Whilst reading part two of 'The Reader' by Bernhard Schlink, I felt myself wanting to hear Hanna's side of the story, for her to justify and give a reason behind her illiteracy and actions during the war. This is why I wrote this piece, I thought of it as the explanation that Hanna owed Michael even though he never gave her the chance to say it. I also imagined it to be almost like her testimony if she had spoken out in court, which is why I have not discussed any other events other than those t
Hello, my name is Hanna Schmitz. I was born on the 21st October 1922 and I am here today to talk to you about how being illiterate caused me to unknowingly become a criminal.
When I was very young I got TB. This lasted for several years by which time I had already missed a lot of school. My parents refused to admit that I needed to re-take the missed time as they thought that they had educated me well. To an extent this was true. Whilst sick and in bed my parents had read me my education. They told me about aspects of history and showed me maps of the world and read out all the different countries, pointing out the location of Germany. They told me stories and corrected my grammar when I spoke aloud to them. Though I could speak, I was too weak to hold, never mind control, a pen. I did not learn how to write. My mother enjoyed reading aloud to me so much that she forgot to teach me how to read myself. Nevertheless my mother did teach me how to sew. I was just strong enough to manoeuvre the needle and hold the fabric, and it helped me pass the time when I couldn’t sleep, and gave me something to do for mother when she was reading.
It was only when I was well enough to start school that I understood that not being able to read and write would be a problem. I knew as much as the other children and was probably more enthusiastic about my studies than most, but I soon discovered that we were expected to be able to follow the text as the teacher read it aloud. I thought I could pick up the art of reading as we progressed, but I gave myself headaches trying to interpret the jumble of swirling lines and my brain refused to match them to what the teacher was saying. I soon learned how to remember what had been read aloud, and clearly collect the thoughts in my head. I got away without writing because often after the work was done we had discussions about what we had written. For this I pretended to read aloud from a blank page, as my answers were simply stored away in my head.
This strategy worked for one or two years, but as soon as we were expected to read aloud to the class and do written assessments, my flaws began to show. These years of school were miserable Fellow pupils bullied me and I got no extra help or support from my teachers. It became so unbearable that I began to miss school whenever possible. I never gave in homework and refused to complete assessments. My professors assumed I was just being stubborn. Some yelled and cursed at me for my stupidity, others tried to encourage me to discuss with them what I was having difficulty with, but I could not tell them, something deep inside me made me hold my tongue. It was fear. I had been so unhappy through my years of school. I was worried that if I revealed my secret they would force me to retake all of my education, start from the beginning again. Only later did this fear evolve into shame. In the end, they all gave up. I was neither encouraged nor criticized. As soon as I was old enough, I left school.
My father was a well known tailor in Hermannstadt and employed me as an assistant in his workshop. I had kept up my sewing skills, even after my illness had ceased, and enjoyed working along side my father.
Most of my family died before the end of the Great War or, like my mother, during the depression which followed it, and when I was fifteen my father suddenly became ill and died, leaving me alone, with no home or money. I travelled to Berlin in the hope that the capital would offer a young poorly educated woman a reasonable job. I was in luck. I had hitched all the way into the centre of the city. On the final stretch my driver was a woman, who was around the age my mother would have been. She was very friendly and asked lots of questions. After I had recalled my story she told me about a job at the Siemens factory where she worked, and offered to let me stay at her apartment for a while.
I got the job, and ended up staying with Claudia for six years. At first I was placed on the assembly lines. It was dull repetitive work, but I enjoyed earning the money and making new friends. In 1943 the SS were recruiting guards from our factory. I had been recently offered the position as Foreman but realised that I was not able to do the job because of my illiteracy. I saw the guard position with the SS as a way out.
I will not talk about what I saw at Auschwitz in my short term there. But I will say that as a guard you learned very quickly that nobody asked ‘Why?’ they just do. I was transferred over to the work camp in Krakow in early February the next year.
The other female guards and I didn’t talk very much. I didn’t really mind at first, I had always been able to cope on my own. Then I discovered that nobody talked to anyone. I knew why; we all didn’t want to admit that we knew what we were doing. As in Auschwitz, nobody asked questions. We sent 60 women a month to their death at Auschwitz, we all agreed together who should go. It was not just a random sample. We tried to only select those who were so weak and fragile that they probably wouldn’t last another month anyway. Of course there were always a few places left for those who might have been able to cope a while longer. We tried not to separate women who were part of the same family in these situations, but we aimed not to dwell on it for too long.
Yes, I knew that those women would be killed. I hated myself for it, but I never let this emotion show. Instead I acted harshly towards the prisoners, to try and hide what I was truly feeling, and to try and trick myself into believing that I didn’t really care about who we sent. It didn’t work.
During my second month at the camp I happened to stumble across a young girl and her mother huddled together outside one of the work buildings. It was after supper and most of the women were headed to the small dormitories where they slept. The young girl was skinny and fragile and it was March, so the nights were still very cold. The mother was trying to warm the girl who was shaking. I approached them to order them to their beds. The girl was reciting a poem, learned by heart, to her mother. Her voice was soft, almost angelic. It reminded me of my mother reading to me all those years ago. For the first time, I grieved for her death. She had caught TB whilst I was contagious, and had not survived the illness. The child looked up at me, fear on her face, noticing my uniform, but as soon as she saw how distressed I was her look re-arranged itself to that of puzzlement. I asked her to follow me. The only reluctance came from the mother. The girl, though cautious, obeyed without question. I lead her to the library, it was more of a bookshelf in our staff building, but it had many of the classics. I asked her whether she had read any of them. After a quick look she nodded. I enquired after her favourite and she selected it out. She had not said a word. She handed me the book. I told her to wait for me outside the sleeping quarter’s the following evening after supper. She left me there holding the book.
She read, ‘Elective Affinities’ By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to me, I enjoyed the story. It spoke of free will, and concentrated on the lower classes. More than this though, I enjoyed listening to the girl read. It was a constant reminder of my mother’s sweet voice. I didn’t ask her name. I knew I could not. I managed to keep her at the camp for a couple of months, and in that time she read me three more novels. I had told her at the first meeting not to mention anything to anyone and I believe that she kept her mouth shut. She never gave any personal comments about the books or spoke about anything else to me. I gave her some of my food, as I knew her rations were incredibly small, and tried to be as nice as I possibly could to her. After the third novel she looked at me and asked me why I was making her do this. She was on the next train to Auschwitz. I didn’t trust her anymore. If it hadn’t been for me, she would have left a long time before.
From then on I had a variety of readers, all young and weak. I only ever kept them for a couple of months and sometimes had two or three girls taking it in turns to read to me. I tried to make life at the camp easier for them. I took care of them as much as I could, and gave them more food and better sleeping conditions. I knew the other guards were questioning what I was doing with these girls, but none of them ever confronted me about it. Even if they had I wouldn’t have told them. As a result I drew further apart from my colleagues. The girls never showed appreciation, but they never complained. When I had to send them back to Auschwitz they all left silently as if nothing had been different. This hurt me; I wanted them to feel that I had made their last months more comfortable, and for them to believe that not all the guards were bad people. It almost felt like a rejection of my efforts, therefore, after each reader, I was more and more determined to be nicer towards the next. Maybe I should have been harsher with them; I wouldn’t have become so attached, and wouldn’t have felt so guilty and rejected when I sent them away. I just don’t know.
Towards the end of the war, the camp closed. We were ordered to take the prisoners west. We obeyed. The cold made us even more bitter and harsh towards them. I can not imagine how they were feeling. Our uniforms were a lot thicker and more substantial than their work clothes.
Some of the women died. We had to keep moving. There was no time for mourning, or even burying. We followed the Commandants. We had no idea why they were taking us, or where they were taking us. We were constantly moving, under orders to make sure none of the prisoners escaped. We only stopped in the evenings, in whatever shelter we could find; which was often just abandoned farms. The church was a relief when we found it. It offered secure, reasonable shelter for the women and we were able to wash in the priest’s house. We all got hot food and, until the bombings, a reasonably comfortable place to sleep.
The Bombings began early in the morning. I had awoken when I heard the first bombs fall. Some of others were alert also, and we managed get everyone up. At that moment, a bomb hit the house. All I remember is confusion, dust, and pain. The priest’s house was madness. People were rushing around everywhere. I looked down to see a shard of glass from the window wedged in my leg. Others had not been so fortunate. Everyone was panicking. We managed to get anybody who was seriously hurt away from all the commotion. Those of us who weren’t injured were left to guard the women in the church. It was a confused scene, with nobody in charge. Our commandants had all disappeared.
We looked at each other. Bombing could still be heard outside of the walls. Screams were audible, and yet it was strangely calm within the room. Suddenly we all realised what we had forgotten. We ran. When we reached the church it was already ablaze, the screams were horrible. We stood there, frozen with fear. We did not know what to do. We could not open the doors. We hadn’t been ordered not to, but we had also not been given permission to open them. None of us were superior enough to take charge of the situation. We were just guards. If the church was opened we would never regain control. We would be blamed if any prisoners escaped. Thinking back on it now, it sounds barbaric I know, but at the time we were so confused, so desperate, so scared, so helpless. We were paralysed by indecision.
The church roof collapsed. I stared at it. The rest of the guards stared. That was it. One by one they separated from the group and left. I never thought I would see any of them again.
Notes on Monologue:
- In the book I did not feel that Schlink expressed how difficult Hanna’s life would have been without being able to read or write. I wanted to show this struggle within the monologue, to give others a chance to understand how hard it must have been. To do this I researched a little bit about illiteracy and the problems people face even today. Very few jobs are available to those with weak reading and writing skills and because they have a fear of discovery illiterate people often become outsiders in society. This personally makes me think about how I take reading and writing for granted, but if you do actually take notice, reading and writing crop up in a lot of basic aspects of normal day to day lifestyes. There are a number of reasons why illiterates are so ashamed of this disability I think. One is that other people do not seem to understand how difficult it is for them, therefore brand them as annoying and stupid. Another is maybe that people who are illiterate feel that don't really understand the world around them and are afraid that others will try to take advantage of them if they reveal that they are illiterate, which is maybe why Hanna does not reveal her secret to Michael, and also maybe why she admits to writing the report.
- In this piece I did make some assumptions, but I did try to them true to the plot and not change the actual story, but maybe make the reader think more about the life of Hanna and give them more of an understanding of her character.
- I attempted to present it in the style that Schlink uses in the book. Short informative sentences that create a bold and dramatic effect. I didn’t use many literacy effects such as similes, metaphors and foreshadowing like Schlink does, as I thought that Hanna would have just said it as it had happened. I also made some links with the original text.