Children and Fire tells the story of one day that will forever transform the lives of the people in Burgdorf, Germany, the fictitious village by the river in Ursula Hegi’s bestselling novels. February 27, 1934—the first anniversary of the burning of Reichstag, the Parliament building in Berlin.
Thekla Jansen, a gifted young teacher, loves her students and tries to protect them from the chaos beyond their village. Believing the Nazis’ new regime will not last forever, Thekla begins to relinquish some of her freedoms to keep her teaching position. She has always taken her moral courage for granted, but when each compromise chips away at that courage, she knows she must reclaim it.
Ursula Hegi funnels pivotal moments in history through the experience of Thekla, her students, and the townspeople as she writes along the edge where sorrow and bliss meet, and shows us how one society—educated, cultural, compassionate—can slip into a reality that’s fabricated by propaganda and controlled by fear.
Gorgeously rendered and emotionally taut, Children and Fire confirms Ursula Hegi’s position as one of the most distinguished writers of her generation.
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About the Author
Ursula Hegi is the author of The Worst Thing I've Done, Sacred Time, Hotel of the Saints, The Vision of Emma Blau, Tearing the Silence, Salt Dancers, Stones from the River, Floating in My Mother's Palm, Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories, Intrusions, and Trudi & Pia. She teaches writing at Stonybrook's Southhampton Campus and she is the recipient of more than thirty grants and awards.
Hometown:Upstate New York
Date of Birth:1946
Place of Birth:Germany
Education:B.A., M.A., University of New Hampshire
Read an Excerpt
AWINTER MORNING IN 1934. Imagine frost on the windowpanes of the schoolhouse in this village by the Rhein, milk blossoms of frost. Imagine the chill on the necks of the boys in FrÄulein Jansen’s classroom. Feel their dread because today is the first anniversary of the fire that destroyed the parliament building in Berlin, a fire that has scorched their dreams in a whoosh of yellow and red, jagged and fast, so fast it’s like a whip, like a hot wind, clutching at timbers till they cave in.
“What if the communists burn our school?” the boys ask their young teacher.
“Will they attack our village?”
“Oh no.” She tries to calm them. “The fire happened far away from here. Hundreds of kilometers.”
But the boys have heard about the fire so often that they’re frightened it will happen here in Burgdorf. They’ve heard about it on the people’s radio and in their parents’ discussions over who really burned down the parliament building. Most parents repeat what’s on the radio, that the communists set the fire. But other parents whisper that the Nazis set the fire to frame the communists.
“We are safe here,” the teacher promises her boys. And hopes it’s true.
They want to believe her. Because they adore her. Because she makes them feel proud. Because she gets them to laugh till their belly muscles ache. Because—and this they don’t know but will figure out as men, those who’ll survive the next war—she keeps the shutters open at night, even in winter, to feel moon on her skin. It takes a certain kind of teacher to do this, one who leaps and runs with her boys when she takes them outdoors.
“What if the communists burn my barn, FrÄulein Jansen?”
“What if they blow up our bridges?” Otto’s voice is fearful.
But some of her boys look excited.
Thekla Jansen knows why. As a girl, she built bonfires with her Catholic youth group. The girls and their leader would sit around the flames, roasting potatoes and competing with stories about creatures that arose from the underbellies of their dreams. In the mist—stories like that are always more exciting in the mist—the girls would huddle closer, shout with delicious fear, lure the beast inside their circle of flames, and laugh at it till it faded away.
Andreas raises his hand. “The communists sleep on steel floors, not in beds, that’s how tough they are.”
“We have three cows, and if we can’t get them out—”
“What if they sink our ferry?”
“Five cows. We have five.”
The teacher rests one hand on the piano, against the glass frog house where Icarus lives. The frog’s heartbeat pulsates on every surface of his body, flashy and rapid, as if his body were his heart. Icarus survives on the dead flies the boys peel off sticky coils of flypaper that dangle from their kitchen ceilings.
“I was afraid, too,” Thekla Jansen says. “Especially those nights after the Reichstag burned.”
Startled that their teacher is admitting to fear, her boys lean forward in the wooden rows of desks, two to each row. Most of her ten-year-olds are already in uniform, pins of the new flag on their brown collars. But the nine-year-olds, too young to join, wear threadbare shirts buttoned to their throats, borders of white collar only on those boys who own their schoolbooks; for the poor boys, it’s one book shared by two.
“For weeks I kept checking for flames and smoke above our roofs,” she says and wonders if her boys, too, will forever remember where they were when they found out.
For her it was at a costume ball, dancing with friends from her university days to music from an orchestra of clowns. Rosenmontag—Shrove Monday, the pomp and glory of parades and floats and music and masks, your last fling because once Lent began, you had to atone for your sins and mistakes. Rosenmontag, the next to last day of Karneval, when all of Germany let loose in frivolity, when—behind your mask—you could be anyone you chose. As Thekla danced in the red and black flamenco costume her mother, Almut, had sewn, words shattered the music, a man’s voice from the VolksempfÄnger—people’s radio saying the Reichstag was on fire in Berlin, saying it as though he didn’t believe it, his voice urgent and climbing like the highest note of music itself. The costumed dancers froze as if in a pantomime as the voice described how, there in Berlin, ghosts and jesters and Vikings and Chinamen and ballerinas and prophets and Indians and angels and cats and Dutch girls with wooden clogs were swarming from restaurants and bars toward the blazing cupola of the Reichstag, while men in uniform, firefighters and SA and police, tried to block the bizarre witnesses from getting too close.
“Do you remember where you were when you heard about the Reichstag fire?” Thekla Jansen asks her students.
A murmur. A hum. Several hands rising.
“I was allowed to stay up late because of Rosenmontag. A neighbor came in and told us.”
“I heard on the radio.”
“I went to sleep in my costume.”
“I was a cowboy with—”
“I was a Chinaman. My Oma made me a yellow hat that’s like an umbrella.”
“—with two holsters and a mustache.”
“My mother woke me up and took me outside,” Richard says. “Some houses were dark. She kept wondering who knew about the fire. And who didn’t.”
“Did you have a mask, FrÄulein?”
“Black satin with red stones.” Thekla remembers how troubled she felt as she pulled off her mask, and again on Aschermittwoch—Ash Wednesday two days later, when the priest’s thumb drew the cross of ash on the forehead of each parishioner. The scent of ashes in his golden bowl tilted her back into the night of ashes falling on Berlin—Ashes to ashes. To whom must I answer?—as though the Reichstag fire had been the harbinger for this ash on her skin; and she envisioned future Ash Wednesdays, years funneling into decades, when the cool smudge on her forehead would summon that fire for her.
“It started fourteen minutes past nine,” says Franz. Pants too short, but quick with numbers.
“I was asleep. But my father told me the next morning and said it would be a different world tomorrow.”
“My mother said anything can happen now, and that we must stock up on food that can’t spoil.”
“We bought lentils and peas.”
“My father, he was yelling,” Bruno Stosick says. He’s the son of the teacher’s landlord, a brainy child who can recite every move of historic chess games but doesn’t know how to play in the dirt. Already, Bruno is a chess champion, has grown up within the Burgdorf Chess Club that meets every Tuesday in his family’s living room.
Soon after the teacher rented the apartment above the chess club, Bruno began sneaking up the steps in his socks to play his hiding games. He’d knock at her door, hide behind the coatrack in the hallway. When she’d open her door and pretend to be surprised nobody was there, he’d leap out, smelling of chalk and of sleep, tip his face to her—“I thought you’d never find me!”—such sweetness in his smile, it’s almost too much for a boy.
But Bruno isn’t smiling now. He’s imitating his father’s hoarse voice: “‘Everyone knows that damn Austrian started the fire!’”
Most of the students giggle.
But some don’t.
Bruno digs his fingernails into his palms. “My father says the FÜhrer should be strung up by his—”
“Bruno!” Alarmed, the teacher cuts him off. She has never seen him like this. “We do not say swear words.”
As if ‘damn’ mattered one damn to me. But this is what she wants her boys to recall when they tell their group leaders or their parents about school: that their teacher scolded Bruno Stosick for saying damn—and not that Bruno’s father wants the FÜhrer strung up by his balls. Or, rather, by his one and only ball. If rumors are to be trusted.
© 2011 Ursula Hegi
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Children and Fire includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Ursula Hegi's Burgdorf Cycle encompasses 4 novels set in the fictional German village of Burgdorf: Stones from the River, Floating in my Mother’s Palm, The Vision of Emma Blau, and now Children and Fire.
Children and Fire is the story of a single day, February 27, 1934, exactly one year after the burning of the Reichstag (German Parliament.) It is a day that will forever transform the lives of the townspeople.
At the core of this remarkable novel is the question how one teacher, Thekla Jansen—gifted and joyful, passionate and inventive—can become seduced by propaganda during the early months of Hitler’s regime and encourage her 10-year-old students to join the Hitler Youth, believing that membership—hikes and songs and bonfires and uniforms—will be a step toward better schools, better apprenticeships, a better future.
How can a woman we admire choose a direction we don't admire? So much has changed for Thekla, and the people of Burgdorf in the past year. Thekla's lover, Emil Hesping, is sure the Nazis set fire to the Parliament building to frame the Communists. But Thekla believes what she hears on the radio, that the Communists set the fire, and she's willing to relinquish some of her freedoms to keep her teaching position. She has always taken her moral courage for granted, but when each silent agreement chips away at that courage, she knows she must reclaim it.
Hegi funnels pivotal moments in history through the experiences of individual characters: Thekla's mother who works as a housekeeper for a Jewish family, and her employers, Michel and Ilse Abramowitz; Thekla's mentally ill father; Trudi Montag, the librarian, and her father Leo Montag;
Fräulein Siderova, midwife to the dying; and the students who adore their young teacher.
Hegi writes along the edge where sorrow and bliss meet, showing her readers how one society—educated, cultural, compassionate—can slip into a reality that’s fabricated by propaganda and controlled by fear; how a surge of national unity can be manipulated into the dehumanization of a perceived enemy and the justification of torture and murder.
Gorgeously rendered and emotionally taut, Children and Fire confirms Ursula Hegi’s position as one of the most distinguished writers of her generation. Her books have captivated critics and readers alike. They are on academic reading lists and continue to be adopted by book groups.
A bi-cultural writer, Ursula didn’t plan to set half of her work in Europe and the other half in the Americas—but that's how the pages have opened for her, reflecting what it is like to be an immigrant.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- Thekla thinks she can wait the Nazis out—that she will eventually reclaim her moral courage. Of course, we know differently. How does your knowledge of history affect your view of Thekla’s circumstances and the decisions she makes?
- Children and Fire takes place over the course of one day, with flashbacks interspersed throughout. How does the novel’s structure influence your understanding of the events in the book? How does Thekla’s past inform her response to the events of February 17, 1934?
- What prejudices existed within Burgdorf well before Hitler’s reign began? What obstacles did Thekla face due to her gender and social class? How might Thekla’s social standing change if her true parentage were made public?
- Being a good teacher is incredibly important to Thekla. What do you think makes a teacher effective? Do you think teachers have responsibilities to their students beyond the curriculum? Can you explain what they are? Do you believe Thekla is a good teacher?
- On page 97 of Children and Fire, the author writes, “Messages change. Right and wrong can trade places, fall out of fashion.” How do you interpret this? Can you think of an incident when you were forced to reexamine your perceptions of right and wrong? What is the impact of propaganda on society—past and present?
- Thekla believes what she hears on the government controlled radio, that the Nazis kept the Communists from taking over Germany, and she's willing to relinquish some of her freedoms to feel protected. Of course the Nazis won't last, she tells Emil. They're too coarse, too loud. But for the time being, she tries to adapt. Emil is far more vocal in his disapproval of Hitler’s regime. Does he have less to lose than Thekla?
- Addressing Fräulein Siderova in her head, Thekla says, “Do (the students) think I betrayed you? Because I did. No, I didn’t. Because what else could I have done?” (p. 72) Do you think Thekla wronged Fräulein Siderova by accepting her job?
- When the students pick on Eckart, one of the weaker students in the Thekla's class, she thinks, “if you step back, you are lost. The urge of the pack will escalate.” (p. 191) How is Thekla’s classroom a microcosm of the attitudes in Germany and in the world at large? What is the allure of losing yourself to “crowd mentality”? What is the danger?
- Bruno is a smart, talented little boy who might have grown out of his childhood isolation and prospered in another time and place. What do you think leads to his suicide? Is there anything his parents or Thekla could have done to prevent his death?
- Why do you think the Hitler Youth is so alluring to the boys in Thekla’s class? Can you emphasize with them? Do you believe they are aware of the moral implications of participating?
- How much change can one person affect? If Thekla had spoken out against the government, could her voice have made any difference? Discuss experiences when you have raised your voice despite your fear or discomfort.
- Does Thekla redeem herself at the end of the novel by vowing to be more outspoken with her students, to teach them lessons that may be seen as subversive? What do you think will become of Thekla and her students?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- Explore how this novel is related to the other 3 novels in the Burgdorf Cycle, Floating in My Mother's Palm (1990), Stones from the River (1994), and The Vision of Emma Blau (2000.) Trace the path of your favorite characters from one novel to another. For example, Trudi Montag, the librarian, is a major character in Stones from the River and a supporting character in the 3 other novels of the Burgdorf Cycle. Bruno Stosick, the young chess genius in Thekla's class, has a major role in Children and Fire and a supporting role in Stones from the River.
- Thekla loves to recite poems with her students. She has a number of favorite poems that she teaches to inspire her students and enrich their education. Share a poem with your book group and discuss why you choose it.
- Friedrich Schiller's poem, "The Diver," runs through the novel like a current. Why do you think Ursula Hegi chose this poem? What is its impact on the students? On the teacher? Online, you can find several translations of the entire poem.
- Thekla takes her boys on field trips to teach them about nature. Weather permitting, hold your book club outdoors. Take note of how your perceptions change when your conversations take place outside.
- Children and Fire is a fictionalized account of the events leading up to World War II. In her research, Ursula Hegi drew on many resources to make her fiction authentic. Go to your library or online to do your own research into that time period. Discuss with your book group what you found out.
- Thekla must research her heritage for sinister reasons, and by the end of the book she unravels a well-kept secret about her lineage that she may or may not have sensed all along. Thankfully, we live in a time and place where looking into our own history can be fulfilling. Research your family tree and share what you discover with the group.