Though his seminar requires him to attend the trial only once a week, Michael watches the trial every day. While the other defendants talk among themselves or with friends and family, Hanna stands alone, and Michael watches her from behind. He pays close attention to her body language, noting how straight her posture is, how her body reacts to overrulings or attacks during the trial.
Like his younger self in Part 1, Michael is intensely aware of Hanna’s body. However, his awareness of her is not the result of romantic feelings or attraction, but rather an indication that despite his emotional distance, he is still haunted by her.
During the trial Michael feels nothing, as if he is numb, not only in the courtroom but in his everyday life. He “saw [him]self functioning at the university, with [his] parents and brother and sister and [his] friends, but inwardly [he] felt no involvement.” He observes this phenomenon in the judges and in the court’s spectators. In the early weeks of the trial, they reacted to the horrific evidence with tears and shock; later, they become accustomed to the horrors and “could smile and whisper to one another or even show traces of impatience.” While the other students “kept being horrified all over again,” Michael is detached.
Michael’s indifference becomes numbness the longer he watches the trial. Unlike his classmates, who watch the trial only weekly and become horrified at the evidence on a weekly basis, Michael (who attends daily) grows numb and detached, suggesting that prolonged exposure to huge amounts of traumatic images or evidence can lead to desensitization and emotional indifference.
The narrator compares this numbness to that which death camp prisoners experience after being exposed to murder for long periods of time. This numbness is an important theme in survivor literature, which describes how it can cause both victims and perpetrators to become “selfish and indifferent” when “gassing and burning are everyday occurrences.” Michael notes that the defendants still seems to be trapped in the “mental paralysis” caused by these horrors.
Michael’s comparison of his own numbness to that of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators further suggests that the relationship between horror and indifference is reciprocal. The horrors of the Holocaust caused both its victims and its perpetrators to (often) become desensitized. This indifference in turn allowed the perpetrators to commit more horrors as if they were “everyday occurrences.”
Despite his comparison of perpetrators, victims, and their descendants, the narrator confesses that he didn’t and still doesn’t feel comfortable with this idea. He emphasizes the importance of choice, the difference between “enduring suffering and imposing it on others.” Though he is still eager to “explore and cast light on things,” he is uncertain as to what his generation, the second generation, should do, and questions the morality of “mak[ing] the horrors an object of discussion.”
The narrator’s discomfort with this idea is rooted in the apparent equation of victims with perpetrators and descendants. Emphasizing the importance of choice, the narrator turns the focus back to the novel’s main preoccupation with guilt. Though he is uncertain what his own generation should do, his consideration of the matter implies that his generation should in some way take responsibility.