Forgiveness: Its Possibilities and Limits

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Simon Wiesenthal recalls his experience as a concentration camp inmate. He describes the camp’s living conditions, especially an incident in which he was taken to the deathbed of a Nazi SS officer who begged Simon’s forgiveness. Karl, the SS soldier, outlined his atrocities against Jews and begged Simon’s mercy for the many Jews they had slaughtered. Simon walked out without saying something or forgiving him. Silence and unforgiveness was the best response because; Karl’s repentance was selfish and insincere, he sought forgiveness from the wrong person, the physical and emotional pain suffered in the concentration camp could not allow forgiveness, and there is no such thing as collective guilt (repentance) or collective forgiveness. My answer is not a religious one but a moral one.

Karl’s repentance was selfish and insincere. It is my argument that one cannot selfishly seek to die in peace after living an entire life robbing others of the very peace. Had he asked for forgiveness from Simon, not on his deathbed, but when in a position to prove his repentance, the response might have been different. So what purpose would Simon’s forgiveness serve? He only asked for forgiveness because he was about to die. Karl freely joined the army, and out of free will participated in all the atrocities committed against the Jews. In his story, Karl explained of the many times he felt terrible when he saw a Jewish family (Wiesenthal 43). The question is, why did he not seek forgiveness then, when he was strong and able to prove his forgiveness by doing something for the Jews? Harold Kushner, a Rabbi of Temple Israel in Natick, opines that when we seek forgiveness, it is something that happens inside us, such that one chooses to act differently in future. In this sense, Karl’s intensions for forgiveness are insincere and selfish.

Simon’s silence and unforgiveness was the best response. This was a moment that Karl choose closure from the life he lived so that he died in peace. Had Simon spoken, whether or not he would forgive him, it is likely that he would explain the kind of pain and suffering Karl and the Nazi soldiers inflicted on the Jews. Since this happened in the past, talking about it was no solution, more so, because Karl only wanted to get rid of the guilty feeling he had inside. Although some argue that Simon’s silence was more of a torture to Karl, since he did not know what Simon was thinking, I disagree because Wiesenthal was not in a position to speak for the hundreds of Jews that had been killed. At the same time, Simon’s silence has a moral bearing in that, had he told Karl no, or explained his decision, he would later feel awful for refusing a dying man his wish.

There is no such thing as collective guilt or collective forgiveness. The victims are the only ones who suffered directly from the SS soldier’s atrocities. No one can speak for them, or forgive on their behalf. If they did not die in peace, it is them who would determine if their torturer should die in peace. However, The Dalai Lama holds the view that one should forgive a person or group of people but not forget the atrocities committed. On the contrary, Sven Alkalaj, a Bosnian Ambassador to the USA, in his response to Wiesenthal’s question rejects the idea of collective guilt. He opines that there should be state responsibility to genocide such that punishment for the guilty serves a measure of justice which is crucial for forgiveness and reconciliation. In Sven’s view, if genocide is not punished, that is a precedent of future genocide. Collective guilt does not exist, and consequently there is no collective forgiveness.

Forgiveness, like the one Karl was looking for can only be given by God. In this sense, asking Simon for forgiveness, by the mere fact that he is a Jew, is going to the wrong person. At the same time, asking a Jew in prison, living in deplorable conditions, for forgiveness shows how oblivious he was of the Jew’s suffering. For one, Simon was suffering in the hands of the soldiers, why would he forgive one of those who were torturing them? If Karl did not look up to God for his answer he was looking for it in the wrong place. Harold Kushner, a Rabbi of Temple Israel in Natick, says that forgiveness comes from God, and God chooses to when he wants, not when we say so. Karl addressed his desire for forgiveness to a person who did not have the power or the right to forgive.

The physical and emotional pain suffered in the concentration camp could not allow forgiveness. Wiesenthal and his friends went through physical and emotional pain and torture in the concentration camps. Arthur, Simon’s friend in the concentration camp, delight in the fact that there is one less Nazi solder (Wiesenthal 64) to torture them, indicates how much they wanted the pain and torture to stop. It is likely that every Jew in the concentration camp hated the soldiers. Simon did the better thing, instead of showing him hatred or explaining to him how their actions hurt them, he choose silence and walked out. Eva Fleischner, a professor of religion at Montclair State University, notes how Karl is oblivious of the inhuman conditions and suffering Simon and other Jews were in. She says that the fact that Simon was called to him room meant punishment, including death. He seems to esteem his suffering than that of the Jews. Since he had been living with them, why had he not done something to ameliorate their fate? In fact, on his deathbed, it would have been better to speak to his fellow SS to stop with the inhuman treatment of the Jews that one of the suffering prisoners.

At the end of his story, Wiesenthal asks his readers, “What would you have done (98). I, like Wiesenthal would have walked away in silence. My reason would be that, Karl’s intentions for seeking forgiveness were insincere and selfish. He only wanted to die in peace, but did not care if the Jews continued to suffer. Additionally, collective guilt and collective forgiveness does not exist. One cannot purport to forgive people who wronged others. Also, Simon was not the right person to ask for such kind of forgiveness. If Karl wanted to die in peace, he should have sought forgiveness from God, who has the power to get rid of the guilty feeling he felt inside. Finally, the suffering that Simon and other Jews were suffering in the concentration camp could not allow him to forgive him. The Jews continued to suffer, forgiveness is supposed to birth reconciliation and this was not Karl’s intention. Perpetrators of genocide should be punished, only then can the victims feel justice has been served. Perhaps this can be the foundation of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Work Cited

Wiesenthal, Simon. On the Sunflower on the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 3-98.

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