In the Preface to Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower Bonny V. Fetterman asks, “How can victims come to peace with their past, and hold on to their own humanity and morals in the process?” As you may recall, The Sunflower is Wiesenthal’s story of life, death and survival in the Nazi concentration camps. One day, when sent out from the camp on a work crew, Wiesenthal was summoned to the room of an SS officer who was dying. The dying SS officer confessed his crimes to Wiesenthal and asked him, as a Jew, for forgiveness so he could die at peace. Wiesenthal walked silently from the room, refusing to forgive.
The rest of the book is his reflection on ~ and struggle with ~ whether he should have forgiven the SS officer. Wiesenthal subsequently spoke with friends in the camps and had nightmares about the event. After surviving the concentration camps he even visited the dead SS officer’s mother. Following the conclusion of Wiesenthal’s story the book gives us the reflections of several theological, philosophical and cultural thinkers of the day and their answers to the question of whether Wiesenthal should have forgiven.
I appreciate the question that Fetterman brought up in the Preface to the revised version (dated 1996), “How can victims come to peace with their past, and hold on to their own humanity and morals in the process?” I wonder if forgiveness is necessary for peace? Even after many years Wisenthal seemed ill-at-ease about his actions with the SS officer. In choosing not to forgive him, did Wiesenthal turn his back on peace? Did he sacrifice his own humanity?
I don’t think so. What the SS officer asked was something beyond Wiesenthal’s capabilities. In fact, it was a cruelty to single out an individual Jew and ask for forgiveness on behalf of all of the Jews the SS officer had hurt and killed. I do think that forgiveness and peace are closely related, yet cheap forgiveness does not bring peace. Forgiveness needs time and, when possible, a show of repentance from the one who did harm. Forgiveness, at it’s ideal, must also acknowledge those who were hurt and try, in some way, to right the wrong.
Sometimes none of these ‘prerequisites’ to forgiveness are available and the one who was harmed must come to a place of peace on his or her own. In this instance forgiveness is not so much for the one who did harm as it is a ‘letting go of the past’ for the one harmed. Forgiveness, then, becomes a way of facing the past and breaking free from it so peace may be found.
As I read through The Sunflower and the subsequent reflections I experienced a variety of emotions. I grew angry at the SS officer who asked, unfairly, for forgiveness. Wiesenthal had already been through so much and to put an additional burden on him was cruel. Yet I also felt some moments of sympathy for the SS officer. No one can truly know his motives, so perhaps he had a deathbed conversion and truly repented of his sins. Ultimately God knew. And, for me, that is the bottom line.
We practice our imperfect versions of repentance and forgiveness while on earth. We try to follow the ways of our faith and / or our ethics and morals. We make our human attempts to come to peace with our past. Hopefully these actions are met with understanding and grace, yet even when they are not, God is there.
While my attacker never sought my forgiveness or expressed remorse, I have worked towards forgiveness for my own sake. Some days I feel more forgiving than others, yet I do feel that I am more and more at peace with my past. And ultimately God is present which, for me, is peace.