Mr. Simon Wiesenthal, first of all thank you for your contribution in bringing justice to those who committed atrocious crimes between the years of 1939-1945. Before we can even consider forgiveness for these men, justice for there victims must be done. Due this you, play an important role in the process of forgiveness. Your story, The Sunflower, asks the reader is it possible to forgive a man who is directly responsible for so much suffering and death. Karl, the dying Nazi, is both repentant, and dare I say even sympathetic at times. This man is clearly in pain and shows regret for what he has done. If it was not for the constant reminder of what is being done to the Jews and other “undesirables” I would feel bad for him. Your book forces the reader to come to terms with one of uncomfortable truths of the Holocaust that although the idea of industrial genocide is monstrous the act itself was not committed by a group of monsters, sociopaths, and psychopaths, but rather by normal human beings. Normal individuals like Karl, who made the conscious decision to carry out unspeakable crimes. Meeting Karl shows that the Nazi’s and their collaborator’s were normal sane people. Furthermore, the criminals of the Holocaust were not restricted to one group, but rather, came from all walks of life. Much like their victims the perpetrators were doctors, lawyers, farmers, and factory workers. Some were barely educated while others, three of the four commanders of the Einsatzgruppen, had doctorates. For me this is what is terrifying about the Holocaust that people committed it, not beasts disguised as people, but human beings.
Now we come to the question of Karl, a remorseful and repentant Nazi, who is asking to be forgiven for the crimes he has committed. I wish there was an easy answer to this, but alas, as with most things pertaining to the Holocaust there is not. I unfortunately cannot answer your question on what I would have done in your shoes, because (thank god) I have never found myself in such a situation that comes close to the Holocaust. I have never been tortured, starved, or forced to live like an animal. Nor have I been forced to witness the systematic destruction of my family and loved ones. God willing, I will never experience anything remotely related to the horrors of the Holocaust. So instead I will address he question of forgiveness and justice.
In a lot of ways the idea of justice and forgiveness come down to personal opinion. One needs look no farther then the debate on the death penalty to see that our opinions on justice and forgiveness are diverse. So therefore I have little doubt that there will be people who disagree with what I am about to say. As a Jew I was brought up to believe that God forgives. That if you are truly sorry and repentant then God will forgive you. I hold to the simple truth that we are all Gods children and like any father, he loves his children, even when they stray. Because God forgives, I believe there is a certain divinity in when we forgive as Alexander Pope says, “ To Err is human; to forgive, divine.” However, forgiveness is no way easy, for if it was then it would mean nothing. Even for the reader, who is not witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust, forgiving Karl is a challenge. He has committed one of the greatest sins one can commit; he has shed the blood of innocent men, women, and children. Furthermore, he is an active participant in the greatest crime of the 20th century. For me Karl pushes the limits of forgiveness and in the end, we are forced to ask, is saying I am sorry enough? I would argue no, three magic words do not wash away all that blood, three magic words do not dry the tears, three magic words mean nothing to the millions who have die, and three magic words do not even begin to atone for his sins. What is uncomfortable about your book for me is that it challenges my idea that God forgives because if we are all Gods children, then Karl killed his brothers and sisters, and I wonder would a father forgive his child for murdering his siblings? Unfortunately, only God can answer this question.
As a Jew I am also familiar with something else, hate. The Holocaust should have killed hate and racism, it should have shown the world the consequences of such evils, but alas it did not for racism and anti-Semitism is still alive and well. Google Anti-Semitism or Racism and you will be bombarded with images and news updates of recent attacks on individuals. I am not immune to this hate. I remember one incident in particular in college. A group of Neo-Nazis, using the argument of freedom of speech, had received permission from the college to use the auditorium for a concert. I remember seeing these men and women with their jackboots and swastika tattoos and although they did not say anything to me, just looking at them made me feel less then human, that because I believed in something different I was somehow not worthy of being called a human being. I will admit at the time I hated them for making me feel that way. I cannot imagine how I would feel if they were also responsible for my imprisonment and the death of my family. If one of them was to come up to me today and asked me forgiveness for say attacking a Jew in New York I would tell him that I cannot forgive him on behalf of that man. Much like you, I do not have that power to forgive a man for the crimes committed against another man. However, if one of those Neo-Nazis apologized for making me feel less then human that day in Keene, New Hampshire then I would forgive him. I would forgive.
In the life after this it is God grants the opportunity for full absolution and I pray that Karl had a chance to gain this absolution by asking his victims for the forgiveness. However, in this life forgiveness is a gift that we bestow on those who have atoned and therefore are worthy of it. The truth is saying “I am sorry” is not nearly enough to grant Karl the forgiveness he so desperately sought.