Thursday, February 2, 2012

children and fire

children and fire by Ursula Hegi is part of the author's "Burdorf cycle", taking place in fictional Burgdorf Germany, as did her previous novels, Stones from the River and The Vision of Emma Blau.  This most recent novel begins in 1934 in Burgdorf Germany where young schoolteacher, Thekla Jansen, is asked to begin teaching the following day.  When she asks what grade she will be teaching, she is told that it will be fourth grade.  Thelka realizes that she will be replacing her former and favorite old teacher, Fraulein Sonja Siderova. Thekla also realizes that Fraulein Siderova is being let go because she is Jewish.  She tells herself that she will teach the fourth grade just until Fraulein Siderova can return.

Thus begins the real story of the novel...Thekla's dilemma of going along with the Third Reich proclamations, believing that Hitler's power will not last.  She adopts kind of a "head in the sand" attitude and encourages her students to just go along with whatever is requested of them and get through it, as she thinks that it will soon end and all will return as it was.  She encourages her students to join the Hitler Jugend and to not make any waves over any of the proclamations that continue to come. Of course, as time goes on, it becomes more apparent that Hitler's power is becoming stronger and more pervasive and Thekla has to begin to adjust her thinking about how to manage the moral compromises that she has made within herself.  And has to figure out how to live with the tragedy that unfolds involving her students.

Through-out the story, Thekla is working on her Ahnenpass, one of the things requested of everyone to have completed.  I was curious about the Ahnenpass and checked it on Wikipedia:

The Ahnenpaß (literally, "ancestor passport") documented the Aryan lineage of citizens of Nazi Germany. It was one of the forms of the Aryan certificate (Ariernachweis).
The term "Aryan" in this context was used in a sense widely accepted in scientific racism of the time, which assumed a Caucasian race which was sub-divided into Semitic, Hamitic and Aryan (Japhetic) subraces, the latter corresponding to the Indo-European ethno-linguistic phylum. Nevertheless, the de facto primary objective was to create extensive profiling based on racial data.
The investigation for lineage was not obligatory as it was a major undertaking to research the original documents for birth and marriage. Many Nazi followers had already begun to research their lineage even before law required it (soon after the NSDAP took power on January 30, 1933).
One important law which was issued on April 7, 1933 (after the Nazi assumption of power) was called the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, and it required all public servants to be of "Aryan" descent. The law, however, did not define the term "Aryan" and a subsequent regulation was issued on April 11 as the first legal attempt by the Third Reich to define who was, and who was not, a Jew. The implementing decree followed the pre-Nazi trend found in the Aryan Paragraph[1] and read in pertinent part that:
„Als nicht arisch gilt, wer von nicht arischen, insbesondere jüdischen Eltern oder Großeltern abstammt. Es genügt, wenn ein Elternteil oder ein Großelternteil nicht arisch ist. Dies ist insbesondere dann anzunehmen, wenn ein Elternteil oder ein Großelternteil der jüdischen Religion angehört hat.“
Those are not Aryans who descend from non-Aryan, especially Jewish, parents or grandparents. It is sufficient (grounds for exclusion) for one parent or grandparent to be non-Aryan. This is particularly assumable if a parent or grandparent adhered to the Jewish religion.
The applicable fields were later enlarged under different laws to include lawyers, teachers, medical doctors and finally requiring a proven Aryan lineage even to attend high school or to get married. Usually, the lineage was investigated four generations back. The Ahnenpass cost .60 Reichsmark.
The Ahnenpass was not public record; the document was shown where required and returned to the bearer.
As a result, genealogical research particularly flourished in Germany during the Third Reich. Opposition clergy helped many racially persecuted individuals by providing them with fake passports as a personal document necessary for survival.

This makes sense that as a teacher, Thekla would probably have been considered a public servant, so she would have been working on her Ahnenpass.  She begins to find some discrepancies as she finds documents and begins to question her own parentage and what learning more about her ancestors could mean for her.

There are many things to think about in this story, which I often find when reading about this period of history.  Who is to actually know what one would have done?  And what one would be left to live with?

This was a good book.  I bought it to read because I have read her other two previously mentioned books and liked them.  She is a good author!  I recommend her books!


Susan said...

I haven't read anything by her yet, although I have heard many good things about Stones from a River. This one - children and fire - sounds very interesting. I like your review of it, it is thoughtful and considerate. I might read this one day. Thank you for reviewing it, Sue!

Sue F. said...

Thanks, Susan!