In Part 2, after WWII, Hanna is persecuted for atrocities that resulted in Jewish women held captive in the church perished when the allied bomber shelled the city. Hanna had volunteered as a SS guard in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Unwilling to face the possible humiliation of being an illiterate, Hanna admitted to writing a report that instructed the women to be locked up in the church. During the chaos of bombing, the prisoners were forgotten, there was nowhere to run so they were burned alive. A mother and daughter survived the fire to bring the defendants to court. Included in this para a scene incited by a blogger’s review (see end note), In her defense, Hanna – showing her simple-mindedness and genuine ignorance of the consequences of her role during the war – explains that she was merely carrying out her duty as a guard; that it would have led to chaos if the guards had unlocked the church and let out the screaming masses inside. The judge retorts, “So you had a choice. And you chose to let them die.” “What would you have done?” Hanna asks the judge, twice.
The tendency for the new generation to blame their parents for their direct or indirect involvement in the Nazi past, who dissociated themselves from their parents and thus from the entire generation of perpetrators, voyeurs, and accommodators and accepters, thereby overcoming perhaps not their shame, but at least their suffering because of the shame. How could one feel guilt and shame, and at the same time parade one’s self-righteousness? Was their dissociation of themselves from their parents mere rhetoric: sounds and noise that were supposed to drown out the fact that their love for their parents made them irrevocable complicit in their crimes?
Hanna was sentenced to life.
In Part 3, we follow-up with what happens to Michael in adulthood. Haunted with his memories of Hanna, his own marriage to Gertrude had failed, he became a barrister and a legal historian researching the implication of the third Reich WWII past with its present. He visited the Concentration Camp of Struth-Natzweiler. A personal motivation to right the wrong, to assuage the guilt for not speaking up for Hanna of her illiteracy and perhaps help reduce Hanna’s sentence from life to term, he taken up to reading to her for 10years on books and stories. One day received a note from Hanna, Michael was overjoyed with Hanna’s first hand written notes of appreciation.
I looked at Hanna’s handwriting and saw how much energy and struggle the writing had cost her. I was proud of her. At the same time, I was sorry for her, sorry for her delayed and failed life, sorry for the delays and failure of life in general. I thought that if the right time gets missed, if ones has refused or been refused something for too long, it’s too late, even if it is finally tackled with energy and received with joy. Or is there no such thing as “too late”? Is there only ‘late’, and is ‘late’ always better than ‘never’? I don’t know.
The recorded cassettes of story read by Michael were sent to Hanna for many years while she is in prison. Michael, however, had not made any attempt to write or see Hanna. The governor wrote to Michael one day and told him that Hanna was to be released on appeal for clemency, and since he appears to be her only contact, could he please help her to re-orientated to the society after 18 years in prison? Michael agreed and visited her a week before her release. Hanna was by now an old woman, and smell like one, but she was his Hanna. Hanna summarised the past as she sees it:
“I always had the feeling that no one understood me anyway, that no one knew who I was and what made me do this or that. And you know, when no one understands you, no one can call you to account. Not even the court could call me to account. But the dead can. They understand. They don’t even have to have been there, but if they do, they understand even better. Here in prison they were with me a lot. They came every night, whether I wanted them to or not. Before the trial I could still chase them away when they wanted to come.”
And then, few days before her release, Hanna hang herself.
Unable to live the truth and shames of her part in the death of the holocaust victims, Hanna killed herself. I was moved by the account that Hanna learn to read and write from Michael. She borrowed the books that Michael read aloud, and learnt them word by word, sentence by sentence in prison.
Because she knew nothing about the authors, she assumed they were contemporaries, unless something indicated this was obviously impossible. I was astonished that how much older literature can actually be read as if it were contemporary; to anyone ignorant of history, it would be easy to see ways of life in earlier times simply as ways of life in foreign countries.
Ignorance or innocence is bliss, some say. Enlightenment comes with a price. Being informed and well learnt comes with a greater responsibility. As Hanna read all history books about the Holocaust, quenching her curiosity, searching the pages for an answer, she felt responsible for the deaths of so many.
The writer uses the character of Hanna as a metaphor to examine a haunting, shameful Nazi past. He examines the nature of understanding and tests the limits of forgiveness. A deeply moving examination of a German conscience, which before I, or the majority of us, assumed there were none. It is a Holocaust story of self examination, forgiveness, romance, literacy, and it is worth to re-read again and again. Superb!
What I like about the book:
Poetic and beautiful written book, light weight but heavy weight enough to weigh you with life big questions. A feat not easily achieved, only by a master.
What I like least about the book:
Wonder why it has to be about a perverse relationship between a much, much older woman and a teenager? Perhaps to be able to achieve good readership, most writers feel compelled to inject eroticism or controversial subjects into the story. This tactic almost never work for me.
Perhaps the Wikipedia could give you a better synopsis than I do, click here.
For a more in-depth review, see fellow Malaysian blogger at: http://culturazzi.org/review/literature/the-reader-bernhard-schlink.