Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision. You…can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, “What would I have done?” (Wiesenthal, 97-98).
However, before I can answer to Simon Wiesenthal questions on forgiveness, I should ask myself what does forgiveness really mean and what does it take to forgive someone? Is there a difference between forgiving and forgetting? As Bonny Fetterman writes in the editor’s introduction, “Is it possible to forgive and not forget?” (xii). A long time ago, I learned the difference between forgiving and forgetting myself when at some point of my life I was terribly hurt by an action of another person. Time has passed, thus, I realized that I could recall all the details of that incident as it happened yesterday. Yet, I felt no sadness, no anger, and no tension, neither when I thought about the incident nor when I saw the individual who had caused me so much pain.
Therefore, there were more people who shared similar experiences. For example, Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor, is one of them. At the age of 10, Eva and her twin sister were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where they were subjected to medical experimentation by Dr. Josef Mengele. The sisters went through horrifying and torturous conditions that no one could ever imagine. Eva was the only one who survived. Many years later, this woman finds the strength inside herself to speak about her unforgettable past before millions of people. According to her personal story, there was no bitterness, no anger, and no hatred towards those who hurt her and her twin sister. Moreover, Eva Kor decides to do an unimaginable thing, to forgive those who abused her and killed members of her family. She chooses to forgive not for the benefits of her enemies, but for herself. She just wants to be free from her painful past and forgiveness was the only key to move on with her life. So that only leaves me with the answer to Fetterman’s question that yes, it is possible to forgive a person while the memories are still alive.
Forgiveness, as I think, is one of the fundamental principles of true religion that goes along with justice. For instance, sometimes our passion for justice can trap us in our bitterness and grief, and then it is forgiveness that can sometimes rescue us. Simon Wiesenthal was in a similar situation. He dedicated his whole life to the unforgiving search for those who were responsible for the murder of millions of innocent lives and bring them to justice. Therefore, he failed to reveal the true forgiveness, because he did not free himself from that dead weight of his past. Simon was hurt so deeply that his painful memories of Holocaust robbed him of his future. It prevented him to move on with his life at the moment of his injury, overwhelming his whole existence. According to Wiesenthal words, “Years of suffering had inflicted deep wounds on my faith that justice existed in the world. It was impossible for me simply to restart my life from the point at which it had been so ruthlessly disrupted” (Wiesenthal, 83-84).
But again, how could Simon forgive something unforgiveable? How could he make himself forget the heinous crimes committed against his people? People can not be given a command to forgive, and there are clearly situations where every instinct of justice commands us them not to forgive. According to Cardinal Franz Konig in his Symposium commentary in The Sunflower, “The distinction between whether we canforgive and whether we mayforgive still leaves unresolved the question of whether we should forgive” (182). From Konig’s point of view, despite Simon walking away from the dying man without saying a word of forgiveness, he did him a great service by staying at his deathbed and listened to his confessions. Konig believes that Wiesenthal may have felt guilty for not forgiving that young man and that feeling of guilt hunted him for the rest of his days. Konig says to Wiesenthal: “You had an opportunity to put forward an act of almost superhuman goodness in the midst of a subhuman and bestial world of atrocities. The fact that you did not take advantage of this opportunity may be what still haunts you as a striving human being” (182-183).
On the other hand, there were people who believed that Simon did not dare to forgive the dying soldier. One such person was Harry James Cargas, who is the author of thirty-one books and the only Catholic ever appointed to the International Advisory Board of Yad Vashem. He claims that Simon Wiesenthal did not have the right to forgive. According to Cargas’s response, “For me the question is not can we forgive Karl or should we forgive Karl, but dare we do so?…Forgiveness is not something we depend on others for. We must somehow earn it. Deathbed conversations are dramatic, but in many instances they are too easy” (125). Though, I would personally forgive the dying Nazi, Cargas still uses a heavy argument. Simon would probably have no right to forgive Karl in the name of all Jewish people who had not authorized him to do so. Only the wronged people can decide whether or not to forgive their murders. However, as we all know, the victims of the dying Nazi could not be there to make that decision, because none of those who were wronged were still alive. For Karl, Simon was the only chance to repent and to die at peace with himself.
Forgiveness itself is an emotional and spiritual process that does not always come easy. The journey to true, genuine forgiveness often lies through the pain and sufferings. Forgiveness is something that takes time. In the situation with Simon, he did not have that time. Besides that, how could Simon help the dying Nazi when he was himself helpless? Sometimes he did not believe as all that was the reality. From Wiesenthal’s words, “It all seemed to be doubtful and unreal as our whole existence in those days…it could not have been all true; it was a dream induced by hunger and despair…it was too illogical – like the whole of our lives” (67). Thus, Simon could not give what Karl was asking for; I believe that he was already moving in the direction of forgiveness in his thoughts. I come to this point because Simon could never stop thinking about the dying soldier and his plea at the deathbed after the war was over. Moreover, Simon sought for the opinions of others, which tells me that Simon was indeed still moving in the direction of forgiveness, but only through the critical thinking of his readers. If Simon himself did not have enough strength to forgive the Nazi soldier, maybe there would be some people who would understand the dying man and forgive him his crimes for Simon.
In his thoughts, Wiesenthal seemed to believe that Karl was different. There was a moment when Simon realized that his feelings towards the dying man had tended toward sympathy. He believed that Karl was not born a murderer nor did he want to be one. It was the Nazis who turned him to be a man he was, and who ordered him to kill thousands of defenseless people. Even Karl’s attitude toward him was not of an arrogant superman (67). But then Simon started questioning the honesty of the dying soldier. Was there true confession in his repentance? According to many of the commentators of The Sunflower, Karl was perceived as a selfish man, who wanted to remorse because he found himself facing the death. Many of them also believed that the dying Nazi soldier had not learned anything from his experience, and that it was not important for him to whom to confess, as long as that person was a Jew.
While some people say that Karl did not deserve to be forgiven in any case, I personally believe that Karl should have gotten Simon’s absolution, because he showed the genuine repentance. He was ready to pay the price for his crimes. According to Karl’s words, “Believe me, I would be ready to suffer worse and longer pains if by that means I could bring back the dead…I am left here with my guilt” (53-54). I also would have forgiven him, because he was in close relation with his church when he was a little boy. I felt sorry for Karl: for me he was a victim of Hitler’s evil ideology that turned him to a murder and shattered his faith in God. From Karl’s confession to Simon, “When I was a little boy I believed with my mind and soul in God and in the commandments of the Church. Then everything was easier. If I still had that faith I am sure death would not be so hard” (53). Simon, on the other hand, had failed his faith’s commandment by not giving him the mercy of forgiveness.
Simon’s friend, Bolek, at the Auschwitz camp echoes my position in that Simon should have granted him forgiveness, because Karl was honest in his confession. According to his words, “When one is face to face with death one doesn’t lie. On his deathbed he apparently returned to the faith of his childhood and he died in peace because you listened to his confession…Repentance is the most important element in seeking forgiveness. And he certainly repented…and you failed to grant his last request” (82-83). Edward Flannery, for example, states that, “…the forgiveness must always be granted to the sincerely repentant…and should always be granted” (136-137). I personally agree with Flannery’s opinion on forgiveness. I believe that the dying Nazi soldier recognized his sins and felt sincere remorse, and if he sincerely requested forgiveness, Simon should have granted it. Withholding forgiveness is cruel and is itself a sin.
Nevertheless, I still can see why Simon’s response to the dying man was answered with silence. Forgiveness is a long process. It takes a good amount of time for the wound to heal, before a person can come to his decision whether or not to forgive his wrongdoer. Simon did not have that time; moreover, he did not even know if he would live another day. Here he was as much as helpless as the dying soldier. Karl was not granted forgiveness officially; therefore, I think he was potentially forgiven. Karl wanted to be heard; he needed someone to confess in order to free himself from the dead weight on his heart and soul. I believe that repentance was a change of Karl’s heart and mind that helped him acknowledge the reality of what he had done and the kind of a person he was. Unfortunately, Karl will never get his chance to repair the damage he has done to others during the war.
As for Simon, the silence prevented him from sealing the feeling of guilt and regret later in life. He felt moral obligation not to forget about the victims of the Holocaust and their families. His dedication of the unforgiving search for Nazi criminals helped Wiesenthal keep the memories of those who lost their lives in the Holocaust alive. However, according to essayists of The Sunflower, there will be people who will understand Simon’s decision and there will be people, who will never forgive him for refusing him to grant Karl forgiveness. Therefore, people should not judge Wiesenthal, because they will never be able to fully understand him, since they have not had his experience. For me and others, forgiveness is granted to Karl for his crimes because he proved to us that he still was a human by trying to rescue his humanity through confession. There is nothing wrong with Karl resting in peace. He ultimately paid the price for his crimes with his own life. I am hoping that silently inside himself Simon has also forgiven Karl not for him and what he had done, but for himself. Thus, that does not imply that Wiesenthal should forget about the atrocities any more than I think that the world should forget that the Holocaust occurred. As Sven Alkalaj, the ambassador of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the United States, says, “Forgetting the crimes would be worse than forgiving the criminal who seeks forgiveness, because forgetting the crime devalues the humanity that perished in these atrocities” (102). We should not forget our history, if we do not want to repeat the same mistakes twice. To remember atrocities presents the chance of avoiding them in the future. Forgiveness, on the other hand, presents us with a chance to restore our lives and peace with each other.