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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Sophie’s tattoo symbolizes the way that she will have to live with her memories of the Holocaust forever and the fact that her identity as a Christian gives her a particularly complex relationship to the sufferings of the Holocaust. Stingo, like many people, assumes that individuals who were given numbered tattoos as a form of identification when they arrived at Nazi camps were most likely Jewish. However, Sophie received her tattoo during a brief interval when only non-Jews were being tattooed. At this time, anyone who was Jewish was simply killed immediately, giving the Nazis no reason to tattoo them. While Sophie suffered horrifying experiences that parallel many of the atrocities experienced by Jewish people during the Holocaust, her experience was also distinct, as she had some advantages due to being a Polish Christian. Her tattoo highlights the complexities and confusion of the Holocaust. Because the tattoo is a permanent mark that she will have to wear for the rest of her life, it further symbolizes how she will never able to forget or completely heal from the trauma she experienced.
The anti-Semitic pamphlet authored by Sophie’s father symbolizes how existing systems of power trap individuals into being complicit in actions they may not agree with. Sophie is not anti-Semitic, and she does not love or respect her father. However, she has grown up amongst religious and cultural systems that emphasize obedience and duty. Even though she does not agree with the ideas articulated in the pamphlet, Sophie capitulates and helps her father produce and disseminate the propaganda. This action is something Sophie has always regretted, and it marks the first step in a series of events that will involve her betraying her principles in order to survive within terrifying systems of power. Later, Sophie will use the pamphlet to try and curry favor with Hoss by persuading him that she too hates Jewish people. Sophie does not believe the things she says to Hoss, but she is desperate to try and help her son. Sophie’s actions around the pamphlet, first with her father and then with Hoss, are part of the reason she later feels so much shame and self-loathing.
The radio at the Hoss household symbolizes the conflict between Sophie’s desire to engage in acts of resistance and her ultimate decision to prioritize her personal safety. When Sophie is sent to work within the Hoss household, Wanda encourages her to try and steal a small radio so that it can be delivered back to the camp and used in Resistance activities. Sophie recognizes the value of this action and does make a failed attempt to steal the radio, but she gives up fairly quickly after this first attempt. Sophie ultimately decides that the risk is too great and that she wants to prioritize her own safety in an effort to get her son out of the camp. Later, Sophie feels great shame both because she wasn’t able to steal the radio and because she feels that she gave up on her efforts too quickly. She sees this failure as further evidence that she is a bad person who doesn’t deserve to have survived and been given a second chance at life.