Does Forgiveness Exist?

by:

John C. Taylor & Claudia Plazas

        Mr. Simon Wiesenthal has lived through one of the most horrific and dangerous events in our recent history. He is a Jewish believer, during World War II lived in an area of Europe that was conquered by Germany. Because he was a Jew he was forced to live in a ghetto and then sent to a work camp where he faced the possibility of death every day. During his time of working in a camp in his hometown the most extraordinary opportunity presented itself to him. He was summoned by a nurse to hear the dying confessions of an SS Nazi soldier. The soldier wanted forgiveness on behalf of all Jewish people for the things he had done to their fellow brothers. He asked for forgiveness as he was dying because he was afraid that his soul would not be able to rest eternally unless he was forgiven. Simon tries continuously to leave the room in fear of his own life, and also because of his learned hatred of Nazis. He stays and listens to the dying man out of pity and also because the soldier asks and begs him not to leave.

        The soldier, Karl, was adamant that he needed Simon to hear his gruesome story in order to save himself and, more importantly, he needed Simon’s forgiveness to be able to rest peacefully. Simon recognized that Karl was showing true repentance but Simon could not decide if that was enough to forgive him. He also knew that Karl was ignorant, selfish, and a member of the group that had taken away the lives of his friends and family. When Karl finished his story and asked forgiveness from Simon, Simon became psychologically overwhelmed with everything that had happened. His choice was to not forgive the dying man. He chooses simply to walk out of the room in silence.

        That night he discussed this with his friends and they applauded him for vengeful, religious, and logical reasons. But that was not enough for Simon. The next day the same nurse approached Simon while he was working and told him that Karl died and wished that Simon take his personal belongings. Simon’s reaction is to refuse them, and they are eventually sent back to Karl’s mother. For the rest of his story Simon could not find inner peace because of his past meeting with the dying man. He constantly second guessed himself and asked the opinions of people he met. He ends his story of personal hell by asking readers what they would have done if they were him (Wiesenthal).

        Simon asks readers what they would have done if they were him and not what they would have done in that situation themselves. This is the first problem I see with his question. For me, the truth is that if I were Simon Wiesenthal I would have grown up in Europe as a Jew, graduated from school, been taken into the ghettos and work camps, and made the same choices he made. I am no more rational a human being than he is and I believe that by wording his question in this way he has presented the possibility that the reader could have made a better decision in Simon’s place.

        The second problem is that by asking what others would have done in his place it shows that he wishes for the support and agreement of others rather than knowledge and learning. I get the impression that he seeks peace of mind from other people instead of from himself. I don’t think he can gain peace of mind from other people because only he has lived his life. I believe that he can learn from other people and use that knowledge in the future to help make decisions. My point is that what’s done is done and all you can do now is decide who you wish to be at the present moment. By seeking the approval of others on a past decision he is yearning for acceptance instead of looking to learn from his past and the opinions and insights of others.

        I can see the most obvious reasons to not forgive a Nazi soldier for killing innocent people. They are based on revenge and the idea of an "eye for an eye". That is the easiest way to handle something as difficult as this. But when I am presented with a philosophical question I have no desire to answer it in any way that would promote fear and hate. It is the bigger person who can rise above the pettiness of the situation to make an informed, rational decision. I see no reason to practice philosophical beliefs that could influence my actions in a way that would not prove to be the best choice possible. In the response section of The Sunflower the majority of the Jewish respondents state that Simon had no right to forgive Karl. Some of the Jewish respondents are also survivors of the Holocaust. For instance, Andre Stein is a professor at the University of Toronto and he argues that, "The consequences of participating in genocidal acts must include dying with a guilty conscience" (Stein 252). Mr. Stein gives a clear answer but we must realize that he is a Holocaust survivor and his answer could be swayed by memories of hatred. At the same time we must also leave room for the possibility that Mr. Stein has since found peace within himself and could be making a clear and well thought out belief. It is easy to make the assumption that possible Jewish loathing of Nazis would lead them to attempt to inflict pain on the Nazis, the same pain that the Nazis had wrongly inflicted upon them. However, they also base their arguments on religious reasons that tell them they can not forgive. Dennis Prager is a religious Jew who responds to Wiesenthal’s question and explains why Jews can not forgive the Nazis – "God himself does not forgive a person who has sinned against a human being unless that human being has been forgiven by his victim. Therefore, people can never forgive murder, since the one person who can forgive is gone, forever" (Prager 226). The majority of the Jewish responses state that even if Simon had forgiven Karl it would have been a false forgiveness, because he does not have the authority to forgive someone for an act that was done to another. This religious doctrine makes it difficult for non-Jews to determine how much of the Jewish responses are based on religion and how much are based on revenge.

        There are several different reasons to forgive Karl, based on the responses. One is the Christian teaching that in order to be forgiven one only has to ask. Dennis Prager claims that the reason Christians with such ease is because "the belief that God loves everyone, no matter how evil, makes it impossible for a believing Christian to hate evil people and therefore difficult to fight them" (229). Buddhism is another religion that teaches to forgive, but Buddhists make an important distinction that you should never forget because forgetting would allow it to happen again. Buddhists teach to always have compassion for your fellow man and never to act violently towards another. Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist, explains: "True compassion must embrace all things and everyone: the worthy and the guilty, the friend and the foe. No matter how bad someone is we believe that the basic goodness remains" (Ricard 235). Buddhists believe that with this belief comes compassion, unity, and love, and without it all would be lost. The last reason I found to forgive the SS soldier in the responses was not religious. Dith Pran is a survivor from the genocide in Cambodia that occurred under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Pran places the blame on the leaders of the Khmer Rouge and not on the men who committed the murders. He says, " Pulling away from the Khmer Rouge leadership, I can forgive the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, those who actually did the killing, although I can never forget what they did" (Pran 231). The reason he can forgive the soldier is because he feels that the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge were dragged out of the forest, brainwashed, taught to kill, and forced to kill. If they did not follow orders, their families would have been killed along with them. Pran says that they were very poor and uneducated, and extremely afraid of dying. Pran’s opinion does not take all responsibility off of the soldiers and on to the leaders, instead he says that he can forgive the lowly soldier because he can understand his situation. But even though Pran says he would have forgiven Karl he does not place any moral judgment on Simon; he simply notices the inner turmoil created by this situation.

        I’ve been avoiding the question because of the motives and wording of the question. But I am not so arrogant as to leave the question unanswered when I can see what the person is trying to ask. The only way for me to answer this question truthfully is not quite possible because I am unable at the present moment to remember what it would be like to live as Simon Wiesenthal. The next best way for me to answer the question is to exit Simon and enter myself in the room with the dying SS man as he tells me his story and then asks me for forgiveness. My answer to the frightened soldier would be as follows: I am not the one that will grant you the peace you desire. You wish for forgiveness from the people you feel you have wronged, and I am not one of those people. Even if you could ask for forgiveness from the people you murdered and they gave it to you, I believe you would still feel an inner conflict. The only person that can grant you peace is yourself. You are the one that has to live with yourself every moment. No matter how many people show that they love you or forgive you, you will not be able to embrace it fully if you do not love or forgive yourself. When you learn to love yourself and forgive yourself, you will receive clarity and joy from life. And do not worry about death. You have nothing to fear as you leave your body because life never ends it only changes forms. You will have many chances to learn and decide what type of person you wish to be, you do not get only one chance. I would also tell these things to Simon to help ease his pain.

 
Works Cited

Prager, Dennis. "Response." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 225-30.
Pran, Dith. "Response." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 230-3.
Ricard, Matthieu. "Response." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books. 1998. 235-6.
Stein, Andre. "Response." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books. 1998. 250-5.
Wiesenthal, Simon. "The Sunflower." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books,1998. 3-98.

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On the Subject of Forgiveness

 

Dear reader,

The above document is a response to a philosophical question of forgiveness in one of the most extreme circumstances imaginable. It is a response to a question proposed in the book The Sunflower, by holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal. Mr. Wiesenthal asks the reader what he/she would have done in his place as a dying Nazi soldier begs him for forgiveness on the behalf of the Jews that the dying soldier savagely murdered. The dilemma for Mr. Wiesenthal is that at the time he was a Jew being worked to death in German work camps. The second half of Mr. Wiesenthal’s book consists of numerous responses to his question by highly regarded spiritual and religious figures. My paper is my own personal response to Mr. Wiesenthal’s question with support from the respondents. It was my desire to present the paper in a way that would be clear and easily understood by anyone that would desire to read my opinion.

Sincerely,

John Taylor & Cluadia Plazas