"What should our second generation do with the knowledge of the horrors of extermination of the Jews?" Explain meaning and discuss how to respondThe full quote that Michael says is:“What should...

"What should our second generation do with the knowledge of the horrors of extermination of the Jews?" Explain meaning and discuss how to respond

The full quote that Michael says is:
“What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to inquire is to make the horrors and object of discussion even if the horrors themselves are not questioned instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt. Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt? To what purpose?”

Please explain what Bernhand Schlink is trying to say here and discuss how we should respond to this question that Micheal poses to us

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The quotation above is asking how individuals can walk the tightrope between evaluating the crimes of history while actively participating in ensuring that it does not happen again.  One of the major themes of The Reader is how to reconcile modern notions of progress and understanding with a past that is replete with some of the worst crimes committed on record.  The challenge related in the quote is the idea of how does one "properly" go about in addressing such a past?  On one hand, modern individuals cannot say that they understand what happened in the Holocaust, because the events were so unimaginably horrific that to say one "understands" actually trivalizes it.  At the same time, it demeans the experience of the Holocaust and narratives that emerge from it if an individual decides to categorize and use scientific inquiry to address it.  Additionally, taking such an approach reduces the complexity of such an experience to a common denominator, and actually contributes to the behaviors and normative decisions that set the stage for the Holocaust to actually happen.  The closing question of "falling silent," might be the only option, but in embracing that, one capitulates to the same attitudes that caused the death of millions during the Holocaust for it was the overwhelming silence of so many that acted as a "nod to the aggressors" as Wiesel puts it.  Through Hanna's character, we begin to see a representation of Arendt's "Banality of Evil."  This is a premise that suggests that a full understanding of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust lies in comprehending that many of the individuals who were footsoldiers in the march towards human atrocity were "folllowing orders." They were not the Hitler's or the Goebbels' who possessed power, as much as they were the small beings who were as powerless as anyone could be in such an apparatus.  When we, in the modern setting, lay judgment on them, is it fair to them to apply modern conditions of justice and understanding to individuals who really had little experience in either?  Few would reasonably argue that leaders like Hitler and Himmler deserve scorn for their actions, and if there were any legal or moral body that could render judgment, the harshest of penalties should be submitted.  Yet, can the same type of punitive measure be enacted on individuals who lacked their power, who lacked their evil intent?  Hanna was an illiterate who only took the Nazi promotion to hide her illiteracy, which she thought of as a socially judged shame.  Essentially, if one punishes her, it would be for being illiterate.  In my mind, the quote is asking how one evaluates such a case.  There might be another level to this.  If there is any hope to the narrative provided in The Reader, it might lie in the idea that individuals have to act on their freedom regardless of condition.  Even if the act of freedom scars themselves, the idea of speaking and acting on what one knows to be right in their heart is critical. Individuals cannot retreat into deniability for very long.  At some point, there has to be a reckoning of what they know is right.  Hanna is embarassed about her illiteracy, and what was undertaken in prison in terms of understanding and rectifying it, was something that needed to be done prior.  In doing so, the promotion to the SS Guard could have been avoided.

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The Reader

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