What Does (or Might) It Mean to Forgive?



Jan Richardson, In the Wilderness

(This is the third in a series of reflections on Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower.)

In his response to The Sunflower, Rabbi Arthur Waskow wishes to ask the Nazi in the story, “What would it mean for me to “forgive” you?”  It is a key question.  Before any considerations of whether Simon Wiesenthal “should” have forgiven the dying SS officer, it is important to ask:  What would constitute forgiveness in such a circumstance?

In The Sunflower, Wiesenthal bitterly observes: “Today the world demands that we forgive and forget the heinous crimes committed against us.  It urges that we draw a line, and close the account as if nothing had ever happened.  We who suffered in those dreadful days, we who cannot obliterate the hell we endured, are forever being advised to keep silent.” (p. 97)

In the wake of fitful nights, Simon engaged in dialogue with his friends and fellow prisoners in the concentration camp. Those closest to him agree that to refuse the dying man’s request was the right thing.  They were puzzled by his ambivalence.  His friend Josek said, “You had no right to forgive him, you could not forgive him, and it was quite right not to accept his things.”  His friend Arthur reproached him: ” All this moaning and groaning leads to nothing.  If we survive this camp–and I don’t think we will–and if the world comes to its senses again, inhabited by people who look on each other as human beings, then there will be plenty of time to discuss the question of forgiveness.  There will be votes for and against, there will be people who will never forgive you for not forgiving him . . . But anyhow no one who has not had our experience will be able to understand fully.” (p. 75)

Arthur was right, Simon concluded, and he slept better.  Arthur subsequently died from typhus, in Simon’s arms.  Josek was shot when he was too weak to work any longer.

Simon later met a transfer from Auschwitz, a man named Bolek, a Catholic seminarian who had been preparing for the priesthood.  He had been repeatedly endured mistreatment and humiliation.  Still thinking about his encounter with Klaus, Simon asked Bolek if he should have forgiven Klaus.  What did Christianity say?  Bolek’s listening was careful and his response reflective.    He recognized that Simon’s subconscious was not at peace with his response to Simon.  You can only forgive a wrong done to yourself, he affirmed to Simon, while also recognizing that none of those whom Klaus had wronged was still alive.  Klaus had turned to Simon as a last chance for absolution.

Bolek shocked Simon by observing that Simon had forgiven Klaus!  “Through his confession, as you surely know–though it was not a formal confession–his conscience was liberated and he died in peace because you listened to him.  He had regained his faith.  He had become once again the boy who, as you said, was in close relationship with his church.” (p. 82)  Simon bristled at this suggestion and accused Bolek, “You seem to be all on his side.”

I go back to Rabbi Waskow.  Still addressing the imaginary Klaus, he says, “You ask of me . . . to join with you in reconnecting the fragments of the shattered Unity, perhaps into a wholly/holy new pattern of Unity .  To make this restoration with you is forgiveness.” Rabbi Waskow’s description of what forgiveness might be is stunning in its eloquence and, to me, deeply reflective of what I behold in Jesus’ “way, truth, and life.”

He cannot, however, do this, the Rabbi says.  Because Klaus cannot repair the damage to the Jews he murdered, “let alone those whose murder and torture you helped organize and celebrate.”  There is no way for Klaus to help repair the continuing trauma that the survivors carry.  “And in terms of the Spirit, there is no way for you to repair our sense of God in hiding.”  Jews may be able to do repair work on their own, with each other, but Klaus can take no part in those repairs.  So there will be no forgiveness.  Rabbi Waskow’s words remind us of the intolerable nature of any demand that “you must forgive.”

He does, however, articulate an ongoing connection, with Klaus and more vitally with Simon,  a remaining thread that is painful yet promising:   “You are a teacher of what is now possible. From you I learn that the H-bombs can devour the world, that every single one of them is an instant portable Auschwitz waiting for its blaze to be turned on.  From you I learn that sadism can be technologized and mass-produced.  From you I learn that the careless use of technology can poison earths air and soil and water, can murder many species–even when there is no hatred, only envy of each other.  From you I learn what mass media can do to the child, of gently, loving parents.” (p. 270)   “And therefore, from you, with you, I learn the need to do all the other tikkunim.”  These include shaping deeper, broader community across boundaries; to create a form of intellect that is ever-connective;  to relocate God from above us to among us, between us, and in us; to redo physical boundaries to reawaken bodies, enliven physical relationships with the Land and Earth, and “reopen the Song of Songs.”

The 52 responses included in the latest publications of The Sunflower bring additional depth and richness in exploring the territory (and wilderness) 0f forgiveness.    Sven Alkalaj offers another. He is a Bosnian Jew who lived through the horrors of the 1990’s atrocities in his country, including the siege of Sarajevo. He also cites the mass murder at Srebrenica.  He writes:  “Although Simon was unsure whether his response to the dying SS man was correct, there was no question as to whether or not he should forget the crimes.  It was the images of Eli and the figure of the repentant murderer that remained with Simon.  Forgetting the crimes would be worse than forgiving the criminal who seeks forgiveness, because forgetting the crimes devalues the humanity that perished in these atrocities (p. 102).”  As he holds out possibilities for reconciliation in his homeland and its neighbors, he argues that there cannot be reconciliation without “at least a shred of forgiveness.”  And he continues by exploring a particular texture:  “The forgiveness is not for those who killed or orchestrated mass murder and on their deathbed seek to put their minds at ease, but for those who truly feel a collective guilt for the heinous crimes  their ethnic/political/religious “brothers”  committed in the name of brotherhood.  As Simon told the mother of the dying SS man, even if a member of society did not take part in the crimes, he or she must at least share the shame of the crimes . . .Of course the shame would not bring back the dead of Auschwitz or Treblinka, Sarajevo or Srebrenica, but that shame does make it incumbent upon us to hold accountable those who arrogantly and immorally value their lives so much more than those of their fellow men and women.” (pp. 104-105)

Desmond Tutu, one of the authors of the  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, emphasizes the importance of focusing on the victim, empowering them, and engaging in restorative processes that prioritize their needs.  The Commission addressed the horrors of the apartheid era in South Africa.  The process in South Africa emphasized truth-telling.  And it illuminated “the story of the victims, the survivors were made to suffer so grievously.”  Perpetrators were called to tell the devastating truth of their actions in detail, facing the victims or their families, answering their questions and listening to the testimony and anguish of those they had harmed.  They could apply for amnesty, which the government granted numerous times. Some victims were moved to offer their own forgiveness to perpetrators after confronting them personally and hearing excruciating truths that also offered some release for victims and families.  Others were not ready to do  so, “demonstrating that forgiveness is not facile nor cheap.  It is a costly business that makes those who are willing to forgive even more extraordinary.” (p. 267)  Tutu believes that forgiveness is essential: “It is clear that if we only look to retributive justice, then we could just as well close up shop . . . Without forgiveness, there is no future.” (p. 268)

This last point is key to any exploration of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not forgetfulness of the past, but rather “the risk of a future other than the one imposed by the past of by memory” (Christian Duquoc).


Wiesenthal, Simon. (1969;1997)   The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. New York: Schocken Books.