Many years ago, I sat and watched a documentary about pedophiles. One in particular was interviewed with disguised voice and what he said was so disgusting and shocking, that I have never forgot his words. He said that pedophilia is just an alternative sexuality like homosexuality is. He was of the firm conviction that one day, pedophilia will be as accepted as homosexuality has become. And when asked if it was not wrong to have sex with children, he answered that they were the ones who wanted to have sex with him.
When I started to read this book, I did not know what to think. Because a lot of part one in the book, reminded me of what that pedophile said, in that interview. At the same time, this book is not really about pedophilia, but about a very bizarre relationship. It touches you, it’s a book you can not put down until you have finished it, and it leaves you with a lot of questions. More over, it forces you to take stand points and draw your own conclusions.
It starts out slow where the narrator Michael Berg, describes his illness of hepatitis, at age 15, which keeps him from going to school, when he is in first year of gymnasium, for months. It all starts on his walk home from school one day. He gets ill and throws up on the pavement outside a house. A woman comes out and helps him flush it all away with water, which she brings to him in buckets. She hugs him, calls him little one and walks him home. He is told by his mother to go and give the woman flowers, as a thank you, on the day when he feels better.
Michael does this, and well, he is a 15-year-old boy with hormones running wild, so when the woman suggests that he waits for her, so they can walk together, and he sees her put on stockings, his physical response shocks him. He runs off, but can’t stop thinking about her and goes back, another day. Through different circumstances, he dirties himself down, when asked to help her carrying up coal, to her flat. I don’t think any reader finds her following actions anything but calculating. A pedophile having set eyes on her prey. Or is she a pedophile? Most countries say that it is legal to have sex when you are 15. But are you really ready for it? Your body might be. But your psychological maturity is not ready for it. What all readers would agree on is that she, as an adult, knows what goes on in a 15-year-old boy’s mind. She tells him that he can not go home dirty, that he should undress and bathe in her kitchen, which also houses her bed, and while he washes, she shakes his clothes on the balcony. But when he steps out of the bathtub, she no longer is dressed.
The book is divided in to three different parts and the entire first part is pretty erotic. It describes how the 36-year-old Hanna Schmitz uses Michael for her own pleasure. At first he is content with what he gets, so to speak. But soon he discovers that he can take what he wants, as well. But are they equal partners? Of course not! She is the adult in the relationship. Hanna is in charge, she never sees him as an equal and calls him by baby pet names. She scolds him when finding out, that he is cutting classes to be able to be with her. But here, the book’s erotic part, takes a new turn. She wants him to read to her, before their regular routine starts. Soon, they have a set routine which lasts through their entire relationship: He reads, they take a bath, they have sex and they fall asleep/rest together.
This part of the book, raises a lot of questions. Not only about whether Hanna is a pedophile or not. But about the legal age for sex and whether or not he is a consenting adult, knowing what he is doing. Michael matures in a way his fellow peers do not. The other boys are shy around the girls, giggle and make fools of themselves, while he is very comfortable with them. At the same time, when he starts spending more time with his peers, as he goes back to school, he does feel that they are very foolish and he doesn’t really fit in anymore. Now, I raise the question, is it not the natural thing, to be too shy for action at that age. To protect you from getting in to things that are too early to get in to. Because even if your body is ready for the act, your psyche clearly is not. When “Dollie” was 14, her best friend started having sex with her 15-year-old boyfriend. They attended the same school, had classes together and “Dollie” reported back how the two of them went about bragging about their sexual exploitations of each other, tormenting all class mates with their sex life, making them all uncomfortable. Many of the kids went and talked to teachers and the school psychologist, about the whole thing, and I brought it up, with the latter, since my daughter became bullied by the two, because she had passed on to an adult, what they were talking so widely and loudly about. What they did not understand was that in a mature relationship, in a proper relationship, you do not discuss these intimate things with outsiders and you know why, because it belittles your relationship, betrays the trust, makes it in to something dirty.
Michael does not talk of Hanna at all, so deep down,in his mind, he knows what they are doing, is very, very wrong and that he is being used by an adult. But like the child he is, he is so afraid of loosing what he has with her, not understanding what she is doing to him, is wrong and not the act of someone who loves you, so he gives in to her all the time. He humiliates himself, he grovels in the dust and begs for forgiveness, while she emotionally manipulates him with among other things, passive aggressiveness. This is a relationship which is not based on love, but on power. Hanna jerks him back and forth with her different moods, and he becomes like a leaf in the wind. And he gets emotionally scarred without knowing it. My mother was the same way. She would not tell me what I had done wrong, she would not say why she was angry, it was up to me, to grovel in the dust and beg for forgiveness. All the time, every time. Even when I knew that she was wrong and I was right. And she was not like Hanna, forgiving, but my mother would hold a grudge for days even after my sobbing apologies. She would treat me with silence for days and then gradually take me back as her daughter. But a year later, I could get it thrown back at me. And I can say from experience, that this sort of passive aggressive manipulating people, are some of the worse people there is. Because they leave deep scars in you, which you will never heal from. And this man in the book, Michael, does never heal from what she did to him during the 6 something months, that they were together.
In part two of the book, Hanna just ups and leaves with not so much as a goodbye. Michael is used to her behaviour, so he thinks she has left because he did not acknowledge her at the swimming pool, when he was there with his classmates. He thinks it is his fault that she has left her flat, bringing nothing with her. At her place of work, they do not understand why she quit her job, when they had offered her a promotion, going from conductor to becoming a tram driver. From the census office, he finally finds out that she has moved to Hamburg with no forwarding address. And that is the end of the love affair and the eroticism in the book. Michael realizes that they have never shared the same world, that she only left him a little space in her life, but for the most part he did not know her at all. He is terribly hurt by her leaving like that, and coming out of the bizarre relationship, he decides that noone is going to humiliate him again, never again is he going to become dependent on someone’s love, he is never going to love someone whom it will hurt to lose. He becomes a cold and arrogant person, who many dislike to be around. He uses girls, right and left, but avoids getting in to a relationship with anyone.
After graduation, he decides to study law and at the same time as he is at the university, all his fellow students start revolting against their parents generation. In Germany it does take a certain twist since there, the youths accuse their parents for not turning their backs on the nazi criminals after 1945. (More on this aspect of the book, later on.) About seven years after his affair with Hanna, he joins a seminar held by a professor, who is interested in the nazi era. A new nazi crime trial is to be held and his students will attend the hearings and then discuss some of the questions that the professor is looking in to. He is asking, if retroactive punishment should be forbidden? If it is enough to judge the criminals from a paragraph that existed in the law, when the crime was committed or should they be judged according to how their deeds were regarded at the time, when they were committed, and according to how they were carried out? And what is justice? Is justice what the law-book says or what society’s norms and value system dictate?
As Michael sits down in the court, in 1965, he sees that one of the war criminals on trial, is Hanna. The court states that Hanna Schmitz was born 21 October 1922 in Hermannstadt, is 43 years old, worked at Siemens in Berlin till she in autumn 1943, joined the SS. She is one of five women accused of war crimes and the other four, who are older women, are represented by old nazi lawyers, while Hanna’s lawyer is a young hot-head, who the court has appointed for her. Michael can hardly believe what he hears, when the court reads up that Hanna enlisted to be a guard in the SS and was placed in Auschwitz. During the winter 1944-1945, she worked in a small camp outside Krakow, from where she travelled west with the prisoners, when the Russians were getting closer. At the end of the war, she was in Kassel and since then, she had moved around a lot. Her longest stay in one place, had been in Michael’s town, where she stayed for 8 years.
Michael feels completely numb. He has been so angry for many years and now she sits there in front of him, holding her head up high. The court goes progressively more and more numb, as all evidence is presented and in the end, all of them just want it to be over. Michael also feels numb, hearing all the information, wondering what good it does to find out about all the horrors that happened during the Holocaust. What good it does to become speechless of horror, shame and guilt. I guess the only answer to that is, so that the dead did not die in vain? That what happened to them, will never be forgotten and for sure not repeated. If we forget about the horrors, someone will deny they happened and they can take place again. That is what happens. That is why “history repeats itself”.
What the five women are accused of are two things. First of all, they were guards at the camp in Krakow, which was a sub-camp of Auschwitz. The prisoners worked in a munition factory, but not so much making munitions, as repairing the factory building itself, after each bombing. Every month, the camp received 60 new, “fresh” women and the camp was supposed to send back 60 women, to Auschwitz. The guards picked the ones that were “useless” by then, and they knew that the 60 would be killed. This selection business, of the 60, was the first crime. The second was, when the Russians approached, they were all sent on a march westwards. They had all reached a little village, where the villagers for the most part, had fled. While the officers and many of the guards had billeted at the local vicarage, the prisoners had been locked up in the church. That night, the village was bombed. Two bombs were dropped. One on the vicarage, killing most of the important military and guards and the second bomb was dropped on the church. The church tower caught fire and fell over the church building itself. The five accused guards could have unlocked the doors, but did not. This was their second crime. Everyone but two women died in the church.
What Michael notices is, that Hanna sits and seems clueless to everything that is going on around her. Before the trial, it is said, she was sent a book, which the one survivor had written to be published after the trial, and she was also sent documents stating what she would stand trial for. Suddenly she starts objecting to both this and that and her hotheaded lawyer is not doing anything which will help her, except lose his temper. For Hanna, this is the first time she hears the accusations made. Everyone in the court room starts disliking both of them, especially the other accused and their lawyers. They almost hit the roof when Hanna admits to the selection charge. Without any feelings, she explains that they were all in charge of a unit each. They had agreed to pick ten people each from their units to send to Auschwitz, every time it was required. Sometimes one unit did not have any sick and then another unit had to pick more than it’s ten. It was all about math and she said that in the end they did the selection in agreement, deciding together. When asked if she did not feel guilty when doing this, she looked clueless again and stated “but we had to send 60 back!”. Like rules always have to be followed, no matter what they are. In my mind, at this point, I started to get very suspicious. For a while in the book, I had wondered why she wanted Michael to read to her. When they went on a bicycle trip together for four days, she wanted him to handle everything from the planning, to maps and brochures, booking rooms etc. One day, he snuck out to get her breakfast and left her a note and when he got back, she was hysterical and thought he had abandoned her. She was so angry that she hit him and when he told her that he left a note, she said she had not seen one. He did not find it either. This is when I started wondering about her reading skills. At this point in the trial, I felt convinced that she could not read. And that she was not very intelligent either. Not saying it in a mean way, but really meaning a low IQ. Why did she not understand what she was accused of? Why had she not contacted court about objections, before the court date, like she was supposed to? Why did she not get a proper lawyer? Why was she so clueless the entire time?
When asked if she knew that the 60 would die, she looked at the judge and said “Yes, but we had to fill the quota. They had to get 60 back. What would you have done?”. The judge, not liking the turn it had all taken, thought for a while and then said “There are things we should never get involved in.” In other words, he did not answer her what she should have done in the situation, which the court room sat anticipating. No, of course she should not have got in to the SS in the first place, but now she wanted to know what she should have done, sitting in that camp with the order.
When it came to the second charge, the mother and daughter, who survived the fire, could not point to the accused and say that they were the ones guilty of all the others’ deaths. The court did not find the book evidence enough, to judge the five women on trial, for the crime of not unlocking the door, when the church had caught fire. Michael, soon to be a lawyer, saw how strange the entire proceedings were getting. All the military and guards in charge, went missing during and after the bombing. And the two witnesses were inside the church and did not know what was going on, outside. The few villagers that had remained in the village, gladly pointed out the accused, as the ones who had not unlocked the doors, BUT Michael asked himself, why did not THEY unlock the doors. The keys were in the door, they could easily have overrun the five female guards.
More and more, the trial is starting to become a trial of Hanna and not the others, since her lawyer is such a poor one, and the others see a chance of getting acquitted and pinning everything on her. They bring up that Hanna had young women come to her in the evenings and saying that she sent them to Auschwitz, when bored of them. The daughter, who survived the church fire, had forgot about that bit and not mentioned it in her book, but now she recalls what happened in the camp. Yes, there had been young girls going to Hanna’s quarters instead of working. They had had to sit and read to her. Michael wonders why the lawyer does not ask Hanna, if she chose these girls, because she knew they were too weak to work, and she wanted to give them one last easy month in their lives. But the lawyer does not ask Hanna any questions and she says absolutely nothing.
1200 women set out on the march, which was to become their death. Their camp existence had been better than in Auschwitz. When the church caught fire, the mother and the daughter could not stand the screaming from the other women nor the smell, so the mother had dragged her daughter away from the others, up closer to the fire, on to the bleacher, but the fire never reached them. One of the old fat guards accused Hanna for being the one who wrote the compromising report, which said that they stayed and made sure that none of the prisoners escaped from the church. When asked about it, Hanna explained what happened that night. The vicarage had been bombed and the ones that had not died, among the guards and military, fled. They said they were going to a field hospital to get help for their wounds, but they did not allow the five guards to come along and they promised to come back. Which they did not. She continued telling that the military left them some guns, but they had no idea how to use them. The only thing the guards thought about was that if they unlocked the doors, they did not know how to keep the prisoners from fleeing. They did not know how to keep them in check when so many had died, of the ones in charge. Once again, she asked the judge “what would you have done?”. Of course she did not get an answer, but it showed that this woman was clearly not a person who could think for herself. She explained the report as well, that they had all written it together. They did not want to put the ones who had fled, in trouble, but they did not want to admit either, that they themselves had done anything wrong. One particularly fat, female guard, insists that Hanna wrote the report all on her own and when the court decides to bring in a handwriting expert and compare Hanna’s handwriting to the report, Hanna suddenly says that she wrote the report. Finally it dawns on Michael that Hanna can not read nor write. After all the years, the puzzle pieces finally falls in to place. Why she had him read to hear every day, before their lovemaking, why she got so upset over him disappearing that morning on their holiday, why she disappeared from his home town when offered the job of tram driver. She could hide her illiteracy as a tram conductor, but she would have had to study to become a driver and that was not possible. The same thing happened in 1943 when she was offered a promotion at Siemens. She could not read so she volunteered to become a guard, since you did not have to know how to read as a guard. She absolutely did not want to meet the handwriting expert and admit her shortcoming. Michael is horrified at how she had not been able to read what she was accused of before the trial, nor the manuscript of the book, how the others saw the chance of accusing her of being the mastermind behind all the crimes but most of all, he is horrified over how she spent an entire life protecting her illiteracy, instead of spending all that time learning how to read and write.
Michael now has to live with the dilemma of knowing something important which should be brought out at the trial, something that could make Hanna’s punishment less severe. But can he tell the judge a secret that Hanna doesn’t want anyone to find out about? What is the right answer? He contemplates that if you know a patient is a drug abuser and the patient is going to have surgery, do you tell the doctors that they can’t put the patient under, since the patient has taken narcotics? When the drug addict does not want anyone to know about his abuse? Michael has never been very close to his philosopher dad, but he goes and asks him what is the right thing to do. His father, knowing nothing of the case, says that if you know what is best for another individual, then you must open that person’s eyes. The person has to decide in the end, but you must talk to her. And you can not go behind her back and talk to someone else about a decision that should be hers. Poor Michael really is a mess by now or has been for seven years. He can’t understand that the Hanna that he loved, did the things she is accused of and he doesn’t know what to do, with what he knows. While the court goes down to Israel to question the mother, who survived the fire, he goes to a local concentration camp, close to his home: Struthof-Natzweiler. He goes there to understand, to get a feeling for what happened there but he still just feels numb. When talking to someone about it, that person asks him whether he thinks an executioner hates his victims. The person points out that the executioner has absolutely no feelings at all, he is just doing his job. He doesn’t care what crimes the accused has committed or anything. He has been told to kill the person and he does. Michael does not know what to believe anymore. But I sure do.
Or do I? I have watched some programs about grown ups and illiteracy, and one thing is for sure, they are deeply ashamed of it. So ashamed that they go to any depths, to hide the fact. They really do spend all their time on hiding the fact, which they could have used for learning how to read and write instead. But to do that, they have to ask for help and they are too ashamed to. With this book’s head person Hanna Schmitz, we have no idea how it came that she did not learn to read. We actually find out very little about her, because we see everything through the eyes of Michael, and he is only let in to a small part of her life. He never even knew how old she was when they were having their sordid affair, let alone where she came from or anything else about her. But chances are that she came from a poor family and was not able to go to school that much. Chances are also that she was not very bright. All of Germany was full of her kind. SA was basically made up by people like her. Uneducated men who joined the nazi party, since it did not ask how smart you were, only how dedicated you were to the F¨hrer, and it gave you power which you could never have dreamt of. There were all these uneducated men who suddenly were told that they were of a master race, more and better than anyone else. They were given the power to live out their frustrations on the streets, hurt and kill anyone they liked. But Hanna? She went through life trying to hide her illiteracy. She could have had all those prisoners teach her to read and write, instead of having them read to her, but I guess the thought never dawned on her or she found herself too stupid? One thing is for sure though, she could not think very well, by herself and the SS organisation fitted her very well, since it asked no questions and told her exactly what to do. She never even stopped and asked herself if what they told her could be morally wrong. Which spells a little bit of autism. After the war, she moved around, to hide the fact that she did not know how to read. Not because she was afraid of her past catching up to her. And when she stands there in that court room, the others see her weakness and take advantage of the scape goat. When I read this book, I went from feeling disgust towards Hanna, for using a young hormonal boy for her own pleasure, to feeling sorry for her. Her punishment should have reflected that she was an illiterate, her punishment should not have become more severe than the other guards’. They KNEW what they were doing, she did not. She was not really mentally there.
As for her guard duties in the camp and her having the young girls read to her. Well, she did give them a rest. If they had a choice as to what work task they would rather do, I am sure that they would have chosen reading inside a warm house, instead of repairing a cold building. Of course she could have chosen older women, who were healthy, and given them a longer time to stay healthy. But they no doubt, would have figured out that she could not read, and she probably feared that they would spread it around, and then she would have got ridiculed by both prisoners and peers. And that is what her relationship with Michael was all about as well, wasn’t it. She wanted human companionship, but she could not be with an equal. A man would have figured her out, he would have asked questions she would have had to answer. A 15-year-old getting to have sex is not going to ask any questions. And he never suspected a thing, when she asked him to read to her. This woman felt powerless, but in her relationship with a child, she could feel powerful. She had him in her hand. He wanted the closeness so bad, he wanted their relationship to continue forever, so he allowed her to treat him in whatever manner. He boiled on the inside, but did not dare to say anything, because everything was on her terms. She was the grown up, he was the child. That is why I looked at their relationship as that between a pedophile and a victim. Because they were not equals at all. Alternative sexuality my foot. It’s all about power isn’t it? Abuse. Rape. Pedophilia. People who commit these crimes are not well-adjusted human beings. They have serious problems, especially with their self-esteem and they always attack the weaker, not their equals. They always have at least one advantage. Physical strength. Age. The talent of manipulation. And they are all passive aggressive.
Hitler’s executioners, were not men who took a job, because one has to have some sort of occupation. They were not the executioner who stood with the axe at the tower of London, executing criminals after they were tried by a court of law. Some were bureaucrats who only paid attention to numbers. But at birth we are all given the light of Christ. We are all born with the guide to know right from wrong. The more wrong we do, the less the light shines in us, the more wrong we do, the more difficult it is to hear that little voice of conscience. The cruel men and women who committed war crimes, nazi crimes, did not listen to that little voice anymore. Many of them had a christian upbringing, but the day they swore allegiance to Hitler, who proclaimed himself as the Messiah, that day they swore allegiance to the devil. That day, they swore to not have a conscience anymore. Hitler would be their conscience. That day, it became as easy for them to turn their parents and siblings in to the Gestapo, as tormenting a Jew on the street. The man speaking to Michael, telling him that an executioner has no feelings, was perhaps right. But the concentration camp guards, the soldiers and officers in the SS and police in the Gestapo, were not executioners. If one lets them be called that, one gives them an excuse for what they did. That it was just a job for them. That they had no feelings. What they did was not just a job. They did have feelings but those feelings were only socially acceptable in Hitler’s Nazi Germany!
Michael decides to not talk to Hanna about her illiteracy, he decides to go talk to the judge instead, but when he does, it only turns in to a social call. Suddenly he is back to not caring at all about Hanna anymore. He doesn’t care about anything. He is totally cold to her having used him all those years ago, how she hurt him by just leaving without a word, ending things the way she did. While the other accused get timed sentences, Hanna becomes the scape goat and gets life sentence. Michael’s life becomes even more cold, in that he avoids people. He studies by himself but somehow, someone thinks of him when it is time to go on a ski trip to Austria and something inspires him to go along. He gets sick and has to stay behind when the others go back home. All his questions come back, all the accusations, the self blame, all the worries, the despair and the pain, which Hanna and the trial had brought on. Michael is completely messed up by now. The other students in the world, are revolting right and left, especially in Germany, against their parents. Parents that were part of the nazis or stood by and watched them stay in power after 1945. Parents that accept swastikas on Jewish grave stones, who accept that nazis still in the 1960s sit in all departments of power, in the legal system, at the universities. Students revolt against West Germany’s stand against accepting the State of Israel. All students feel ashamed over how the people just adjusted to things staying pretty much the same. Michael feels divided, which many of his fellow students must have felt as well. He knows that he should point at Hanna and cut with her and his parents, but he did love her at age 15-16. He chose her. He did go home to her and did so every day after their first encounter. He admires the students who do cut with their parents and condemn all that happened during and after the war. At the same time he asks himself, if you can love someone who have committed a crime. Can you go on loving your parent? If you love your parent or Hanna, do you become part of their crime then, their guilt?
One of his travel party, a girl named Gertrud, stays behind with him in Austria and later when she gets pregnant, they marry. But Michael can not get Hanna out of his mind. When their daughter Julia, turns five, Michael and Gertrud divorce. You can’t be three in a marriage, like Princess Diana said.
Michael, now a divorced man, has to decide what he wants to do with the rest of his life. What he wants to work with. He did see too much during his education and in the case with Hanna, so he chooses to work in the field of History. For me his philosophical reasoning held an extra interest, since I fully agree with the author’s thoughts. “Outsiders make the mistakes of thinking that one studies the past as an object while living in the present.” But that is not at all what it is like to be a historian. I have never been able to express it to anyone. They just think that I am mad, obsessed. But it has nothing to do with obsession. To study the past effects you! Like the author has Michael say “To study history is to create bridges between the past and the present and study both beaches and be equally active on both.” Is it escapism? Not so, not at all. “It’s not an escape to be occupied with the past. Escape is when you just see the here and now and concentrate on the future so hard, that you are blind to the heritage of the past that characterize us and is something with which we have to live with.”
For some reason, to stay awake and remember what he reads, he starts reading books aloud on to cassettes and then he sends them on to Hanna. This does not start until Hanna has already spent 8 years in prison, but it goes on for ten years after this, till she gets pardoned. On the fourth “book year”, he receives a clumsily written little note from Hanna. It looks like a child has written it, with great effort. Through the years, he receives more and more notes from her. But he never answers a single one of them. He doesn’t mind doing the recordings for her, but he wants no other contact, with her. So when he, during her 17th prison year, receives a letter from the prison warden, with a request, he does not receive it with a light heart. The prison warden does not know what his and Hanna’s relationship is, but she has seen the packages of cassettes and now she wonders if he can help Hanna. She is expected to be released a year later, and can he find her a flat and a job? Can he be there for her, look in on her and see that she is alright from time to time, since she is bound to feel lost after 18 years in prison? Michael does not want to go and visit Hanna, but he does locate a place for her to live and a job and he does find out about what courses she could take, to further her education.
Then he is told that he must come and see Hanna before her release. So he goes there. It is not at all the woman he once loved, who sits on the park bench, in his opinion. She no longer is beautiful. She is grey haired and she smells old woman. He feels disgusted and while he tells her of all the things he has organized for her, he avoids answering her when she asks him if he once again will read to her. Even though she now knows how to read herself. He does not tell her why he never has written her back. Nor does he tell her, that he does not want her to be part of his life. She can have a tiny corner in his thoughts, but that is it. Just like he had a tiny niche in her life, all those years ago. He wants to try to understand her though. But it is difficult for him. She tells him “When noone understand you, then you are not accountable to them. Noone understood me, noone knew who I was and what made me do this or that.” Michael really feels anger towards her at this point, since he feels that she only feels guilt towards the dead, not the living. When he leaves her, earlier than he has to, she gives him the same look, that she gave him at the pool, the day before she disappeared from his town and life. Like he has let her down. This is a look he has to live with. The day of her release, he gets a phone call from the prison, that she has killed herself.
Michael goes to see the prison warden and he asks to see Hanna’s cell. On a book shelf, he sees a whole row of books about concentration camps, by survivors and by historians. He sees a newspaper clipping about himself, when he graduated from gymnasium, and he realizes that Hanna, without being able to read, must have looked for news about him, anyway. The prison warden tells him that when the cassettes started coming, Hanna would go and borrow the books from the library and she sat and read along with the tapes. That was how she slowly learned how to read. By stopping and going back all the time, the cassette player broke down many times, and she had to apply for special permits to have it fixed, which made the prison warden curious about what this woman was up to. Now that she was in on Hanna’s secret, Hanna had asked her for a book on handwriting. She had proudly showed her first note to her, but Hanna had become more and more depressed about never getting an answer from him, to her little notes, when she had worked so hard writing them. The prison warden also explained that at first, she behaved like she was in a convent. The others all looked up to her. And then she suddenly just went through a change. Noone understood why and why she did what she did next. She stopped washing herself, she started overeating and of course started to smell bad and got fat. She totally isolated herself.
Before he leaves, he gets to read a letter where Hanna states that her money should go to the woman who survived the church burning, and that she should decide on a worthy cause for the money. Michael goes to New York, to see the bitter woman, who under no circumstances wants to forgive Hanna, nor have anything to do with the money. He decides to donate all the money to the Jewish League Against Illiteracy. And he finally has come to understand that Hanna did feel guilty for what she did during the war. That was why she became obsessed with reading books about the concentration camps. The dead would not leave her alone in the prison. The more she read, the more she understood what she had really done. Which proves something very important. That many hate crimes, many racism deeds, are committed out of ignorance. The less education you have, the less you seem to know about what is morally wrong. The more afraid you are of the unknown and feel it to be a threat. The less you read, the less you can feel for other people and what they might be going through, the less you read the less you can imagine what other people’s feelings are. Being able to read, opens your eyes in a way that no other thing does. And Hanna, she did not know how to read at all. When she learned to read, then she understood the evil which she had been a part of. Is that why she killed herself? Could she not go out in the world after 18 years, when she finally would understand people’s accusing looks? Especially Michael’s accusing eyes?