“How could those who had committed Nazi crimes or watched them happen or looked away while they were happening or tolerated the criminals among them after 1945 or even accepted them – how could they have anything to say to their children? But on the other hand, the Nazi past was an issue even for children who couldn’t accuse their parents of anything, or didn’t want to. For them coming to grips with the Nazi past was not merely the form taken by generational conflict, it was the issue itself.”
As the above lines point, The Reader deals with the difficulties that the post-war German generation had fathoming the Holocaust, and the struggle to come to terms with it. It was written in 1995 by Bernhard Schlink, a German law professor and judge, who himself was a part of the aforementioned generation called the Nachgeborenen (meaning ‘those who come after’). It was translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway and was released in the USA in 1997. Since then, this book has been well-received in Germany and around the world, winning several awards. It was adapted into a movie by Stephen Daldry starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and David Cross. It was released in the year 2008 and was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, with Kate Winslet winning it for the Best Actress.
The story is about a relationship spanning across decades, between a young boy Michael Berg and an older woman Hanna Schmitz, who is later revealed to be a former guard at the Auschwitz camp. The book is divided into 3 parts, each dealing with a different phase of Michael’s life.
In part one, we are introduced to the 15-year-old Michael and his chance meeting with the 36-year-old tram conductor Hanna and their subsequent relationship. However, her abrupt departure from his life and the town filled Michael with guilt and left him hollow and baffled.
“It is one of the pictures of Hanna that has stayed with me. I have stored them away, I can project them on a mental screen and watch them, unchanged, unconsumed.”
Part two introduces us to Michael as a law student; and with time, he had become insensitive as a result of Hanna’s exit from his life:
“I remembered my grandfather during one of my last visits before his death; he wanted to bless me, and I told him I didn’t believe in any of that and I didn’t want it.”
While being a part of a group of students observing a war-crimes’ trial, he meets Hanna again, as one of the defendants. As the trial proceeded, he realized that Hanna was an illiterate and she refused to publicly acknowledge it, no matter what the cost. While Michael was battling with his inner turmoil that whether Hanna was a criminal or not; by the end of the trial, she was sentenced for life.
“And if I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal.”
In part three, Michael has had a brief marriage of 5 years. He had made some contact with Hanna while she was in prison, while never directly talking with her. Years later, he was contacted by the prison governor informing him of Hanna’s impending release and was asked to make the necessary arrangements for Hanna to settle as a civilian. But on the day of her release, Hanna hanged herself without showing any signs of distress previously.
The author in this book had written upon a very sensitive and disturbing subject and pulls it off with finesse. With so many books on the Holocaust already been published, this one stands out because it presents the story from viewpoint of a Nachgeborenen. The narration is plain and simple, but leaves one with a desire to know more about Hanna’s past. Guilt is a recurring theme in the book and the title is aptly chosen (the reader would understand it once they have read the book).
This parable has a universal appeal, and is impactful and moving, with a love story at its core. With Michael and the author being from the same generation, one couldn’t help but acknowledge that the latter may have had the same trouble accepting the Holocaust and its aftermath as Michael.
It is suitable for those who want to read something about the Holocaust without going into its dark and gloomy side.
Ameya Rating: 3/5