The Reader

The Reader

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Guilt, Responsibility, and the Holocaust Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Guilt, Responsibility, and the Holocaust Theme Icon
Secrets, Indifference, and Emotional Distance Theme Icon
Generational and Parent-Child Conflict Theme Icon
Reading and Illiteracy Theme Icon
The Image as Memory and the Gaze Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Reader, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Guilt, Responsibility, and the Holocaust Theme Icon

The primary concern of the novel is guilt about the Holocaust. Examining the role of guilt in post-war Germany, The Reader presents guilt as a pervasive and inevitable force. An important motif running throughout the story is the question of who must be held responsible for atrocities committed during the Holocaust. Michael and his generation lay blame on not only the Nazi perpetrators but also the bystanders — the previous generation who looked the other way, either by their inaction during the Holocaust or by accepting Nazi sympathizers and perpetrators back into society after the war. However, Michael also holds responsible his own generation for having accepted their parents, some of whom worked for Hitler’s regime and many of whom were bystanders. Filial love, Michael believes, “made them irrevocably complicit in their crimes.” That he identifies love for the previous generation as a kind of complicity speaks to the long-lasting role of guilt in a nation’s history. For Michael, this guilt becomes a collective national inheritance passed down from generation to generation, an unavoidable “German fate.”

Schlink portrays guilt as both destructive and necessary. Guilt is destructive in that it creates inner conflict as well as conflict within relationships and across generations. The guilt arising from the Holocaust causes Michael’s generation to be torn between love for their parents and the moral obligation of condemning them for their complicity. Another example of guilt’s destructive power is the damage that Michael’s guilt over disavowing Hanna inflicts on him. Michael’s resulting decision “never to take guilt upon [him]self or feel guilty, never again to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose” closes him off emotionally, sabotaging his relationships with others. Yet however destructive guilt may be, it also motivates people to take responsibility for their actions, to recognize mistakes and wrongdoing, and to avoid them in the future. For example, the collective guilt that Michael’s generation inherits from the Holocaust is what drives them to acknowledge and condemn Nazi war crimes. After his marriage fails, Michael feels guilty for the negative impact of his divorce on his daughter, motivating him to become more open in his relationships. That the novel presents both positive and negative consequences of guilt suggests that guilt must be accompanied by a sense of responsibility — responsibility not only to own one’s mistakes and wrongdoing but also to accept guilt in a way that is productive. Essentially, Schlink is arguing that Germany must face and deal with its Nazi past in order to move forward.

But even as Germany must accept guilt and deal with its Nazi past productively, absolution for the atrocities committed during the Holocaust is seemingly impossible. At the end of the novel, the Jewish woman in New York — the only remaining survivor of the church fire in which Hanna was complicit — refuses to accept Hanna’s money, because to do so would be to grant her absolution, and thus to relieve a Nazi criminal of responsibility. The woman’s inability to forgive Hanna suggests that some crimes are so heinous that they cannot be forgiven or atoned for. The guilty must always remain in a state of guilt, because to forgive would be to allow the guilty to forget their guilt and their victims. Though Hanna is already dead by the time Michael meets the woman, the woman’s refusal to grant Hanna absolution suggests that even the dead cannot be forgiven for such crimes.

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Guilt, Responsibility, and the Holocaust Quotes in The Reader

Below you will find the important quotes in The Reader related to the theme of Guilt, Responsibility, and the Holocaust.
Part 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

I asked her about her life, and it was as if she rummaged around in a dusty chest to get me the answers. She had grown up in a German community in Rumania, then come to Berlin at the age of sixteen, taken a job at the Siemens factory, and ended up in the army at twenty-one.… She had no family. She was thirty-six. She told me all this as if it were not her life but somebody else's, someone she didn't know well and who wasn't important to her. Things I wanted to know more about had vanished completely from her mind, and she didn't understand why I was interested in what had happened to her parents, whether she had had brothers and sisters, how she had lived in Berlin and what she'd done in the army.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Early on in their affair, Michael discovers that Hanna doesn’t like to talk about herself or her past. When he asks her questions about her life, she maintains her emotional distance from Michael by evading his questions or by only giving him the most basic information about herself.

Hanna’s apparent inability to understand why Michael wants to know more about her is perhaps another evasion tactic (to keep herself distant from him, and to avoid talking about her crimes as a Nazi guard) but could also be rooted in her inability to interpret motivations and contexts. It is also possible that she simply does not place much value in herself or her life, as the few answers she gives Michael are reported as if they belong to “someone she didn’t know well and who wasn’t important to her.”

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Part 1, Chapter 16 Quotes

I never found out what Hanna did when she wasn't working and we weren't together. When I asked, she turned away my questions. We did not 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. Wanting more, even wanting to know more, was presumption on my part. If we were particularly happy with each other and I asked her something because at that moment it felt as if everything was possible and allowed, then she sometimes ducked my questions, instead of refusing outright to answer them.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz)
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

It is towards the end of their affair, and Hanna still does not open herself up to Michael. Whenever he asks her questions about herself, she still dodges or rejects his questions. Hanna decides on all the terms of their relationship, and any attempt by Michael to learn more about her feels like “presumption.”

The nature of Hanna and Michael’s relationship represents the generational conflict between Nazi perpetrators and bystanders, and their children. Though Michael was unaware at this time of Hanna’s Nazi past, his desire to know more about her past mirrors the second generation’s calls for accountability, just as Hanna’s refusal to answer Michael’s questions mirrors Nazi perpetrators’ resistance against accepting responsibility.

Part 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

I know that even if I had said goodbye to my memory of Hanna, I had not overcome it. Never to let myself be humiliated or humiliate myself after Hanna, never to take guilt upon myself or feel guilty, never again to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose — I didn't formulate any of this as I thought back then, but I know that's how I felt.
I adopted a posture of arrogant superiority. I behaved as if nothing could touch or shake or confuse me. I got involved in nothing, and I remember a teacher who saw through this and spoke to me about it; I was arrogantly dismissive.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz)
Page Number: 88-89
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of Part 2, after Hanna leaves him, Michael is initially haunted by thoughts of her but then is eventually able to put aside his feelings and his guilt. However, he overcompensates for this by excluding all feelings of guilt or emotional investment from his life. Though Michael is now able to move on with his life to a certain extent, he does not recognize the useful qualities of guilt and strong emotion. For example, his newfound ability to block out guilt prevents him from recognizing how his display of “arrogant superiority” hurts his grandfather and friend Sophie, and he becomes unable to take responsibility for hurting others.

Part 2, Chapter 2 Quotes

It was evident to us that there had to be convictions. It was just as evident that conviction of this or that camp guard or enforcer was only the prelude. The generation that had been served by the guards and enforcers, or had done nothing to stop them, or had not banished them from its midst as it could have done after 1945, was in the dock, and we explored it, subjected it to trial by daylight, and condemned it to shame… We all condemned our parents to shame, even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker)
Page Number: 91-92
Explanation and Analysis:

In this crucial passage, it has been six years since Hanna’s sudden and unexplained departure. Michael is now in law school, taking a seminar that centers on one of the Nazi trials. The students in the seminar become zealous crusaders who aim to bring Nazi atrocities to light and who condemn not only the perpetrators but also the accommodators and bystanders, shaming them for their actions or inaction during the war, as well as after the war, when the perpetrators were accepted back into society and into universities and government positions. Michael and his peers, the children of this generation, assign guilt to their parents, thus stirring generational conflict.

Part 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

After a time I thought I could detect a similar numbness in other people.… The effect was strongest on the judges and the lay members of the court. During the first weeks of the trial they took in the horrors — sometimes recounted in tears, sometimes in choking voices, sometimes in agitated or broken sentences — with visible shock or obvious efforts at self-control. Later their faces returned to normal; they could smile and whisper to one another or even show traces of impatience when a witness lost the thread while testifying. When going to Israel to question a witness was discussed, they started getting the travel bug. The other students kept being horrified all over again. They only came to the trial once a week, and each time the same thing happened: the intrusion of horror into daily life. I, who was in court every day, observed their reactions with detachment.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker)
Page Number: 101-102
Explanation and Analysis:

When he discovers that Hanna is one of the defendants on trial, Michael starts watching the trial every day rather than once a week, like the rest of his classmates. However, the longer he stays, and the more often he’s exposed to the horrifying evidence of the Nazis’ crimes, the more numb and detached he feels. Like Michael, the judges and other spectators of the court also seem to feel this numbness. Whereas in the beginning of the trial, they had strong emotional responses to witness testimony, after a few weeks, they become somewhat indifferent. By contrast, Michael’s classmates are horrified each time they visit, as the images of Nazi atrocities are not part of their daily lives, but are only a weekly spectacle. Michael’s experience with and observations of this phenomenon demonstrate that repeated or prolonged exposure to trauma can cause this numbness or indifference.

Part 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

"Did you not know that you were sending the prisoners to their death?"
"Yes, but the new ones came, and the old ones had to make room for the new ones."
"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.
"I ... I mean ... so what would you have done?" Hanna meant it as a serious question. She did not know what she should or could have done differently, and therefore wanted to hear from the judge, who seemed to know everything, what he would have done.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz) (speaker), The Judge (speaker)
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

The judge is questioning Hanna about one of the principal charges against her and the other defendants: that they selected sixty women every month to be sent to Auschwitz to die. When the judge asks Hanna if she knew the women would be killed, she not only admits that she knew but she attempts to justify their deaths by saying that “the old ones had to make room for the new ones.” Hanna does not understand the intent of the judge’s question, which was meant to determine whether she was aware that she was assisting in murder. But Hanna seems to view the prisoners’ deaths not as murder or as the loss of human life, but rather as numbers to check off in the name of efficiency or making space. When Hanna asks the judge what he personally would have done, she doesn’t understand that her question in inappropriate in the context of a trial—yet this personal, rather intimate question then implicates the judge as well, especially as another member of the generation that accommodated the perpetuators of the Holocaust. (And the question might well be aimed also at the reader.) Hanna’s misinterpretation of the question’s intent, as well as her question to the judge and her inability to empathize with her victims, all stem from her social and moral “illiteracy.”

Part 2, Chapter 10 Quotes

I was oddly moved by the discrepancy between what must have been Hanna's actual concerns when she left my hometown and what I had imagined and theorized at the time. I had been sure that I had driven her away because I had betrayed and denied her, when in fact she had simply been running away from being found out by the streetcar company. However, the fact that I had not driven her away did not change the fact that I had betrayed her. 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.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz)
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

Hanna has just falsely confessed to writing a report, and Michael realizes that Hanna is illiterate. Reflecting on how her illiteracy explains some of her behavior, he now realizes that Hanna did not leave suddenly because he betrayed her by denying their relationship, but rather because she was trying to hide her illiteracy from her employer (who had offered her a promotion). Though Michael believes that he may not be technically guilty for driving her away or for betraying her, he does not excuse himself from guilt for loving her. Though Michael feels guilty for loving a criminal because he chose to love her, it is also possible that this is merely a justification for his guilt. That Michael changes the reason for his guilt not once but twice suggests that his insistence on his own guilt may have more to do with his inescapable feelings rather than with an intellectual conclusion that he is guilty – that is, rather than feeling guilt as a result of deducing his culpability, he seems to be searching for reasons to justify his feelings of guilt.

Part 2, Chapter 13 Quotes

When I think today about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real…. We were familiar with some of the testimony of prisoners, but many of them were published soon after the war and not reissued until the 1980s, and in the intervening years they disappeared from publishers' lists. Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one…not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations. The few images derived from Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors flashed on the mind again and again, until they froze into clichés.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker)
Page Number: 147-148
Explanation and Analysis:

When the court flies to Israel to receive another witness testimony, Michael has two weeks away from the trial to himself. Yet he can’t help but think of the images from the trial, mixed with his own images of Hanna. Michael compares the scarcity of images of Nazi horrors back then with the preponderance of Holocaust media today. For Michael at that time, the atrocities of the Holocaust were so horrifying they were impossible to imagine and could only be understood through “clichés” from the few (and thus overused) photographs and testimonies that were available. Michael’s desire to break free of these clichéd images is then what pushes him to visit a nearby concentration camp.

Part 2, Chapter 14 Quotes

“You're right, there was no war, and no reason for hatred. But executioners don't hate the people they execute, and they execute them all the same. Because they're ordered to? You think they do it because they're ordered to? And you think that I'm talking about orders and obedience, that the guards in the camps were under orders and had to obey?” He laughed sarcastically. “No, I'm not talking about orders and obedience. An executioner is not under orders. He's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he executes, he's not taking revenge on them, he's not killing them because they're in his way or threatening him or attacking him. They're a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.”

Related Characters: The Driver (speaker), Michael Berg
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

Hitchhiking to Struthof, a nearby concentration camp, Michael is forced to listen to his antagonistic driver’s argument that it was not orders, obedience, or hatred that caused the Nazis to kill, but rather indifference. Though Michael is reluctant to believe this, the driver’s opinion is similar to Michael’s previously expressed belief that Hanna had fallen into her job with the SS out of ignorance, and she continued to do her job because of a kind of willful indifference. The driver’s claim about indifference also recalls Hannah Arendt’s theory about the “banality of evil” and her argument that Adolf Eichmann organized the concentration camps not because of a strong belief in Nazi ideology, but because he sought to advance his career and simply didn’t consider the lives of his victims as important.

Part 2, Chapter 15 Quotes

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks — understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz)
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

After he discovers her illiteracy and visits the concentration camp, Michael is torn between his loyalty to and past relationship with Hanna, which would entail attempting to understanding her crimes, and what he feels is his moral obligation to utterly condemn her crimes. Michael’s struggle between “understanding and condemnation” is an example of the parent-child conflict involving the generation of Nazi perpetrators and that of their children. Later described as “a German fate,” this struggle is one that Michael’s peers also experience, but Michael’s guilt stems from loving and choosing to love a criminal, and thus separates him from the rest of his generation. For Michael, this struggle is ultimately unresolved, as questions of whether Michael betrayed Hanna or should feel guilty for loving Hanna haunt him even after her death.

Part 2, Chapter 17 Quotes

I don't know if Hanna knew how she looked, or maybe she wanted to look like that. She was wearing a black suit and a white blouse, and the cut of the suit and the tie that went with the blouse made her look as if she were in uniform. I have never seen the uniform of the women who worked for the SS. But I believed, and the spectators all believed, that before us we were seeing that uniform, and the woman who had worked for the SS in it, and all the crimes Hanna was accused of doing.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz)
Page Number: 162-163
Explanation and Analysis:

On the day the verdict is the to be announced, Hanna arrives at the court dressed in a black and white suit, which the spectators — despite their ignorance of what an SS uniform actually looks like for women — all imagine as her uniform as a Nazi prison guard. Throughout much of the novel, Hanna seems to take great care and pride in maintaining her clean and neat appearance. Though Michael is unsure of why Hanna wore this particular outfit, it is possible that Hanna saw the suit as appropriate, professional attire for the verdict. However, regardless of how she herself views her appearance, Hanna seems to have been unaware of the impression that this outfit would make on the spectators, who more easily imagine her committing the crimes charged against her because of her appearance. Hanna’s decision to wear the suit displays once again her inability to read her surroundings and to anticipate people’s reactions.

Part 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

I had no one to point at. Certainly not my parents, because I had nothing to accuse them of…. But what other people in my social environment had done, and their guilt, were in any case a lot less bad than what Hanna had done. I had to point at Hanna. But the finger I pointed at her turned back to me. I had loved her. Not only had I loved her, I had chosen her. I tried to tell myself that I had known nothing of what she had done when I chose her. I tried to talk myself into the state of innocence in which children love their parents. But love of our parents is the only love for which we are not responsible.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz), Michael’s Father, Michael’s mother
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Michael has already graduated, the student movement has begun, and he is reflecting on generational conflict and the struggle to come to terms with Germany’s Nazi past. While pointing at the previous generation’s guilt was part and parcel of this struggle, Michael does not feel that he could point to his parents as guilty the way that his peers pointed to their parents. The only person whom Michael can personally condemn is Hanna, but in his mind, Hanna’s guilt necessitates his own, as he feels complicit for loving her. Unlike his peers, who did not choose their parents, Michael chose Hanna and thus feels all the more complicit in her actions.

Part 3, Chapter 4 Quotes

I don't know what I would have done if a professor of legal history had not offered me a research job. Gertrud said it was an evasion, an escape from the challenges and responsibilities of life, and she was right. I escaped and was relieved that I could do so…. Now escape involves not just running away, but arriving somewhere…. Doing history means building bridges between the past and the present, observing both banks of the river, taking an active part on both sides. One of my areas of research was law in the Third Reich, and here it is particularly obvious how the past and present come together in a single reality. Here, escape is not a preoccupation with the past, but a determined focus on the present and the future that is blind to the legacy of the past which brands us and with which we must live.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Gertrud
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

Faced with the prospect of having to choose a career, Michael decides not to become a defense or prosecution lawyer or a judge, as the trial has left him with a distaste for these professions. He falls into a research position, and despite his and his wife’s belief that it is an escape from the responsibilities of the present, Michael is “relieved” to escape, recalling his youthful attraction to Hanna’s “invitation to forget the world.” However, unlike his teenage escape to his affair with Hanna and to her “obliviousness” to the world, Michael’s position as a legal historian allows him to better understand the world. Michael’s research on the Third Reich allows him to study the recent past, and thus to come to terms with it, even as he also escapes responsibility for Hanna in the present and struggles to comes to term with their relationship.

Part 3, Chapter 5 Quotes

I also read books I already knew and loved. So Hanna got to hear a great deal of Keller and Fontane, Heine and Morike. For a long time I didn't dare to read poetry, but eventually I really enjoyed it, and I learned many of the poems I read by heart. I can still say them today.
Taken together, the titles in the notebook testify to a great and fundamental confidence in bourgeois culture. I do not ever remember asking myself whether I should go beyond Kafka, Frisch, Johnson, Bachmann, and Lenz, and read experimental literature, literature in which I did not recognize the story or like any of the characters. To me it was obvious that experimental literature was experimenting with the reader, and Hanna didn't need that and neither did I.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz)
Related Symbols: Cassette Tapes
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

Eight years after the trial, Michael begins to send Hanna tapes of himself reading aloud. Though the cassette tapes evoke their old routine of reading, bathing, and lovemaking, Michael maintains his distance, never visiting Hanna in person or even sending her personal messages on tape. His sole means of communication with her are the readings themselves, and he sends her tapes of his favorite books and poems, largely by German writers. While much of the novel concerns Germany’s struggle to deal with its past, Michael’s exclusion of experimental literature could be seen as a conscious decision to move away from the past, as his reference to experimental literature is perhaps an allusion to the brutal experiments performed by Nazi doctors, or to the general fragility and complexity of his and Hanna’s relationship as it is. Michael’s selection of German classics is an acknowledgment, and perhaps a celebration, of the nation’s literary culture.

Part 3, Chapter 8 Quotes

But why should I have given her a place in my life? I reacted indignantly against my own bad conscience at the thought that I had reduced her to a niche. "Didn't you ever think about the things that were discussed at the trial, before the trial? I mean, didn't you ever think about them when we were together, when I was reading to you?"
"Does that bother you very much?" But she didn't wait for an answer. "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, then 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 were, they understand even better."

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz) (speaker)
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

A week before Hanna is about to be released, Michael visits her in prison for the first time. Though their conversation begins in a friendly manner, Michael soon tries to confront her about the horrifying secrets she kept from him while they were together. Seemingly unconcerned with her words’ effect on Michael, Hanna claims that only the dead can “call [her] to account,” as other the dead can understand her. Though Hanna recognizes that she is guilty, she implies that she cannot be held responsible by those whom she may have hurt and who are still alive (i. e. Michael). Hanna argues that she can only be held accountable by those who understand her motivations — and that is, in her opinion, only the dead. However, this argument seems somewhat disingenuous, and it would suggest that a perpetrator’s motivations be privileged above her criminal offenses against a victim.

Part 3, Chapter 9 Quotes

Only occasionally, when I was driving my car, or when I was in Hanna's apartment, did thoughts of it get the upper hand and trigger memories. I saw her on the bench, her eyes fixed on me, saw her at the swimming pool, her face turned to me, and again had the feeling that I had betrayed her and owed her something. And again I rebelled against this feeling; I accused her, and found it both shabby and too easy, the way she had wriggled out of her guilt. Allowing no one but the dead to demand an accounting, reducing guilt and atonement to insomnia and bad feelings — where did that leave the living? But what I meant was not the living, it was me. Did I not have my own accounting to demand of her? What about me?

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz)
Page Number: 201
Explanation and Analysis:

Michael has been preparing for Hanna’s release and can’t help but think of how she “wriggled out of her guilt,” claiming that only the dead can hold her responsible for her wrongs. Michael, however, feels that Hanna has wronged him, and that he deserves his “own accounting to demand of her.”

Though Hanna seems to accept at least some guilt for her actions during the war, she does not take responsibility for how she treated Michael. Her disregard for Michael’s feelings had been a major element of their relationship when he was a teenager, and it continues to haunt him in the form of his recurring memory-images as an adult. Not only did she often ignore his feelings but she kept her Nazi past a secret from him, apparently indifferent to the effect that her past might have on him. Later, when Michael meets with the Jewish woman, we are presented with another reason (albeit muted in Michael’s perception) for Michael to hold Hanna responsible: the affair itself. Michael had only been 15 when he met Hanna, and effect of the affair sabotaged his relationships with his family, his friends, his wife, and his daughter.

Part 3, Chapter 11 Quotes

I told her about Hanna's death and her last wishes.
"Why me?"
"I suppose because you are the only survivor."
"And how am I supposed to deal with it?"
"However you think fit."
"And grant Frau Schmitz her absolution?"
At first I wanted to protest, but Hanna was indeed asking a great deal. Her years of imprisonment were not merely to be the required atonement: Hanna wanted to give them her own meaning, and she wanted this giving of meaning to be recognized. I said as much.
She shook her head. I didn't know if this meant she was refusing to accept my interpretation or refusing to grant Hanna the recognition.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), The Jewish Woman / The Daughter (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz)
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

Attempting to fulfill Hanna’s last wish, Michael travels to New York to give the last Jewish survivor of the church fire—the daughter who wrote a book about her experiences—Hanna’s money. However, the woman refuses to accept responsibility for the money, as this act would symbolically grant Hanna absolution, and thus relieve her (after her death) of her guilt. Michael believes that Hanna wanted to give her own meaning to her imprisonment and to be recognized for it, but both he and the woman realize that this would be inappropriate, and is a lot to ask, especially of one of Hanna’s victims. The woman’s refusal to take Hanna’s money and to grant absolution to a Nazi war criminal suggests that some crimes are so terrible that they cannot be forgiven. And even Michael, who is still tormented by his love for and attempts to understand Hanna, can accept this.