Grasping Forgiveness

Not long ago in the Freudian nomenclature the term forgiveness would seem out of place, but in recent years psychology has been changing, and how we viewforgiveness is an interesting example of that change. A number of psychologists now argue that healing of such wounds as child abuse for example is impossible as long as the victim is unwilling to forgive. 1(M. Scott Peck; psychologist) A case in point of a victim who was at one time unwilling to forgive, or unable to, is Simon Wiesenthal, the author of 2 The Sunflower, On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.

Wiesenthal is a Jew who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. One day he was taken from his work and brought by a nurse to the bedside of a dying SS member. The murderer wanted to confess all of his crimes and obtain absolution from a Jew, and the nurse was asked to bring him one, any Jew, Simon was chosen.

After the desperate dying SS member speaks to Wiesenthal about all of the horrible things he’s done to the Jewish people, and he confesses he regrets doing, he begs Simon for forgiveness, not knowing who he was. Knowing he was a Jew was all that mattered then. Faced with his choices Wiesenthal chooses to leave the SS members bedside without speaking. The SS member begged, and he did not try to justify his crimes, knowing that he deserved death, but Wiesenthal never said a word to him. Should this murderer have been forgiven? He certainly did not deserve compassion, or mercy, for these would never be granted from an SS member to a Jew.

Though it may be difficult, depending on our different circumstances, we should still try to grasp how necessary and liberating forgiveness can be, even for Wiesenthal when faced with the dying SS member, who murdered women and children. Being unforgivable enslaves the one who can’t forgive, and this conceives hate, where there is never any justice.

We must remember that murderers were not born as so, and Wiesenthal explains this well in his own words. Years later, after the war had ended, Wiesenthal spoke to the SS members’ mother, where he learned that his name was Karl. Wiesenthal writes, 3 “Karl had certainly been a ‘good boy. But a graceless period of his life had turned him into a murderer.” (Sunflower 95) Lower on this same page he wrote, “I reflect that people like him are still being born, people who can be indoctrinated with evil.”
When someone is so full of hate, one cannot expect that they will accept any ones forgiveness, because their hearts have grown so cold. Is there a possibility that the most evil of people can be forgiven? Is it even right to grant forgiveness to Karl, even if he did confess that he was wrong and sorry for the horrible crimes that he committed? We see when reading The Sunflower (54-55) that the sorrow Karl felt was genuine and he would never be able to forgive himself. So should Wiesenthal have had mercy, and told this man that he does not resent him anymore, and that although Karl is guilty of being a horrible person, he does not detest him? The killer would still have to live his few remaining days in misery over the horrible crimes he had committed, having nightmares till he took his last breath. There are people who would say that this punishment is enough. Why would Wiesenthal hold onto this hate anyway? Does he want his inner wounds to continue hurting? Does he want to remain a victim? If he desires healing, the only way to receive this would be by forgiving. But how can he forgive such a man, who slaughtered his people and tortured them?

4 Harold S. Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natrick, Massachusetts. He is also an author. His comments about forgiveness directed to The Sunflower are very influential. He says, “Forgiving is not something we do for another person, as the Nazi asked Wiesenthal to do for him. Forgiving happens inside us. It represents a letting go of the sense of grievance, and perhaps most importantly a letting go of the role of victim. For a Jew to forgive the Nazis would not mean, God forbid, saying to them ‘What you did was understandable, I can understand what led you to do it and I don’t hate you for it.’ It would mean saying ‘What you did was thoroughly despicable and puts you outside the category of decent human beings. But I refuse to give you the power to define me as a victim. I refuse to let your blind hatred define the shape and content of my Jewishness. I don’t hate you; I reject you.’ And then the Nazi would remain chained to his past and to his conscience, but the Jew would be free.” Kushner has the right idea.

Is there a time where to forgive someone might be wrong? Some people would say yes, forgiveness can be wrong. 5 This is how Maj. Gen. U.S Army Officer, Sidney Shachnow felt after he read The Sunflower. He says, “Simon Wiesenthal was right in not granting forgiveness, for two reasons. First, he did not have the moral right to do so, and second this savage did not deserve it. He stepped over the boundary where forgiveness is possible. That SS officer should take up his case with God. I personally think he should go to hell and rot there. I doubt very much that my God would grant him forgiveness. After all, what does it take to serve in hell?” (243) People like General Shachnow, who say forgiveness can be wrong, are they not people who try to justify their hate? When you don’t forgive someone, doesn’t this mean you resent what they’ve done to you? The unforgiven is obviously regarded with strong ill will, and this defines hate, so when you resent someone this means you hate them also. And when you hate someone you are a murderer in a “sense”, because in your heart the one you hate, and choose to resent is dead to you. There is no justifying the crimes of the SS member Karl, who sought after forgiveness from Wiesenthal, but is there a just reason that Wiesenthal had not to forgive this man? The definition for just is being right in law and ethics, fair minded, and having good intention. In a world where violence seems to be ever increasing, can any person truly afford to hate or not forgive anybody?

Is there a just reason to forgive Karl, or any killer Nazis? Is there a possibility of unity between a Nazi and a Jew? Certainly not, because a Nazi hates a Jew, and a Jew can never trust a Nazi. Just perhaps though, an unjust treated man can accept an apology from a sincerely sorry man, who is on his death bed. There’s no doubt that many Germans’ encouraged hate towards the Jews’ during World War II, especially the SS members of the Nazi Party, of whom Karl was a part of. 6 On August 15, 1935, in Berlin thousands of Germans gathered at a mass rally in order to listen to antisemitic speeches and to hear of a future Germany cleansed of Jews. There were two banners that read: “The Jews Are Our Misfortune” and “Women and girls, the Jews are your ruin.” (Daniel Jonah Goldhagen) 7 The Jews were not even slaves in the traditional manner, because slaves are not supposed to be socially dead, they are depended on for production and even honor. (Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners 168-169) Many times slaves lived within society, and had social relations and ties to the oppressors. There is certainty that to the majority of Germans, the Jews were socially dead. All they wanted from the Jews was their suffering and death; there was no other purpose for them. These Germans were so prideful that they thought of themselves as the ultimate race, and their arrogance and longing for power caused many of them to become evil. They believed that they were super humans, perhaps like Greek gods of mythology. The Greek gods who were selfish beings that used humanity for basically entertainment, and usually cared very little about their problems, because the humans were not comparable to them; In this way many Germans were trying to brainwash their fellows into believing that other human beings apart from them were of little importance when compared to the German race. And the Jews were thought of as sub humans. The Nazis during World War II, were worse then the gods of Greek mythology because they planned on being rid of all other perceived lesser races of human beings, starting with the Jews. 8 Their ideology claimed that members of the master race could be created in a methodical way, and could just as easily advocate the methodical extermination of all lesser races. There was a pamphlet put out by the SS command that described the Jew in these words: 9 “From a biological point of view he seems completely normal. He has hands and feet and a sort of brain. He has eyes and a mouth. But, in fact, he is a completely different creature, a horror. He only looks human, with a human face, but his spirit is lower than that of an animal. A terrible chaos runs rampant in this creature, an awful urge for destruction, primitive desires, unparalleled evil, a monster, and subhuman.” (Tom Segev, Soldiers of Evil 80-81) Can a German, who believes like this, be forgiven by a Jew, who they don’t even consider to be human? If these SS members think that they are super humans, then why would they ever accept forgiveness from a petty creature that is less than an animal? It seems that the only way an SS soldier would even ask for forgiveness from a Jew is if he realized that his beliefs about them were wrong. The SS member would have to be convinced that Jews were human beings, not less than animals, but equal to a German, before he could ask a Jew for forgiveness.

The apology would have to be man to man, not Nazi to a Jew, or a god to a creature. When Karl confessed his crimes to Wiesenthal, and sought after his forgiveness, what he was saying was, “I am not better than you, and I am guilty of killing innocent human beings, not creatures of horror full of unparalleled evil.” In fact the realization that Karl came to while he was dying in misery was that he was the different creature, a horror with a human face, with a terrible chaos running rampant inside him. He was the monster and subhuman, not the Jews. It’s truly ironic that when Karl begged Wiesenthal to forgive him, he knew that he was the one who was less human then the Jew. So the position Wiesenthal was truly in was that he had his enemy dying before him, and admitting that he was not superior in any way to a Jew. This enemy gave Wiesenthal a respect that was unimaginable coming from a Nazi directed to a Jew. He needed something desperately from someone his peers would consider to be a worthless creature, but who Karl now saw as a savior. The enemies pride was gone and he knew that he was going to die a worthless creature of destruction and death. Imagine a Greek god asking a human being to forgive him of his sins, and confessing to this man that he was worthless in his sight, hardly comparable to the greatness of a human, because a human has a soul. Well, Karl may have felt like he gained much when he first put on his SS uniform, but what did this profit him, if he traded his soul? He was dying with nothing, so in knowing this why couldn’t Wiesenthal be the better “person” and grant him forgiveness in the proper manner? Perhaps he could have said, “You are not even worth hating, for you have ruined yourself, and you will die knowing that you were a killer for Hitler, nothing more. So, I truly pity you and I am sorry for you. Because although you will be buried with family and friends mourning over you, and a beautiful sunflower will be planted over your grave, you will still die knowing that you chose to be a murderer, and a monster. I will probably leave with a painful death and be buried in a shallow grave along with the rest of my people, and no person will care or remember us, but at least I will die knowing I am a man, and not a monster. I cannot speak on behalf of all the other Jews, whom you have murdered or made to suffer, and there is no justifying your crimes to them, but I forgive you for the pain you’ve caused me. I will no longer allow myself to be emotionally affected by you, or any other member of the SS. I choose to not hate you, because I see you as a pitiful creature that has nothing to hope for, and this is how I would have seen you if you were still killing us in your SS uniform. You were not only blind, and a lost child, but you were already dead years ago. Because you see, when you chose to join the SS Nazis you gave your life and soul to Hitler, and he used your members to do his bidding. Every time you took a life you lost more of your own, and you lost more of your soul, because you were constantly giving more of yourself to Hitler’s will. My life has never really been taken, nor will it ever be, for I do not hand over my life to anyone in regards to what I know is morally wrong and damaging to my soul. However when I leave this world, I believe I will die in peace now. Thanks for showing me that there is still hope for humanity, and unity, even between a monster and a man, or even a German and a Jew. Goodbye now.”

Could Wiesenthal have rightly forgiven the SS member Karl? Whether, or not he could have is irrelevant now. People have had much time to think about this situation that Wiesenthal was in, and meditate on the choices that could have been made in the room where the dying SS member laid. We must not forget though that Wiesenthal was the one who truly faced the mire and torture that these SS members had put people through. We could never truly know what we would have done, or said, if we were in Wiesenthal’s place. There is certainty though that he didn’t make a wrong choice by keeping silent, because his response to Karl, or lack there of, was left open for interpretation, and Karl took his last breath knowing that a Jew had listened to his confession. Karl knew this man left knowing in his heart that the apology he heard was sincere, and this is well enough. If we are grasping for an understanding of forgiveness, remember the question that we can be thankful Wiesenthal has left for us. We can ask ourselves, “What would I have done?” Perhaps there should now be another question you have after reading this, “Can you truly justify a reason to hate, or not forgive anybody?”

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