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Can repentant perpetrators of atrocities be forgiven?,
This review is from: The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (Paperback)Simon Wiesenthal is best known as the man who had been indefatigable and single-minded in trying to bring Nazi criminals to justice as long as there was a single one of them left. For him this was an absolute moral imperative and something that he felt he owed to the memory of the murdered millions of Jews, of whom Wiesenthal could so easily have been one: he was the survivor of a succession of concentration camps: the Janowska camp outside Lvov, Plaszow (the camp of Schindler's List), Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and finally Mauthausen. It may come as a surprise to some readers that Wiesenthal was sensitive to the moral problems raised by the issue of forgiveness - yet this book is a moving meditation on that theme. According to his biographer, Hella Pick, Wiesenthal had `always considered it his most important book'.
Cruelty and casual murder were everyday occurrences in the Janowska camp, and are described in gut-wrenching detail in the first half of this episode from Wiesenthal's life. While doing slave labour at a military hospital near the camp, he was secretly brought to the death-bed of Karl, a gravely wounded 21-year old SS officer whose conscience was wracked - not just at death's door, but apparently immediately after the event - by his participation in a horrific massacre of Jews in Dnepropetrovsk. The officer got a nurse to find `a Jew', who happened to be Wiesenthal, to whom he could make his confession and from whom he could seek forgiveness. Wiesenthal wanted to get away; but something - apart from the dying man's grip - made him stay to hear him out. A Catholic priest later told him that that alone should have helped the man to die in peace, since confession and genuine repentance are more important than any absolution. But at the end Wiesenthal left the room without saying anything. Quite apart from the sufferings he was himself undergoing at the hands of the SS just then and from his expectation of death at their hands at any moment, it was not for him to offer forgiveness on behalf of the victims of Dnepropetrovsk. But the issue haunted him - had he done the right thing? After the war he sought out the SS man's mother. The young man had come from a devout and Social Democrat family who were distressed when their son had joined the Hitler Youth and even more when he had volunteered to join the SS. But the mother was convinced that her son had been a good man. Wiesenthal said nothing to her about what her son had done... The short but haunting book charges the reader to put himself in Wiesenthal's shoes and to ask himself `What would I have done?'
Before publishing his book in 1969, Wiesenthal sent his manuscript to a number of distinguished thinkers for their response, and the comments of ten of them were included in the first edition. Further contributions were made by others to the 1997 and 1998 editions: there are now 53 altogether, and they make up nearly two-thirds of the book. They include - to name only the most famous - those of the Dalai Lama, Cardinal König, Primo Levi, Deborah Lipstadt, Herbert Marcuse, and Desmond Tutu.
Some of the respondents seem to me to veer away from the question Wiesenthal had posed, and draw a distinction between forgetting and forgiving; others discuss the question of collective guilt (some reject it; others blame all the bystanders) - interesting, but irrelevant in the context of this story. Almost all agree that whilst individuals can forgive offences committed against themselves, no human can forgive in the name of other victims. In such cases, if the victims cannot be asked because they are dead, perhaps only God can be asked for forgiveness - though one respondent says that God was hardly fit to forgive something which He had after all allowed to happen. And the Jewish tradition has it that even God will not forgive the unpardonable sin of murder. It is unpardonable, because it is the one sin for which reparation is impossible. The Christian tradition, basing itself on Jesus asking God to forgive them, `for they know not what they do', and on the idea that you must hate the sin, but not the sinner, shaped the answer of some Christian respondents. Some say that forgiveness is not only a boon to the penitent, but also for the victim, freeing him from the burden and poison of hate. Two Asian contributors, one a survivor from the Khmer Rouge and the other a victim of the Cultural Revolution in China, blame only the top leadership, and have some understanding for those who were brainwashed.
One respondent hopes that Karl will rot in hell; others also refuse to accept the genuineness of his repentance, indeed stress the offensiveness of him putting a Jew - chosen not as an individual but picked at random - under the moral burden of hearing the confession and being asked to forgive. Wiesenthal at least saw Karl as an individual and is capable of some compassion towards the dying man and later towards his mother (but one respondent thinks that Wiesenthal did wrong to shield her from the knowledge of what her son had done).
These are just some of the responses to Wiesenthal's question. It is a question addressed to all of us, and it is not surprising that this book has been used as a text in many courses on the Holocaust.