Authors and After Words

A number of current novels depict events of the Second World War through the eyes of children. We previously considered two of them – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2006), and Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson (2003). The Book Thief deals with the Holocaust as one of several critical elements that drive that novel forward. Here I will consider two child-centered books in which the Holocaust is front and center. In age order of the child protagonists the books are The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (David Fickling Books, 2006) and The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, (Vintage Books, 1997).

John Boyne (b. 1971) is Irish. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (spelled Pajamas in the American editions) has sold five million copies worldwide. It is the story of a naive though outgoing nine-year-old boy named Bruno. His father, an SS officer, becomes the Commandant of a concentration camp so the family must move away from Berlin. Bruno must leave behind his home, his friends and the city of his boyhood adventures. He becomes lonely and frustrated in his new home until he discovers a fenced-in place beyond the trees behind the new house. There, oddly enough, everyone wears striped pajamas. Believing that he may find a new friend amongst these strange people, he goes exploring. He comes upon a boy about his own age sitting alone inside a remote stretch of the fence. Bruno talks to the boy whose name is Shmuel and they become friends. Their friendship leads them to an “adventure” that takes Bruno into the camp to experience the final mystery within the enclosure.

The popularity of Boyne’s book notwithstanding, it has its naysayers. Most seriously, critics have accused Boyne of trying to whitewash and sentimentalize actual conditions inside the camps for the sake of his art. Similar criticisms were leveled against Roberto Benigni for his film Life is Beautiful and Steven Spielberg for his treatment of camp life in Schindler’s List. The critic, A. O. Scott, writing in “Something is Happening,” in the New York Times Book Review of November 12, 2006, criticized Boyne on the grounds that he tries to “mold the Holocaust into an allegory.” But given the enormous documentary evidence of the camps, every present and future fictional representation of the Holocaust will likely fail to express the totality of misery, so I think Scott misses the point. The Holocaust is not the allegory in this novel. It is the context within which the allegory is played out. Through the iconic friendship in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, innocence and the future are sacrificed to the Ultimate Darkness of the camp. The manner in which, upon meeting a boy in striped pajamas, Bruno himself becomes such a boy as he and Shmuel clasp hands and perish together, becoming in effect one and the same boy, opens the fable to experience the ultimate truth of the camp’s dark mystery, i.e. that no one, neither Jew nor Gentile, from now until the end of time, will escape its horror. This is the hideous truth of all holocausts and one we refuse to learn.

If Boyne tries to fathom the sacrifice of innocence from the point of view of a naive nine-year-old child, the German author and judge, Bernhard Schlink (b. 1944) moves forward to the post war period in order to try to fathom the experience from the point of view of the German children who were born during or right after the war. The Reader has been lauded in Germany and The United States and the book translated into 37 languages and is read in college courses dealing with the literature of the Holocaust. Like Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, its critical reception has been mixed.

The Reader is presented in three parts. The first is an account of a sexual affair between a fifteen-year-old school boy, Michael Berg, and a thirty-six-year-old tram car conductor, Hannah Schmitz. The affair lasts through the spring of 1958, until Michael turns sixteen and Hannah suddenly breaks it off.

The second part takes place a few years later when Berg, now a law student, attends the trial of some female SS officers who took part in a particular atrocity towards the end of WWII. Berg discovers Hannah Schmitz among them and during the procedure learns why part of their love-making included him reading to her from various classical and modern texts. She is illiterate and so ashamed of being so that she pulls the rug from under her own defense. She ends up with a life sentence based on the judges belief that she wrote the SS report of the event. Given her illiteracy, she could not have done that. Though his conscience prompts him to reveal this fact for the sake of clemency, Michael cannot actually bring himself to do so.

The third part of the book takes place eighteen years later when Hannah is about to be released from prison. Prior to that event, Michael has recorded more readings and sent them to her in prison where she has taught herself to read and write. He has reluctantly agreed to find her a job and a place to live once she gets out. He does so, but his efforts prove futile as she commits suicide the morning he is to fetch her.

Whether or not this novel deals successfully with the scale of the Holocaust depends in how we interpret that illicit love affair between a fifteen-year-old boy and a mature woman. Is Michael an abused child? Or was he living out every adolescent boy’s fantasy of finding a sexual mentor to lead him into his adulthood? Why does Michael hold back the information that could help Hannah in her time of need? Is it his own guilty fear of being exposed as her lover or is it the discovery of what she was – an SS officer responsible for the deaths of many Jewish women and children – that fosters his silence?

Most of the professors that taught Bernhard Schlink’s generation of students in the ‘50s lived through the Third Reich. Their works from that time were hidden away from the students at the university Schlink attended. When the students insisted that they had a right to see those works, they were allowed to do so. In an interview that appears with the film version on the DVD, Schlink describes the impact of that experience. Many of those students went through a period of deep despair. These were the teachers who had nurtured and mentored them out of naivete into maturity in their legal and ethical training for the law. In his novel, Schlink makes young Berg’s sexual awakening a metaphor for his generation’s intellectual awakening. The betrayal of their innocence is etched in the mind and body of young Michael Berg. He has offered up his sexual and intellectual being to Hannah Schmitz only to discover her complicity with her generation’s evil. The very core of his coming of age has been betrayed by the incomprehensibility of her actions during the Holocaust. Her query to the judge, “What would you have done?” only complicates the spectrum of guilt. Within the narrow confines of the law, there can be no clear answer to the younger generation’s question, “How could you have done it?” In his need to grasp the Holocaust, Michael, like Bruno, is devoured by The Darkness. Comprehending the incomprehensible is impossible! That is the reason why this and every other Holocaust must never be forgotten.