Towards the end of a long ago post about justice, I briefly touched on the concept of forgiveness. This is a topic I have been meaning to address for some time, dating back to last year and, really, almost back to the beginning of the blog. I never got around to it then, but I would like to do it now, as it is now the High Holidays and it seems like an opportune time. This also serves as a review of the book The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, as this book is centered around the nature and limits of forgiveness. I believe that most people misunderstand what forgiveness actually is and I will attempt to address the issue. This post will be written in two parts: the first is the book review, which will lead into my thoughts on forgiveness in the second part.
Saturday September 14 is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, considered by religious Jews the holiest day of the year. It is described in English as “the Day of Atonement” where Jews ask God for forgiveness for their transgressions in spiritual matters. But how does this relate to asking forgiveness from other people for transgressions against them? And how does one respond when someone who harmed you (or someone else – an important distinction) asks you for forgiveness? And do Jewish and Christian (and other religious and/or secular) views of forgiveness differ?
This is the central theme of The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. The book (really a non-fiction novella followed by a series of responsa) provides a variety of views and attempts to answer the essential question Wiesenthal poses in the story. This was originally written in the 1970’s and refers to events in the 1940’s but the themes remain relevant to this day. A revised edition with new responses was published in the 1990’s. As I mentioned in that earlier post, Simon Wiesenthal survived the Holocaust and devoted his life afterwards to locating escaped Nazis and bringing them to justice. In The Sunflower, Wiesenthal recalls an incident while in a Concentration Camp in 1943 when he was assigned to be part of a work detail for a few days cleaning a German army hospital. In that hospital there was a Nazi soldier near death from his battle wounds. Apparently he was aware that Jewish prisoners were at the hospital that day and requested to speak to one of the Jews in private, it just so happened that Wiesenthal was the one chosen. The soldier was obviously severely wounded and had also been blinded. He was also well aware that death would come soon. The soldier proceeded to describe an incident a year ago when he participated in the slaughter of a Jewish family by burning the house and shooting anyone trying to get out. He also vividly described the child, as that image continued to haunt him. And why was he telling all this to a Jew who was already well aware of these brutal methods and had already suffered greatly and would soon suffer even more or be dead himself? Well, the soldier new he was about to die and now his conscience had finally re-emerged – or perhaps he was concerned that he would not be heaven bound as a result of this great sin. In any event he claimed to feel great remorse for what he had done and asked Wiesenthal – as a member of the Jewish people – to forgive the Nazi for this sin. Wiesenthal was shocked and somewhat disgusted at that request. At the time, Wiesenthal said nothing and he returned to his work detail and managed to survive the Holocaust. But this incident continued to bother him. He wondered if he had done the right thing. The man seemed to be genuine in his remorse – so shouldn’t he have forgiven him? After the war, he was able to locate the dead soldier’s mother and went to visit her. He saw that this man apparently had a moral and religious upbringing and, as far as his mother knew, her son had been involved only in the war and had nothing to do with atrocities. Wiesenthal ended up not telling her what the soldier told him, leaving her in the dark. This caused him more psychological disturbance. Was this the right thing to do? Was it right to allow her to continue to believe her son was not involved in genocide? Was this the humane choice or is this dishonesty? But the final question he poses to the reader is: should he have forgiven the man? And what would the reader have done in that situation?
As many of the respondents to the symposium that follows were writers, several stated they would have been pleased to offer a literary criticism of the book, but what he had asked was actually far more difficult. Wiesenthal’s challenge puts the reader in the very difficult place to imagine oneself in a situation so horrible as to seem unfathomable to many (and for survivors to relive the most horrifying and traumatic time of their lives) and then respond to a request that seems unfathomable. On top of that they are to critique the actions of someone who found himself in that singular situation. Quite the task, but the revised and expanded edition contains 53 responses, of which only a selection of the first edition responses are included. There are Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, and secular commentators. Many are academics, in theology or secular disciplines such as the Humanities, others are authors. Others are religious leaders: rabbis, priests, and even the Dalai Lama. Most of the Christian commentators are Catholic, in large part because this was first published around the time of the Second Vatican Council, which had a focus on Christian-Jewish relations, and also because Karl, the SS officer in the story, was raised a Catholic so his request for forgiveness came from the viewpoint of a Catholic. A great many agree Wiesenthal’s decision was the correct one, though sometimes for different reasons, while others believe forgiveness should have been granted. Others seem to skirt this issue, by evasion or explicit refusal to answer, and instead address another aspect of that central theme. A very notable contribution that must be mentioned was written by Albert Speer. Speer was a high-ranking Nazi and a minister in Hitler’s government. At the Nuremburg Trials in 1946 he was one of the very few to plead guilty and perhaps the only one to publicly acknowledge responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and, after serving that term and after reading the Sunflower, began a correspondence with Wiesenthal, eventually resulting in a lengthy face-to-face meeting. In part, his response is a thank you for that meeting, praising Wiesenthal’s remarkable compassion, both towards Karl and later to Speer. As for forgiveness, he expects none, from Wiesenthal or even from himself. He acknowledges these crimes are unforgiveable; the best he can advocate is sincere repentance with the hope of receiving understanding and compassion, with no expectation or request of forgiveness.
There are so many big questions raised in this work and are open for commentary. One of the biggest issues raised is whether Wiesenthal has any right to forgive, as the crime confessed was done to someone else, now dead, and not him. Can one forgive on behalf of others? Is forgiveness based on a deathbed confession too easy, a form of “cheap grace”? And is Karl truly reformed and sincere, and thus potentially deserving of forgiveness, or do his actions still show an unchanged callousness right to the end? Finally, what of the mother? Was Simon right to withhold the truth of her son’s activities? Was this compassion, as most agree, or was it irresponsible? Stepping away from the incident itself, what, if any, are the limits to forgiveness? Is there such a thing as collective guilt (such as the guilt of the German nation for Nazi crimes)? And if so, can this collective guilt ever be forgiven? Is there a difference between forgiving and forgetting, and can one exist without – or with – the other? So many different questions and so many views on each question. It is a general pattern that Jewish respondents tend to say he shouldn’t forgive while more Christians say he should. Although my views will come next time, I want to note here that this pattern appears have much more to do with different approaches to and definitions of forgiveness between the two religions than from personal or emotional responses. I will attempt to address a few of these questions, based on how interesting the answers are and how much time and space I want to devote to this.
The Sunflower is a rather intense and thought-provoking read. To begin with, reading a first-hand account of a concentration camp experience can be difficult and emotional, especially when the writer is as gifted with words and mental imagery as Wiesenthal, since he can actually put you in that awful place. The book also serves as a partial and limited biography of the author’s life (he wrote a more complete account of his life and work in a later memoir) which gives some context to his decision to bring Nazi war criminals to justice (not to get revenge, as I mentioned in that earlier post). Next comes his challenge to the reader – what would you have done? Finally, though his story is now finished, the book is nowhere near its end. Such a diverse collection of commenters are featured it makes for very interesting reading. It is virtually certain a reader will strongly disagree with at least some of the opinions expressed, while most likely there will be others that fit perfectly with your views. Naturally, the cover gives top billing to the more famous, household names that are featured, such as the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu. However these replies are among the shortest and least involved essays, especially when there are far more detailed offerings from others that truly address the core of Wiesenthal’s question. There is even another entry that gives a reply from the Buddhist perspective that is more detailed and nuanced than that of the Dalai Lama.
Again, my discussion on forgiveness will come in the next post, but my very short response right now, is that from my view of forgiveness, Wiesenthal was completely correct in his actions, both regarding what he did and did not do. It is entirely consistent with an appropriate approach to forgiveness and being a compassionate person, despite the unimaginable circumstances. More details to follow.
A postscript. In a future post you will see something most interesting in this blog. It occupied a fair amount of my non-work time this summer and is one reason for lack of posting. I wrote an article based on the report of my final research project at school and will be published very shortly in an industry magazine. After waiting a certain required time after publication, I will be able to share it here with you. So stay tuned.