Everyone at one point in their life has had to forgive someone else for a fault or offense. If someone steps on another person’s shoe and asks for forgiveness, they grant it without thought and move on with their life. But what if a murderer asks a person to forgive their crimes? What shall one do then? In the book, The Sunflower, written by the Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal, the author poses a question once asked to him that beckons thoughts about the matter of forgiveness.
Throughout his life, Simon Wiesenthal struggles with this painful dilemma of whether he should have forgiven Karl, the Nazi soldier who participated in the murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust. Fifty-three individuals with a diverse set of beliefs, identities, and experiences answer this question in the book with their own arguments that reflect their stance on forgiving murderers. My experiences and beliefs greatly influence the way I regard forgiveness. From past events in my life, I came to the terms that if I do not forgive others, I am held back from enjoying my life to the fullest by living with constant anger and bitterness.
Therefore, I would have stayed silent in Karl’s’ confession, but throughout time and healing would learn to grant true forgiveness so that I may live my own life in peace without the burden of hate in my heart.
If I were in Simon’s place in that exact time of his life, I would have stayed silent and not forgiven the Nazi soldier on his deathbed because I would be lying to him by saying words I do not truly mean. Although I cannot necessarily assure what I would have done in Simon’s place because I did not actually experience the horrors of the Holocaust, I have an idea of how I would possibly answer. I would have most likely remained silent to Karl’s confession and question because I would refuse to forgive him when I am feeling angry and conflicted emotions within me that prevent me from honestly forgiving a person. I agree with the Italian chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, on his comment regarding what it would have meant for Simon to have forgiven Karl in that moment, “[…] I think for you, it would have not meant ‘you are guilty of no crime’, nor ‘you committed a crime against your will or without knowing what you were doing.’ On your part it would have been an empty formula and consequently a lie” (192). If I uttered the words, “I forgive you” in that instant out of pity and without meaning, then I would be lying to a dying man’s face. In that moment, I would be thinking of all the Jews who have been wrongly tortured and murdered by the hands of Nazi soldiers, including my family. I could not possibly mean this forgiveness when I am still holding a grudge and hateful feelings towards him. To gain and grant true forgiveness, one must find that within themselves. It is not something that can be just verbally said to magically repair all the damage done by the guilty.
Instead, by responding with nothing at all, I am saving both or souls in that moment because I would offer the only penance available to him, which is silence. What Simon deserved was to face the reality of the consequences of his actions and reflect on his crimes in this silence. Just as the Episcopal priest, Matthew Fox, stated in his response, “[Simon] gave Karl the only penance available to him to bestow: Silence. The penance of Karl’s having to be alone with his conscious before he died […] Be with your sin. Be in the dark in the Via Negativa where so many of your victims lie. Be with your conscious. Be with your God” (144-145). It was too late for Karl to atone his sins, so he should accept this silence and live with it for the last moments of his life. By not declaring my disgust and hate for him and all the other Nazi soldier’s actions, I believe I am being somewhat compassionate towards Karl. Instead of giving a cruel verbal response, I am being human by listening and being present in his confession. Listening to the Nazi soldier allows him to alleviate some of the guilt and painful memories that he is so desperate to get off his mind, specifically the event of the Jewish family he witnessed jumping off a burning building. My silence would help both the Nazi soldier and me because he can realize his mistakes in this silence and accept his pending death. For me, it would assure that I would not act as hateful by telling the dying Nazi soldier that he shall go to hell and that I will never forgive him, because frankly, I would have to eventually to live my own life in peace.
Although I would not grant forgiveness to Karl in the exact moment he asks in his deathbed, I hope I could forgive with time in order to live without hate and resentment. I believe I would eventually have to let go of all the bitterness and anger and honestly forgive to move on with my life. In that moment, I could not forgive Karl when there is still resentment in my heart. With time and healing, I wish to relieve myself of all this resentment found in my being because as the Franciscan nun Jose Hobday states in her response to forgiveness, “You must learn the wisdom of how to let go of poison,” or else that poison of hate will eventually kill the you (175). Forgiveness is not an option, it is a necessity for one to move on from the horrible encounters in their life. When I hold grudges against others, my perspective of everything around me turns negative and I feel detained from enjoying my life. I am not able to move on with my life I until forgive a person, not verbally, but in a spiritual sense, by allowing myself to not feel hate every time I recall the memory of the person who hurt me. But one must also wonder, is it possible to forgive without forgetting? I think it is, and so does the Episcopal priest, Mathew Fox as he explains, “Forgiving and forgetting are two separate acts. One should forgive- not out of altruism but out of the need to be free to get on with one’s own life- but we ought not to forget” (148). It is possible for people to forgive while keeping the memories alive. The key to this is not remembering those events with hate, but as a distant memory that can no longer trap us into torment. Thus, true forgiveness is a lengthy internal process that includes serenity of the mind and heart, taking away all the hate within memories that cause a person to suffer.
Despite being a Catholic, I wouldn’t grant forgiveness to Karl right away as my religion teaches me to do so to the repentant because Karl needed to be punished in some way first. Everyone has the right to state their own opinion over the matter of forgiveness, but I do find it hard to believe that someone would grant true forgiveness to Karl in that exact moment when he asks for it, such as the Catholic priest Theodore M. Hesburgh. In his response, the priest declares, “If asked to forgive, by anyone for anything, I would forgive because God would forgive (169). This is where I engage in conflict with my Catholic community. Forgiving is a long process and I do not believe you can do it right away no matter what. It takes time and reflection to truly grant forgiveness, especially in this case since Karl’s sins are very severe. I believe in God, but I also believe that God punishes and then forgives, just as the Hungarian writer and newspaper publisher, Hans Habe, explains in his response, “Forgiveness is the imitation of God. Punishment too is an imitation of God. God punishes and forgives, in that order. But God never hates” (162). I believe God is punishing Karl with a young death, so I could not possibly forgive when he was in the process of being punished. Forgiveness comes after justice and punishment, so my silence would help in not interfering with this. I do not believe God tells us to forgive right away, but to do it with honesty and without hate. I would eventually have to forgive just as God wants us to but by truly meaning it throughout time.
There will be people who understand Wiesenthal’s silent response, and others who will not. This is the case with every answer provided by the respondents of this question, including my own. In that exact moment, forgiving would have been a lie and interference with God’s punishment on Karl. My silence would be beneficial for both Karl and I in his deathbed, but I would gradually try my best to forgive in order to move on from my past. There is no right or wrong answer because it can differ from each individual as everyone’s response is influenced by their own personal and/or religious beliefs, experiences, and observations in life. We should all come into terms with this and listen to what others have to say instead of arguing what should have been and/or could be done. I will not judge Simon for how he chose to respond to Karl because that was his individual choice given what he went through in his life. However, no matter how a person responds to the question of forgiveness in Simon’s situation, we should always remember those lives that were perished in the Holocaust. We must never forget what had been done in history so that it does not repeat itself again. I believe this is why Simon dedicates the rest of his life to punish the Nazi criminals and bring justice to the Jews murdered during this time in history, so that their deaths are never forgotten. Only forgetting the crimes committed will allow evil to truly strive in this world.
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