Then what am I supposed to do with your story, Michael Berg?
You don’t blame Hanna for loving you. You do not blame yourself for loving Hanna. What, then, am I to make of your sad love story? Okay, so it wasn’t wrong for her to love you, 21 years her junior. But of course only a very few will agree with you. Look at that survivor who described her as having been brutal to you. But you said so yourself that the only love we are not responsible for is the one we have for our parents. I’m glad that it came from your own mouth.
I hurt for you as I listen to you talk to me in your telling of your story. A fifty-year-old professional coming to grips with an emotion he first experienced for a woman 35 years ago sure speaks something for the love a man has for a woman. Dreaming of her, associating her with the feeling of coming home, describes an attachment stronger than a mere adolescent crush, or even passion.
Michael, for all your words, I really would have loved to hear something from Hanna Schmitz. I wish you were older when you met her then perhaps you would have seen more, have understood more. I feel like if only you didn’t keep your age a secret from her then she would have driven you off, out of her life for good, even if you’ve already been lovers for a week. But even then many people would still want to say that a full grown woman seducing a seventeen-year-old is just as immoral.
Again, what do I really know of Hanna to even suggest that she was immoral in her relationship with you? In what way did she benefit if indeed it’s true that she used you? For all you know the fact that you have become happy lovers has brought her an equal amount of sadness, too.
However, what does her relationship with you have to do with her being on that court trial, and you meddling with her life afterwards? You were not supposed to know anything about her in the first place. Michael, she would have continued on with her silent life had she not heard from you again. Why the hell did you have to send her those tapes? And then not even telling her of how happy you were to receive a note from her when it was obvious that you, of all people, were the one whom she wanted most to be happy with and for her? Would you be excused when it would be said that you had no idea anymore whatsoever if she still loved you in the way you knew she did? But my goodness, Michael Berg, you were microscopic in deciphering the amount of effort she put into that note she sent to you. Didn’t that give an indication of her reaching out to you?
Numbness. Numbness. You always give numbness as the excuse. If a Corrie ten Boom is possible then why couldn’t it work out with you for the sake of the great love you had for her?
Ach, but it’s all over now. I’m ranting needlessly. Like the prison governor I can only feel anger towards the both of you — to you for being a hypocrite about your love for her, to her for not having the strength to deny you, not then, not while she was in prison, and not even when she was about to have a new life. That woman who spoke so callously about Hanna did not realize that you, Michael Berg, have also been brutal to Hanna.
You say that the generation before you failed in confronting evil. You are the same as them. You just kept on protecting yourself. Even when you discovered what made Hanna the way she is, still you didn’t clear it up with her. Compare your level of literacy with hers. Compare her access to “enlightened” discussions with yours. Why couldn’t you have found the way to come up to her and inform her of her accountability for leaving you brokenhearted? I’m sure you’ve heard of something like with-greater-knowledge-comes-greater-responsibility from somewhere.
Just like the way she asked the judge, what else could she have done when she already knew that the boy she fell in love with was growing up without her, and fast? She knew she didn’t belong to your world. Why would she hamper your growth? That, then, would have been brutal. She actually did you a great service, by disappearing from your life.
Haven’t you heard from somewhere, too, that once you start something you have to take responsibility for it? You led Hanna on by giving her false hope. You made it seem like you have forgiven her for leaving you. You made it seem like you understood her for having ended up in that court. In your having reached adulthood didn’t it occur to you that it was your innocence that attracted her to you? That with you she found a picture of what she would have liked to be had fate been different for her? We do not even have an idea why she became like that in the first place, or why she didn’t take the effort to remedy it for all the earth time she was in existence before she met you.
If you said that coming to visit her was like coming home, then couldn’t you visit her again? Cutting your ties with her is denying your existence, too. If you don’t blame anyone for all that’s happened then perhaps a celebration of your love for each other could awaken from your frozen heart.
Viktor Frankl, too, came from Auschwitz. He saw among his companions the same phenomenon that happened to Hanna, i.e., that the feeling that nobody out there is eager for one’s well-being hastens one’s non-existence.
I do not know what to say of your story, Michael Berg. Since Hanna did not talk to you, since she didn’t compose narratives, and since she doesn’t even have a collection of songs you’d have an idea she likes then how can we speak of a person’s choices to whom a world of letters cannot speak to? Did you even wonder what made it an imperative for her to guard over her dignity? Can you even begin to imagine the depravities she had to survive and rise from just so that one day she’d be able to make little dance steps in front of the man she loves? You know what, Michael, with your renewed readings to her you pried open her armor and then you left her exposed to the elements.
Maybe we can just say that it’s the price she had to pay for not knowing what to do then. But what can one do when one doesn’t even know that one is supposed to know? How can one guard oneself from the ignorance of ignorance? When you pried open her armor she was beginning to forgive herself. She was learning to face the condemnations. She was having her spring.
What saddens me, Michael, is that it’s possible for X to stand in judgment over Y whom X knows loves X, while all the while denying that a judgment had been passed.
I rest my case, or whatever it’s called.
This narrative is a reaction to Bernhard Schlink’s 1997 novel The Reader.