On this day, Tuesday September 20, 2005, Simon Wiesenthal, the famous “Nazi hunter” died at age 96. Though I plan on taking a vacation from these forums for a while, this thread is started as a (very) small token of memoriam for Wiesenthal.
Simon Wiesenthal wrote a book called The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. In the book, he recounts his experiences in Nazi concentration camps. Toward the end of the Nazi regime, Wiesenthal was approached by a dying young SS officer who confessed to his participation in atrocities against the Jews. A former Christian, the man did not want to die without confession—but it was a strange sort of confession. He confessed, not to shame or remorse over his actions, but to doubt, and the fear of dying without “coming clean.” So he sought out a Jew—any Jew—to whom to make confession. That Jew turned out to be Wiesenthal. He asked Wiesenthal for forgiveness, not for anything he had done to Wiesenthal or his family, but for what he had done to Jews in general.
Wiesenthal walked out without offering forgiveness. Later, Wiesenthal met the SS officer’s mother, and discovered that she and the man’s father had strongly opposed their son’s joining the Nazi party and, especially, the SS. The father had died without ever speaking to the son again. The mother wanted to believe that her son had not taken part in horrible acts, and Wiesenthal could not bring himself to be cruel to her, so he did not tell her the truth.
Later in life, Wiesenthal questioned whether, in fact, he should have forgiven the young man. So, at the end of his account in The Sunflower, he asked the question of the readers of the book. The remainder of the book is a series of responses by people of different religious backgrounds: Jews, Christians, Buddhists….
One of the respondents is Rabbi Harold Kushner (author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People and When is Good, Good Enough?). Kushner, noting that the Nazi SS officer did not renounce his deeds or his Nazism, and that he randomly picked out “any Jew” to ask forgiveness, said: “His plea for forgiveness was addressed to someone who lacked the power (let alone the right) to grant it.”
Addressing forgiveness itself—the act of forgiving—Kushner said:
“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 [absent a true repentance and the possibility of God’s grace, which could remove the stain from the man’s soul, like excising a cancer—a possibility Kushner notes earlier in his essay] would remain chained to his past and to his conscience, but the Jew would be free.”
For Kushner, forgiveness principally means that I, as the forgiver, will not be bound to anger, resentment, hate but will relinquish them for the sake of my own freedom and well-being. I found Kushner’s response to be especially helpful at a time in my life when I was dealing with this issue.
And so, here is the question that Wiesenthal poses: “…change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, “What would I have done?”