Discuss the idea of Sophie's Choice and The Reader showing us that the holocaust was not black and white but rather one million shades of grey.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Both works evoke a great deal of complexity within the Holocaust through the narratives of the protagonists.  On first glance, Hanna's story seems straight forward:  A Nazi guard who was responsible for the death of innocents.  Yet, when analyzing her story, the nuances represent complexity and intricacy.  For example, she only takes the promotion as a guard within the Nazi apparatus to conceal her illiteracy.  Additionally, she does not voice or actively advocate Nazi ideology, contributing to the understanding that she lacks a sense of power.  Her story is not one of deliberate cruelty, but rather ignorance.  Finally, she gains literacy through her imprisonment and then gains the moral evolution to understand her role and complicity, and the private sense of guilt that accompanies her function.  In the final analysis, Hanna is not a simple character for whom moral clarity and judgment is an absolute.  Rather, her situation is one where delicacy and qualification replace a sense of dogmatism.

On first glance, Sophie's story is one of straight victimization, another of millions of tales of people who endured immense loss and tragic conditions through the Holocaust. Yet, scrutiny of her situation reveals more nuances.  She is not Jewish, but rather Polish.   This is essential to her character for she does voice anti- Semitic thoughts and hails from an anti- Semitic background from her father and husband.  Additionally, she acts in accordance to the idea of survival, as opposed to direct solidarity.  Sophie is not one who accepts her role as a victim of the Holocaust, thinking that she can conspire to save both herself and her children.  Her desire to see her boy participate in the Lebensborn program is one that perpetuates the thinking which gave rise to the Holocaust.  She is tormented by her feelings of being both victim and perpetrator, self pity and self hate.  Such a rendering is not the traditionalist notion of Holocaust victimization.

Perhaps, the ultimate message arising from both narratives is that the complexity and analysis required to judge individuals is critical in preventing the dogma and absolutism that allowed the Holocaust to develop.

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