With Rosh Hashanah coming up, I decided to do something a little different.
One of my rabbis suggested a book to me recently that has really caught my attention. I read the entire first portion in a couple of hours. Written by Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower tells the story of one of the most captivating moments of the famed Nazi hunter’s life. While he was held for work in the Lemberg prison camp near the town where he had grown up and gone to school, Simon (who when the war broke out had been an architect) was taken to work in the nearby army hospital. His first day working in the hospital, he was summoned to the bedside of a dying SS man who confessed a horrible crime and then said he needed the forgiveness of a Jew. The edition that I now have has the 98-page story followed by 53 different authors answering Simon’s moral question: what would you have done?
Before I read that section, I’m going to write what I would have done.
In my studies of Shoah – the totality of what the Nazis did – I have often thought about what life would have been like for me if I had been there. It would not have mattered that I was highly intelligent; intellectuals among the Jews and other undesirables were a favorite of Nazis to slaughter. It would not have mattered that I was a musician; they were only kept alive long enough to entertain the SS troops, and as soon as it fit some commandant’s fancy they were killed. It would not have mattered that I was a writer; it likely would have made me even more of a target to ensure I wasn’t able to tell the world what the Nazis had done. The only thing that would have mattered is whether or not I was a Jew. Or a Gypsy, a homosexual, or some other poison to their “master race”.
First they would have taken my identity. Then they would have taken my dignity. Then they would have taken my sense of humanity. They would break me before killing me for the mere amusement of it. Living every day with the fear of serious harm or death, what would I do if faced with a dying SS man begging me to forgive him for things he didn’t realize he would have to do when he volunteered?
I would not have made it to that point.
I am not now and have never been the type to be subservient in the face of oppression. Were any man to make the attempt to take me from the business I had worked so hard for, much less force me from my home, I would have fought to the bitter end. I would have died rather than live as less than a third-class citizen, a human with no identity and no rights. I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees.
Were I to survive, and a Nazi ask my forgiveness afterwards? Knowing what he had done to my family and our people? No. I would not have forgiven him, and anyone who suggests that Simon or any other Jew should forgive the Nazis is too arrogant to see the reality of what the survivors faced.
I have no problem calling such a stalwart belief arrogance. The Jews’ motto today is Never Again. No matter how much we know about what the Nazis did, there are still those (far too many, in my opinion) who deny that it happened. Far more actually continue to blame the Jews for all of the problems of the world – the very attitude that ended in the wholesale slaughter of six million Jews to begin with. Jews have been blamed for orchestrating 9/11, pushing George W. Bush into war with Iraq, and spreading the AIDS virus. You’re more likely to wake up to find your car or house spray-painted with hate messages if you’re Jewish than if you’re black or Hispanic.
Yet despite how many people across many different races (30% of blacks and 35-40% of Hispanics, in fact) hold views that are unquestionably antisemitic, Jews don’t riot or accuse entire races of practicing apartheid. Instead, we bend over backwards to make peace – even when the people who hate us riot in our neighborhoods and injure and kill us and never apologize for what they’ve done.
No, I wouldn’t have forgiven him. Anyone who believes that I would have had some kind of moral responsibility to forgive needs to imagine themselves hiding in a sewer to avoid the death squad before preaching. That is a fate I would not have been capable of abiding, and I would not dare ask any man, woman, or child who has endured those things to forgive the animals who committed them.
Forgiveness has limits. It is the deeply personal choice of the individual who has been wronged. Refusal to forgive does not mean that I intend to harm that person; it only means that I want the world to remember their acts so they are not repeated.