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‘If You See Me, Cry’: Hunger Stones in Some Czech And German Rivers

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"The recent droughts in Europe once again made visible the 'Hunger Stones' in some Czech and German rivers. These stones were used to mark desperately low river levels that would forecast famines. This one, in the Elbe river, is from 1616 and says: 'If you see me, cry.'"

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In the midst of heat waves in Europe and the United States in August 2022, a Twitter account tweeted about the emergence of “hunger stones” in Europe — carvings warning future people of poor agricultural conditions to come:

Alongside two images of carved stone, text of the tweet placed the stones in Central Europe’s Elbe River, and stated:

The recent droughts in Europe once again made visible the “Hunger Stones” in some Czech and German rivers. These stones were used to mark desperately low river levels that would forecast famines.

‘If You See Me, Cry’: Hunger St...
‘If You See Me, Cry’: Hunger Stones in Some Czech And German Rivers

This one, in the Elbe river, is from 1616 and says: “If you see me, cry”

While images were attached to the tweet, it included no links to any recent sightings of “hunger stones” in Czech or German rivers. A reverse image search for both images indicated they had been published as early as 2019, and were not captured during the hot, fiery summer of 2022.

A Google search restricted to results on or before June 1 2022 (to locate sightings of hunger stones in the summer season of 2022) did not return any news or other content indicating the carvings were then-recently “made visible.” However, the tweet was shared one day after an August 10 2022 r/todayilearned post about hunger stones, which was possibly inspiration for the popular tweet:

Today I learned that in Central Europe there are hunger stones (hungerstein), in river beds stones were marked with an inscription, visible only when the flow was low enough to warn of a drought that would cause famine. from todayilearned

As is very often the case on that subreddit, the original poster (OP) simply linked to a random Wikipedia entry, in that case “Hunger stone.” That entry noted the “if you see me, [cry]” inscription, and its summary explained that the carvings resurfaced in 1918 and again in 2018 — four years before the tweet:

A hunger stone (German: Hungerstein) is a type of hydrological landmark common in Central Europe. Hunger stones serve as famine memorials and warnings and were erected in Germany and in ethnic German settlements throughout Europe in the 15th through 19th centuries.

These stones were embedded into a river during droughts to mark the water level as a warning to future generations that they will have to endure famine-related hardships if the water sinks to this level again. One famous example in the Elbe river in Děčín, Czech Republic, has “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine” (lit. “If you see me, weep”) carved into it as a warning.

Many of these stones, featuring carvings or other artwork, were erected following the hunger crisis of 1816–1817 caused by the eruptions of the Tambora volcano.

In 1918, a hunger stone on the bed of the Elbe River, near Tetschen, became exposed during a period of low water coincident to the wartime famines of World War I. Similar hunger stones in the river were uncovered again during a drought in 2018.

Included in the page was a table tracking known locations for hunger stones, and years in which their emergence was observed. The most recent year mentioned was 2018, and a news search aligned with Wikipedia’s dates; in August 2018, NPR and the Associated Press covered the appearance of the carvings. AP reported:

Due to this summer’s drought in Central Europe [in 2018], boulders known as “hunger stones” are reappearing in the Elbe River.

The low water levels in the river that begins in the Czech Republic then crosses Germany into the North Sea has exposed stones on the river bed whose appearances in history used to warn people that hard times were coming.

Over a dozen of the hunger stones, chosen to record low water levels, can now be seen in and near the northern Czech town of Decin near the German border.

The oldest water mark visible dates to 1616. That stone, is considered the oldest hydrological landmark in Central Europe, bears a chiseled inscription in German that says: “When you see me, cry.”

In September 2018, Atlas Obscura examined the August 2018 hunger stone sightings, adding:

Hunger stones have been found as far afield as Pennsylvania, but they’re most common in Czechia and Germany. They only come out when the water level is low, and this year’s [2018] Central European heat wave has been enough to make over a dozen of them visible along the Elbe. Travelers on or around the river are now greeted by messages like “We cried—we cry—and you will cry” and “If you see me, weep.”

Use of these stones dates back to at least the 1600s, if not earlier. They are conduits for messages from the past: warnings of the famine, heartache, and decreased mobility that droughts could bring. But every time they crop up, they’re viewed through the lens of the present, too …

A late August 2018 Smithsonian Magazine piece on the topic noted that at least one of the carvings was visible “126 days each year” due to the presence of a dam in built in the early 20th century:

But hunger stones did more than simply document drought: They also lamented difficult conditions and let people know that trouble was afoot. One of the rocks, for instance, “expressed that drought had brought a bad harvest, lack of food, high prices and hunger for poor people,” according to a 2013 study of drought in Czech lands. A German inscription on the same rock reads: “When you see me, weep.”

This particular hunger stone has become a well-known tourist attraction in the Czech Republic, according to NPR’s Camila Domonoske. It is among the oldest hydrological landmarks in Central Europe and, due to a dam that was built on a tributary of the Elbe in 1926, the rock can be seen approximately 126 days each year. But the low water levels in the Elbe today [in 2018] are nevertheless “exceptional,” Domonoske writes. Earlier this month [of August 2018], the Local reported that the river had reached its lowest levels in more than half a century.

The hunger stones are not the first sunken relics to resurface in the Elbe this summer [2018]. Earlier this month [August 2018], receding waters exposed unexploded bombs that may have been dumped in the Elbe after WWII.

In that reporting, findings unrelated to the stones (unexploded munitions) were mentioned in passing. In August 2022, it seemed likely that news stories in the summer of 2022 about historic droughts revealing human remains reignited interest in related topics, such as hunger stones.

On August 8 2022, two days before the r/todayilearned post, an additional set of human remains was located due to low water levels in Lake Mead. The August 2022 recovery was the fourth of its kind at Lake Mead, as water levels “kept dropping” amid an ongoing megadrought.

An August 11 2022 tweet claimed that “recent droughts in Europe once again made visible the ‘Hunger Stones’ in some Czech and German rivers, emphasizing one that read “if you see me, cry.” We were unable to substantiate that hunger stones emerged again in 2022, but an August 10 2022 post to Reddit’s r/todayilearned drew attention to the hydrological landmarks simply as a point of interest. It was likely not coincidental that the post closely followed the fourth discovery of human remains in Lake Mead since May 2022 (due to low water levels), and the claim was not entirely misleading. Hunger stones were spotted in August 2018, and widely reported at that time. In 2022, “bodies in Lake Mead” was a similar climate change related story, but the tweet did not explain that the stones reappeared in 2018, not 2022.