Could you forgive a Nazi soldier? So many horrible crimes were committed during the Holocaust and so many people suffered that it is almost inconceivable to think of showing mercy and forgiveness to the very people who mercilessly tortured the Jews. It is infuriating to think that people could commit such atrocious crimes and then expect to be forgiven so that they can die with a clear conscience.
This is exactly the situation that Simon Wiesenthal, a Jew, was faced with. While he was imprisoned in a concentration camp he was taken to the bedside of a dying SS soldier named Karl. Karl confessed to atrocious crimes he had committed and then asked Wiesenthal for his forgiveness so that he could die with a clear conscience. Wiesenthal was in such utter shock that he left in silence, thereby not granting the forgiveness that Karl so desperately sought. Did Wiesenthal do the right thing? One question to first answer is, what did the silence mean? Personally, I interpret the silence to be an act of shock and confusion, not an unwillingness to forgive. Wiesenthal simply did not know what to do. At the same time he obviously did not offer his forgiveness to Karl. Should Wiesenthal have offered his forgiveness to Karl? If I were in his situation, I think I would have reacted the same way–silence. Not forgiving or refusing to forgive; I would have been in too great of shock to be able to say anything. What Wiesenthal should have done takes further exploration and consideration.
As we investigate this issue further we must realize that any response to Wiesenthals question will be simplistic or only partial unless both aspects of forgiveness are addressed. There are two main aspects of forgiveness, both with very different meanings. One is to excuse from fault or offense. The second is to stop feeling anger for or resentment against a persons wrongdoing. By the first definition my answer is a definite no. Personally, I dont believe that Wiesenthal had the authority to grant forgiveness in that sense because he had not been the one wronged by Karl. By the second definition, however, my answer is a definite yes. This is not something that Wiesenthal could have done at the time, however. It is something that, eventually, he needed to do for himself.
Christopher Hollis, a British journalist, adamantly believes that the law of God is the law of love, and when this is broken it must be fixed as soon as possible. And so it makes sense that he also believes that we are under obligation to forgive our fellow human beings even when they have offended us repeatedly and severely. He also believes that since Karl was truly remorseful he deserved a word of compassion from Karl. (Hollis 175-80).
Cardinal Franz Konig, on the other hand, says that Wiesenthal did Karl a favor by just listening to him. However, what is possibly still haunting Wiesenthal is that he did not verbally offer forgiveness to Karl. Konig points out that Christ emphatically states in the gospels that there is no limit to forgiveness, and therefore Wiesenthal did pass up the chance to offer his forgiveness to Karl, although in those circumstances, doing so would have been “superhuman” (Konig 182-3).
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel offers another perspective. He adamantly believes that no one can forgive crimes not committed against them personally. He says that it is preposterous to think that someone alive can forgive on behalf of the millions dead (Heschel 171). Here we have to look, once again, at the two meanings of forgiveness. It is preposterous to think that Wiesenthal could pardon Karl. However, he could, at a later date, release his resentment towards Karl for his own personal healing.
Ultimately, I think that Wiesenthal did the kind and honest thing by saying nothing. He let the man confess his crimes, which was a genuine act of kindness, but he did not offer forgiveness, which would have been dishonest since that is not what he felt. Wiesenthal did not owe Karl anything. He was not the one who committed the crime.
Although Wiesenthal faces both levels of forgiveness, his immediate response was the only possible one at the time. His silence does not equal a refusal to forgive, rather a natural response to a shocking situation. He has every right to feel resentment toward Karl for placing such a heavy burden on him–one which he didnt deserve. However, he needs to get rid of that anger and resentment by forgiving, or it will turn him into a bitter person. Karl is dead; therefore Wiesenthal is the only one still suffering the consequences of his silence. He cannot undo the silence, or the effects of the silence, but he can release the hatred and forgive without excusing Karl or wiping the slate clean.
After weighing all of the positives and negatives of Wiesenthal choosing not to forgive Karl, I sincerely believe that he did the right thing at that time. However, years later he is still haunted by the incident and is still pondering whether or not he did the right thing in not forgiving Karl. I still do not believe it was his duty to pardon Karl, but for Wiesenthals own benefit he needs to forgive in the sense of giving up his own resentment towards Karl. Karl is dead. This action would not benefit Karl, rather it would free Wiesenthal. It is not a sign of weakness or a way of condoning the evil done, rather it is a way for Wiesenthal to free himself to heal. As Jose Hobday says, “No one, no memory, should have the power to hold us down, to deny us peace. Forgiving is the real power.”
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. “Response.” The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 170-71.
Hobday, Jose. “Response.” The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 174-75.
Hollis, Christopher. “Response.” The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 175-80.
Konig, Cardinal Franz. “Response.” The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 182-83.
Wiesenthal, Simon. “The Sunflower.” The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 3-98.