Children and Fire

Children and Fire

by Ursula Hegi

Judy Stanton (07/04/13): Having read so many novels set during the Holocaust, I found Children and Fire to be a very different approach. It gave the reader a taste of how common German families lived during this time, some quietly and some fervently recognizing the Reich, while others resisted in their own way. I found the story of how pregnant girls were sent to a home and left their children to be adopted to be very poignant, and the story of Thelka -- one of these "out of wedlock" babies, to carry even more interest and intrigue. I had forgotten about the time of life when you wanted so badly to have a child, when everyone around you seemed to be pregnant. I loved reading about how Thelka, and her mentor, taught children, demonstrating how one person could have an impact on young lives, could teach children manners and compassion, and find ways to reach out to their interests and overcome their anxieties. The book was realistic in showing how basically good people could do things that were unethical, unfeeling, and, ultimately, wrong. The impact of being Jewish during these times and sympathizing with their plight is brought home when it has a personal impact.
Rating: ****

Anne Ferber (05/27/13): Although this is my first acquaintance with Ms Hegi's marvelous writing, I understand this is her fourth literary visit to Burgdorf, the fictional small German village on the Rhein. The date of most of the narrative is Feb. 27, 1934, the first anniversary of the burning of the Reichstad. The Nazis used this (self-imposed) act of terror to consolidate power, place blame on Communists, and begin their own reign of cruelty on all German citizens, especially the Jews. I say "all German citizens" out of depth of feeling that those who performed the atrocities were left with scars as great as the victims.

The main character of this novel is Thekla Jansen, a young school teacher who--after waiting ten years for a teaching position to open up--must replace her own mentor, fired for being a Jew. Thekla justifies taking the job by telling herself she will only hold it until her mentor returns, but all the while, having a difficult time dealing with her own guilt about her job, and the injustices that abound.

There is also a riveting sub plot involving Thekla's own family background, which she has an ambivalent curiosity and a concern over, involving other prominent members of the community. All is not explained until the very end of the book and that leads to great narrative tension and much breathless page turning.

Ms Hegi's writing is poetic, and the internal (italicized) conversations going on while the action proceeds is very effective. I highly recommend this and other ("Stones from the River") Hegi novels to more fully understand the unimaginable quagmire Nazis --and especially Hitler-- imposed on the German people during the first half of the 20th Century.

My feeling during this reading was: "Is it possible to be good?"
Rating: *****

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