In Another’s Shoes

by:

Sara Bluemel

        Some of the most terrifying and heartbreaking crimes happened during the Holocaust, the very deliberate plan by many Germans to exterminate the entire Jewish race. Many different shoes were worn during this war. People in some shoes helped execute the actions and murders against the Jews but did so for various reasons. There were some that willingly participated, but others were reluctant and felt for the Jews they were mercilessly slaying. When faced with death themselves, or if they realized their ways were immoral, they wanted forgiveness. Some desired forgiveness to clear their conscience and honestly repented for their sins. My shoes sit in a comfy closet and go to church Sunday and school during the week, the only excess wearing comes from my cat who likes to play with them. Therefore I can not entirely put myself in Simon’s shoes, but if a dying Nazis soldier asked me for a pardon, I would have to tell him yes, I forgive you. Although I would not forgive him in my heart and it would not mean anything to me, it would comfort the man in his last hours and bring release to his burdened conscience, which is what we all would want.

Simon was confronted by a dying SS man named Karl. Karl told about his childhood and how he became a soldier and a murderer. He went on to divulge wicked crimes in which he had participated in that constantly reoccurred in his mind. Even at the time the murders were taking place he felt the fighting to be "inhuman" (Wiesenthal 38). I feel he saw Jews to be normal people instead of subhumans, a view which many Germans did not share at the time. I conclude this because Simon remarked of the "warm undertones" he used while speaking of the Jews and the fact that Karl would leave bits of food behind for the Jews who cleaned his quarters (40). Although the man never apologizes, Simon can hear the repentance in his voice (53). The man asks to die in peace, that is all he asks of Simon, who he only sees as another Jew (54). Simon simply gets up without muttering a word and walks out, leaving the murderer awaiting his death without any solace (55).

        In another time and another place it is uncertain what we would do in a given situation. Simon wore the shoes of a victim. His shoes were worn out by working all day and probably smelled of death and disease that engulfed him at the concentration camp. I am sure the shoes had a few tears fall on them when he was taken away from his friends and family to suffer physical and emotional torture and pain. But what if Simon had seen his "pleading and imploring eyes" or some other circumstances were present as suggested by Jean Amery, a surviving Jew and atheist (107)? This atrocity did not touch me personally, and if I were a Jew and this man may have brutally killed my friends, my story may differ in the respect that I would not want to comfort the dying man. By now time has past and the horrible things are looked at in retrospect. We are not afraid for our lives presently and have accepted the past and all its horror, which can alter one’s response (Fisher 130). We now understand how the government played a huge part in persuading the citizens to hate the Jewish presence, and can see how the people were brainwashed. These murderers were not born hating the Jews; they learned it from their environment. If a person hated me for what they thought I believed and had no clue to who I was as a person, then it would be hard to comprehend why they felt this way at the given time. At the time of the Holocaust I am sure the Jews could not understand why they were hated as a race and could not be seen as individual people with feelings, families, and dreams of their own like everybody else in this world. Once I muttered the words, "You are forgiven," I would mean that I understood where you were coming from at the time of the happening, what you did, why you did the things, and that it was all right that you did them. No longer do you need to dwell on the past, you can free your mind of the nagging conscience because all is well.

        Some respondents argue that silence was the best way to answer and to not forgive the man (Locke 200). I disagree because this way the man has no consolation and will never know what Simon was thinking of him at the time. I think everything has a reason, and even though Simon had no obligation to justify what he did, it may have helped the dying man. If he felt the actions were too horrendous, or if he could not speak for the hundreds of Jews Karl had put to death, Simon should have told the dying man to make him understand how horrific his actions really were. Simon’s opinion in the matter could have made the dying man put in perspective his actions and how many people he hurt by them. Karl was asking for closure, in my mind, and depended on Simon for that. Whatever he would have said would have offered at least some. As a human, on your deathbed I feel everyone deserves relief from their past and someone to cry for them. Even though this is not provided for the Jews during this atrocity, Simon had a chance to do this for another human.

        Another reason to not forgive Karl is that he freely joined the army and freely murdered Jews, whose only crime was in what they believed and seen only by the few that disliked them. This thought is highlighted by Herbert Marcuse who is a philosophic Marxist (Marcuse 207). However, in the man’s story he told of the reoccurring thoughts and how terrible he felt, especially when he saw a Jewish family through the window of the house he helped put on fire (Wiesenthal 43). Like I said earlier, he even left food out for the Jewish people to find while cleaning the soldiers living quarters. He did not hate Jews; I think he saw them as normal people. He held on to Simon’s hand while telling his story; one could not do that to a person they disliked. There were orders given which he followed, but at first he did not realize the importance and the intensity of his activities. Now he does. He was just a young German trying to get by and doing what the state wanted him to. He was still a living person, who would miss his mother like everyone else.

        One may say that this man was only asking for forgiveness because he was about to die (Levi 191). It may have taken death for him to come to the conclusion he needed forgiveness, but I think he was on the path anyway and was truly sorry for what he did. This becomes evident in the story when he held his hands over his eyes like he was trying to block out the picture of the Jewish family leaping from the burning house while on fire themselves (Wiesenthal 43). As he was telling this story he began to sweat and it sounds as if he was terrified at what he saw himself doing all over again (42). If he wasn’t sorry, he would not care enough to be torn up -- one can not act this out. People change due to time or events they have witnessed or gone through. I feel he now sees the grander scheme of things. Once he realized the impact of his deeds and was honestly ashamed and sorry for them, then he has a right to be forgiven (Hesburg 169). This was brought up by a Catholic priest but may be found outside of religious boundaries.

        But who is Simon, or who am I, to say anything? No one can speak for the victims who suffered these crimes and torturous deaths. The victims are the only ones to have this power because he affected them directly, not me. I will go on tomorrow and walk my dog and talk to my Grandmother, but his victims were robbed of that chance and many others. They will never see another sunrise or watch their children grow up and marry. I think if I was a Jew at the time I would feel a personally affected by every soldier and harbor a hatred down deep in my heart. Maybe I would have agreed with Simon’s Jewish friend and fellow prisoner at the camp, Arthur, and be delighted in the fact that there was "One Less!" (Wiesenthal 64). Simon had no power to do anything for the man except comfort him. In this respect I agree with Simon’s actions. Karl should have asked God for forgiveness, not some random Jew off the street that may not even share the beliefs of the rest of the Jewish population (McAfee Brown 121). If he did look to the heavens for his answer, he would not have received immediate feedback, which I think is what he was after.

        My answer is not entirely a moral one nor a religious one, Although this question could be considered in these ways. Not one person has the right to tell another what their morals should be, so I agree with what Simon did. Even if morals were a universal thing, crossing boundaries of faith and culture, we would all have different interpretations of them. My answer is more of a worldly or emotional one. I would have liked to tell him no or walk away, but would have an awful feeling knowing that I could have granted him some comfort in his last day. I know I would want someone to console me in my last moments and miss me every once in a while. I think that is a human response, and everyone deserves some dignity at this time in their lives. I realize Simon felt he would not receive this treatment and wondered why a person who could do such terrible things to people could, but Simon could offer it to another fellow human and bring the world to a better understanding of each other.

        No matter what I would have done I would have always wondered about my behavior. I would have always wondered what if. What if he had a chance to make it out alive? What if he had murdered a person I deeply cared about? What if I had overheard him insulting a Jew? What if he was not honest in repenting? Could I then utter the words "You are forgiven?" I am not saying that I could ever accept that his actions, for whatever reason he did them, were all right with me and the rest of the human race. However, I am saying that I regard him as a human being still and would grant his dying wish without ever understanding fully what was going though his mind. Simon had every right to walk away; it takes a strong person to be able to do that. I am not that strong. Granted, I would only be forgiving him because he was moments away from his last breath, and would be to a degree lying, but I feel my judgment is irrelevant and therefore insignificant to me, although momentous to Karl, since the ultimate decision is God’s and God’s alone.

 

Works Cited

Amery, Jean. "Response." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 105-09.
Brown, Robert McAfee. "Response." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 121-24.
Fisher, Eugene. "Response." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 130-5.
Hesburg, Theodore. "Response." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 169.
Levi, Primo. "Response." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 191-2.
Locke, Hubert. "Response." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 200-03.
Marcuse, Herbert. "Response." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 207-08.
Wiesenthal, Simon, "The Sunflower." The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 3-98.

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