Sunday, October 3, 2010

'The Reader' by Bernhard Schlink


I am a daughter of Germany,
blonde, blue-eyed, tall,
a perfect example of the master race.
What do I say to the survivors of the holocaust
and their children?
Can I say: “I am sorry?”
A member of the Jewish community once said:
“We can forgive the pain that has been inflicted on us,
but we have no rights to forgive the wrong done to others.”
Can I forgive my country?
Can I forgive myself?
Can the survivors of the holocaust forgive me?
The pain of the holocaust is deeper and more profound,
than any personal pain I carry.
The anguish is silent, muted, muffled.
Such is the pain of the second generation.
The heritage of being German.
The shame of being German.’

I have read in the ‘SEASONS OF LOVE
written by Adrianne Wildencamp,
A middle aged woman
living in Tasmania
she struggled all her life
with silence of her parents
about her German heritage.
Only love is stronger that pain,
and when the pain is immeasurable,
the healing love needs
to be infinitive,
and the rest is tears.’

She finished her book
and let to rest her doubts
and fears
that there is no repentance,
there is no scope for forgiveness
when circumstances arise
to show an inhuman side
of human beings
but it can happen in any race,
place or time.

The rage faded
and the questions ceased to matter.
Whatever I had done
or not done,
whatever Hanna Schmitz had done
or not to me –
it was the path my life had taken.
I’ve made peace with it.’

Bernhard Schlink has thought so long
and hard
about German guilt.
‘The Reader’ distils its questions,
its answers
and its pure pain,
between German past
and its present,
between the narrator
and an older woman.
The narrator’s generation
grew up in the shadow
of their parents’ past.
The older woman,
Hanna Schmitz
had her own motivation
to become the perpetrator,
convicted and punished
while Michael was silenced
by revulsion, shame and guilt.

The first part of the book
deals with rituals
of growing up,
 while reading aloud,
taking baths and making love.
Michael is fifteen
with awakening body and mind,
 full of the eagerness and yearning
that life can never fulfill,
but you are not aware it,
until you grow up.
He can not take eyes off her.
her body,
the way she hold herself and moves.
Hanna Schmitz has withdrawn
into herself,
unbothered by any input from her mind,
oblivious to the outside world.
She is slow-flowing,
and seductive.
There is an invitation,
that weakens your perception
as it sharpens your imagination,
the invitation to forget
the world
in the recesses of the body.
We all have been there,

In the second part of the book
Hanna Schmitz disappears
following misunderstanding.
‘We didn’t have a world
that we shared,
she gave me the space in her life,
that she wanted me to have.
I had to be content with that.’

Michael examines the nature of his first love,
his physical desire,
his denial of her
and betrayal,
her punishment
that leaving was,
his sense of guilt and loss.

So because you wanted to make room,
you said you and you
and you
have to be sent back to be killed?

Hanna didn’t understand
what the presiding judge
was getting at.
So what would you have done?”
Hanna Schmitz
did not know
what she should
or could have done
and therefore wanted to hear from the judge,
who was here to decide her guilt or innocence.
It is not the custom
at German trials for defendants
to question the judges.
But now the question had been asked
and there was no easy answer,
not even for judge.
Talking about what ‘one’
must and must not do,
what it costs,
does not do justice
to the seriousness of the question
about tragic results of fear,
about life and death.

Hanna in a cell for life
was out of Michael’s world,
but not out of his mind:
So I was still guilty.
And if I was not guilty
because one cannot be guilty
of betraying a criminal,
then I was guilty of having loved
a criminal.”

People murder out of passion,
love and hate,
for honour or revenge,
for money or power,
in wars and revolutions,
but the people,
who were murdered in the camps,
hadn’t done anything
to individuals,
who murdered them.
There was no reason for hatred
and no war.
But executioners
don’t hate the people
they execute
and they execute them
all the same.
They are a matter
of such indifference
to an executioner
that he can kill them
as easily as not,
in his day to day work.”

Michael walked around
the concentration camp grounds
until they closed
and it was time to go home.

He wanted to understand
Hanna’s crime,
but when he condemned it,
as it must be condemned,
there was no room for understanding.
It is impossible to do both.

In the final part of the book,
Michael had an appointment with the past,
he couldn’t miss.
How could the Greeks,
who knew that one never enters
the same river twice,
believe in homecoming?”

Michael was sending tapes to prison,
reading aloud was his speaking to her.
Hanna’s plea for clemency was granted.
He sat next to her and smelled an old woman:
“I always had the feeling
that no one understand me
when no one understands you,
then no one can call you to account.
Not even the court,
but the dead can.”
And they said goodbye
even before
they had to separate
He woke up
next morning
and knew
Hanna was dead.

Hanna was asking a great deal.
Her years of imprisonment
were not merely to be
the required atonement.
She wanted to give them
her own meaning,
the meaning to be recognized.
He found the relevant Jewish Organization
in Germany
and paid the money to the account,
in the name of Hanna Schmitz.

‘I am a daughter of Czechoslovakia,
blonde, blue-eyed, tall,
a perfect example of the master race.
What do I say to the members of my family,
some dead and some still alive,
all survivors from World War II,
some of German blood on the perpetrators’ side
and others of Russian and Jewish blood
victimized on other side.
All I heard was silence
from both sides.
Looking in their deeply wrinkled faces
all huddled closely together,
I haven’t seen the redemptive power
of understanding,
guilt or forgiveness
in their eyes,
just fatigue and a deep desire
to leave everything behind.
Can I say: “I am sorry?”
on their behalf.
I always had many doubts about their past,
but for me,
they have always been just my Grandfather,
my great uncle and his son,
I am not certain if my love for them
made me invariably complicit in their crimes.
I am certain that truth of what one says
lies in what one does.
In the end I am answerable what I do
and by reflecting on the horror of my own family past
I can learn to test my own limits of forgiveness
I can share my experiences in my own creative way
and make commitment to seek and recognize
the beautiful aspects of human being
to appreciate and contribute to the beautiful world we live in
as one of my everyday earthly tasks.


  1. Very powerful writings! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for reading...thoughts have power only if someone read them and reflect on them:)