender.

I don’t even know quite how to express it, but I literally was brought to the floor, unable to move, weeping, remembering how one can be forced to do things just to survive, and knowing the ones who forced you to debase yourself so horribly were so-called “straight” men who went/go home to their wives or girlfriends, who don’t think twice about using someone. That is the perspective Heinz Heger lived and endured on top of the diabolical, sickly human mechanisms of the Nazis and those who benefited from their regime.

I wanted to know more of his personal feelings when he described seeing thousands of prisoners of all kinds not just be “liquidated”, but when he directly saw the evidence: the coursing of blood from trenches full of recently shot bodies instead of his only stating how the villagers near the camp complained of the local streams being tainted with blood, but I understand why his account involved only that. Sometimes you can only recount abstracts like that, because looking too directly into the memory will take you back, and you know, in your present life that you couldn’t endure that.

Not a “speciality” book. Not just for gays or other LTIIQ people. If you are going to read Holocaust books, include this one as well. Be aware and outraged that homosexuals were targeted and murdered just like other groups, just because they believed and lived a certain way….BUT the vast majority were never compensated as were other survivors. They were pushed aside and discriminated against, and even had officials discount their memories, an even more debilitating experience than survivors whose stories were commiserated with. So in effect, these men were violated over and over, not just by perpetrators, but by those who supposedly were there to liberate and help them as they did other concentration camp inmates. They were discriminated against just like what continues against gays today in a variety of countries across the world.

Edition: Paperback, 140 pages
Published: June 1st 2010
Publisher: Alyson Books (first published 1980)
ISBN: 1593501781 (ISBN13: 9781593501785)
Source: Self-purchase

More Info:

The full title is : ” The Men with the Pink Triangle: The True Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps.” It was written by survivor Josef Kohout, who used the penname Heinz Heger. To learn more about the Nazi concentration camp survivor who died in 1994, please read the article by Kurt Krickler found at  Wikipedia (In German).

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Filed under Memoir, Non-Fiction, Reviews