Do you think it’s ever possible to forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust?
Forgiveness and the Holocaust (Topic 6)
In April 2020, to coincide with Yom HaShoah, the day in the Jewish calendar dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, and the 75th anniversary of the liberation, Rabbi Sacks launched a series of videos offering his perspective on some of the biggest questions asked about the Holocaust.
Here we come to a major confusion, and even very great minds can make this confusion. And let’s describe how it has surfaced after the war. It surfaced in the form of a story by Simon Wiesenthal. Simon Wiesenthal was a survivor of the Holocaust, and he wrote the following account. During the Holocaust, his work division was sent one day to do some work in the grounds of a German military hospital. A nurse came out of the hospital, and said to Wiesenthal, “Are you Jewish?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “Please come up to the ward. Somebody needs to speak to you.”
He went up, and there was a young German officer who was dying. And the officer said, “I need to tell you this story. I was sent to the Russian front. We came to a village. Out in the square in the village, had been rounded up around 200 people. Women and children, including young children, babies and very elderly people. And they were all Jews. And there was a house. A truck came up filled with cans of petroleum. And these were taken out and put throughout the house. Then we were told we had to take all these 200 people and somehow squeeze them into the house. And then we were told we had to remove safety pins from our hand grenades and throw them through the windows of the house. I stood there watching 200 people burn to death. And I am about to die, and I need you to forgive me.” And Wiesenthal wrote, “I couldn’t. And I left him. I heard that the next day, he had died.” This troubled Wiesenthal for years. Did he do the right thing, or should he have forgiven?
So he wrote this story and sent it to great thinkers around the world, asking for their response to the question of forgiveness. The story, together with the responses, is available in a volume entitled, The Sunflower. There is now also a second edition, with more great thinkers around the world weighing in. They divide into two kinds. The Jewish ones and the non-Jewish ones. The non-Jewish ones will say forgive, and the Jewish ones say you can’t forgive. And the question is, why this difference? And the answer is very simple. In Judaism, only the victim can forgive. Supposing somebody injures my next-door neighbour. Can I forgive the person who did it? What have I got to do with it? I’m a third person. There is no vicarious forgiveness in Judaism. And the reason there’s no vicarious forgiveness in Judaism, is there is no vicarious guilt in Judaism. Jeremiah and Ezekiel both say the soul that sins shall die, nobody else. So only the victim can forgive. Even God can’t forgive on behalf of the victim.
The late Rabbi A.J. Heschel writes, in his response to The Sunflower, that on Yom Kippur we say the Day of Atonement only atones for sins between us and God. It doesn’t atone for sins between us and our fellow until our fellow forgives us, because even God can’t forgive us on behalf of our fellow human beings. He can only forgive offences against himself. The trouble with the Holocaust is, all the victims are dead.
So we can’t forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust. And to think we can is to misunderstand the nature of forgiveness. On the other hand, we can certainly seek reconciliation with the next generation, or with the faiths that might have contributed in some way to the antisemitism, or what have you. We certainly don’t harbour a grudge. We don’t. I never met a Holocaust survivor whose life was filled with hate, or anything of the kind. So no, you cannot forgive, but you begin a new way together.
This series, created in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Richard Harris.