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Bernhard Schlink was born to a Protestant family in cosmopolitan Heidelberg in the turmoil of 1944, the year that German intellectuals planted a bomb in Adolf Hitler’s Wolfschanze headquarters, nearly killing the Fuehrer some 10 months before his ultimate suicide and the collapse of the Third Reich. For their act of heroic disloyalty, most of the so-called Kriesau Circle — men who sought social justice and a new society built on the rule of law — were executed by the Nazi regime. The horrors visited on his country at the time of his birth have forged the themes of Bernhard Schlink’s life work as a writer, lawyer, judge — and now a visiting professor of European Economic Union law and legal philosophy at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. In novel after novel — his international best seller, “The Reader,” is the only one published in English — Professor Schlink has dealt with complex notions that haunt him, as well as the postwar generation of his countrymen: Loyalty, betrayal, treason. With characteristic understatement, Professor Schlink said, “I thought about ‘The Reader’ for a long time.” It is the story of Michael, a German teenager who has a curious romantic affair with an older woman named Hannah. She disappears from his life, rather suddenly, then reappears years later when, as a law student, Michael finds himself watching Hannah on trial for her role as a guard at the Auschwitz death camp. The difficult moral and ethical questions raised in the book — Michael’s shame in loving Hannah, his conflicting feeling of betrayal, his coming to terms with his generation’s response to the Holocaust — has been hailed by literary critics as a philosophical parable. (“The Reader” has been optioned for a movie by Miramax Films, to be directed by the Oscar-winning Anthony Minghella, director of “The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Truly, Madly, Deeply.”) Was there a single idea that drove Professor Schlink through the years of his book’s gestation? “There are people, I think, who are moral illiterates,” he said. Writing the book helped him find his own sense of morality, he said, and his own reckoning with the Holocaust. HUMAN PROBLEM Arthur J. Jacobson, the Max Freund professor of litigation and advocacy at Cardozo, said of his colleague’s book, “Bernhard deals with the Holocaust as something other than some alien horror show. It’s easy to pass off the Third Reich as the work of the Devil. We must understand the Holocaust as a human problem.” Professor Jacobson — who has co-edited a book on Germany’s Weimar Republic period between the world wars — said the important literary device of Professor Schlink’s work parallels that of Thomas Keneally’s “Schindler’s List.” In these two powerful tales, said Professor Jacobson, “We’re looking at the Holocaust through the eyes of human beings who are Nazis, and that is the story-teller’s genius.” Cardozo students, said Professor Schlink, have been receptive to his idea that lawyers should be rigorous philosophers. He draws his own philosophical outlook from the classics — Plato, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche — and even a bit from such classics of American noir literature as Chandler, Hammett and Cain. “They’re good kids, and they actually read what I ask them to read,” said Professor Schlink of his Cardozo students. “They ask good questions. It’s fun for me to teach here, where practically all I have to do is know more than my students. “It’s a kind of feudal world in German law schools. There is hardly any communication. Professors talk to other professors through their assistants. Here [in the U.S.], it’s a much more communicative atmosphere.” Professor Schlink was long known in Germany as a crime novelist before publication of “The Reader.” He is the author of numerous European best sellers featuring a German private detective named Selb, hero of such titles as “Selb’s Justice,” “Selb’s Betrayal” and “Selb’s Murder” — which are currently being translated into English. Recently, Professor Schlink’s class at Cardozo did not meet because he was working in Bonn for several days, in his capacity as one of seven members of a judicial panel on constitutional law for the German state of North Rhineland Westphalia. While in Bonn considering constitutional matters, he said, he thought about a subject that has lately been something of an obsession. “I very much want to do a seminar on cloning next year,” said Professor Schlink. “It gets to such a basic question of law: What is human?”

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