When a dying man, who confesses to have persecuted and killed people of my race, expresses his regret and asks for my forgiveness, I would grant him his wish as an offering of peace, it doesn’t matter that he is a Nazi, nor would it matter whether I were a Jew or a Christian.
In his book, The Sunflower (1969), Simon Wiesenthal tells how he wrestled through this dilemma and ends up by forcing the reader to face the same situation. As a young man detained in a Nazi concentration camp, Wiesenthal was exposed to the oppression and brutalities that was so pervasive during that time in history, especially among the Jews. Like everyone else inside the camp, he had lost friends and family to the atrocities of the Nazis. Hatred and fear defined the era; two emotions that were constant wherever the two opposing groups were together in one place. Hatred among the Nazis, fear among the Jews.
Wiesenthal was witness as well as major player to all this, until he was one day forced to face that besides hatred and fear, other emotions could surface. On that unusual day, he was summoned from his labor brigade at camp to the hospital. It turned out that a dying Nazi, named Karl, born and raised Catholic, needed to go through the Catholic rituals of confession and absolution before succumbing to a peaceful death. Instead of calling for a priest, however, he asked to talk to a Jew. Any Jew, which Wiesenthal was.
Karl confessed to the crimes he had participated in, and ended up asking the young Jew beside him for forgiveness. Confused, Wiesenthal neither said yes nor no, but silently walked out. Back in the camp, he asked his fellow prisoners if he did the right thing. Several years after the holocaust, Wiesenthal still was not over the encounter, still unsure if he did the right thing. In The Sunflower, where he wrote about the experience, he ends with a note to the readers, inviting them to give their opinions on the matter.
“Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This is a profound moral question that challenges the conscience of the reader of this episode, just as much as it once challenged my heart and mind” (97)
Wiesenthal’s question resulted into “a moral survey of some of the leading authorities of our time” with “distinguished men and women [including] theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Holocaust survivors, and victims of attempted genocide in Bosnia, Cambodia, and Tibet” (Younglove), all of whom expressed their own opinions why Wiesenthal was right, or not right, and what they would have done if they were in his shoes. These opinions, called “The Symposium,” comprise the second part of the book, and, as expected, vary in judgement as they do in moral orientation.
Generally, the opinions could be divided into two groups: those who favor forgiveness for the Nazi, and those who agree with Wiesenthal. Those with Christian orientation belong to the first group; those who belong to the latter are mostly Jews. This should be understandable, as, an online review expounds, “Forgiveness is, indeed, the essence of the debate… Nowhere is the dichotomy regarding the possibility of Wiesenthal’s forgiveness so great as it is between the Jewish and Christian scholars” (Younglove).
There could be no greater division in opinion of forgiveness than religion. “Indeed, the Christian symposiasts did sound a more sympathetic note,” observes a scholarly journal (Soloveichik, 41). Cardinal Konig explains in “The Symposium”, For Christians, the answer is in the Gospels (182). The question of whether there is a limit to forgiveness has been emphatically answered by Christ in the negative. In the same book, Theodore Hersburgh, a Catholic priest echoes, “I am in the forgiving business” (169). For these two Christians, whose Messiah demonstrated forgiveness to his persecutors even as he was nailed dying on the cross, the more convenient answer is to forgive.
The Jews, who take the Holocaust more personally, are less generous in giving absolution to a Nazi. Primo Levi, in “The Symposium,” expressed agreement and support. “I think I can affirm that you did well, in this situation, to refuse your pardon to the dying man,” refusing to believe that Karl was sincere. “The act of ‘having a Jew brought to him’ seems to me childish and impudent” (192).
When one gets right down to the business of forgiving, however, does it matter whether he is a priest and a Catholic, or a Jew who survived the Holocaust? Does it even matter whether your foe asking for forgiveness is in his deathbed trying to save his last breath, or a warrior offering his gun? Forgiving, writes Susannah Heschel, “is of the heart. Compassion is all-embracing, extending to all creations” (175). It is not a prize that one can be generous or tight-fisted with when the teachings of his religion tell him so. It is not confined to the boundaries of any religion, and many of Wiesenthal’s respondents in “The Symposium” think so too, as one book reviewer observes, “Many of the writers pleaded that the decision of what to do should not be based on Wiesenthal’s faith” (ePinion.com).
Taking the question of forgiving out of the context of religion, however, does not make it easier for one to decide whether or not to forgive. What if the sin committed involves taking the lives of a hundred innocent people? And that each of the one hundred is just a representative of thousands more who suffered in the hands of the repentant sinner’s friends? Karl was one of the Nazis, but he was not the only one. He was just a representative of the perpetrators, who may not have been as repentant as he was.
The Dalai Lama writes, “I believe one should forgive the person or persons who have committed atrocities against oneself and mankind. But this does not mean that one should forget about the atrocities committed” (129). This, in a way, supports Herbert Marcuse’s statement that “the easy forgiving of such crimes perpetuates the very evil it wants to alleviate” (208).
In this sense, the issue evolves to identify absolution as an act detached from the other act of forgetting. It’s as simple as saying, I forgive you but I’ll never forget what you’ve done.
But can one forgive and not forget? When you hold the memory of someone else’s wrongdoing in your heart and mind, isn’t that equivalent to holding grudges against him? Until you learn to forget, the grudges you hold in your heart will continue to haunt you. Isn’t forgiving all or nothing? When you say I forgive you, you are putting yourself everything behind you and the person you are forgiving, both ready to start again on a clean slate.
Heschel couldn’t have put it better than she did in the letter she wrote to Wiesenthal. “Forgetting and forgiving may seem to be two different things, but I believe they are of a piece. Every time you remember a wrong, you are asked to forgive it… wrongs will return to the mind for years and years and years. Each recall asks for forgiveness, and you stay in the power of that act until you let go” (175).
This is not to say, however, that Wiesenthal did the wrong thing when he turned and walked away from the Nazi who begged forgiveness in his death bed. Afterall, Wiesenthal was a victim, and victims “have moral powers: to blame or resent, to forgive, and, if politically empowered, to punish or retaliate, exact reparations and apologies, and to pardon or show mercy” (Card 167).
Indeed, being a Jew during that era, with a Nazi asking for absolution for all the murders he had committed, was standing in a difficult situation. It was a moment in history when forgiveness was hard to come by, especially coming from a Jew to a Nazi. But for a Nazi to ask a Jew for forgiveness was even more unheard of. Hence, it may be worth leaving Wiesenthal’s shoes for a moment and take Karl’s place to understand why, after embracing the Nazi ideology which made it impossibly moral to kill, did he seek forgiveness.
Levi has an answer:
“What would this pardon have meant for the dying and for you? Probably a great deal for the former; a kind of sacralization, a purification which would have freed his religious conscience, all tardily aroused, from the terror of eternal punishment” (192)
In any case, Levi further says, forgive Karl, for Wiesenthal, would not have meant as much; that it would have been an empty formula and consequently a lie (192).
There is a grain of truth in that statement. On the other hand, Heschel’s opinion has as much truth as Levi’s but with clearly deeper insight:
“I would have forgiven, as much for my own peace as for Karl’s… My hope is that he finds peace and harmony in his heart, and if the memory is still a burden to him, that it be wiped away. No one, no memory, could have the power to hold us down, to deny us peace. Forgiving is the real power” (175).
As for a Nazi asking a Jew for forgiveness, it must have taken a great deal of humility to admit he had wronged. To admit he had his sins forced him to strip off his pride and offer a naked, vulnerable, demoralized version of himself. If all previously mentioned reasons fail, for the humility he courageously bent down to, Karl deserved to be forgiven.
Card, Claudia. The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil. New York: Oxford University Press, 167. 2002.
“Review: Simon Wiesenthal’s Sunflower.” ePinion.com. http://www.epinions.com/review/The_Sunflower_On_the_Possibilities_and_Limits_of_Forgiveness. 19 October 2008.
Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1997.
Younglove, Bill. “Review: The Sunflower: On The Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.” Mandel Fellowship Book Reviews. 19 October 2008. ;http://academic.kellogg.edu/mandel/younglove_rev.htm;