We were in California this past week where from time to time Jerry and I go for neuropathy treatments for me that actually help. Since October 7, the color of the sky has changed for me, so I was glad to get away. On our last day, we stopped at a bookstore in Riverside for airplane reading. I picked out a paperback titled The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. It was written by Simon Wiesenthal and is a well-known memoir of his time as a Jewish youth imprisoned in a succession of Nazi concentration camps. Those were places housing large numbers of people – mostly Jews – who were selected for getting murdered at once or else kept alive for being worked to death by starvation, exhaustion and uncontained brutality.
Wiesenthal’s memoir includes a key story that’s been discussed in seminaries and educational institutions here and abroad. The first English language edition (1970, Schocken Books) included ten essays commenting on the episode. The present revised edition (Schocken, 1997) adds 32 new essays reflecting on the incident, contributed by eminent writers, journalists, political and religious leaders.
As reported in the Preface by co-editor Bonny Fetterman, “Wiesenthal’s Dokumentationszentrum, which seeks out Nazi criminals, has helped to bring over 1,100 Nazis to justice since the end of the [second world] war.”
Known as a world-wide Nazi hunter, Wiesenthal was the Man Who Never Forgot – a single-minded angel of retribution. For some, the more tender-minded souls perhaps, he may have been seen as the man who could not “get over it” – who could not, as they say, “get a life!”
So it was with astonishment that I now read his memoir for the first time. It was exceptionally well written! He portrayed the death camp experience with more incisive, telling strokes than I’d ever seen that done and invested the widely discussed key episode with immense moral freshness. It’s my guess that, had he chosen to live out his literary talent, Simon Wiesenthal could have been recognized as one of his century’s major writers. So the vocation he followed was not chosen for want of other options.
What is the key episode in the memoir, the one revisited by so many people of consequence in our present world? The young Wiesenthal had been part of a group of starving forced laborers, marched out for another day of being worked to death, when a nurse broke into the line and, without explanation, summoned him to follow her. She led him into a medical facility, then to the bedside of a young German he did not know, who was wrapped in face-concealing bandages and clearly dying.
The dying man had been, as he managed to explain to Wiesenthal, in the SS. Those initials are short for Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s elite military and intelligence cadre, which was charged with war crimes at the postwar Nuremberg Tribunal.
The dying SS man wanted to express, to “a Jew,” the deep remorse he felt, first at having allowed himself to be drawn into the SS, and particularly at having participated in the herding of hundreds of Jews of every age and condition into a building far too small to hold them, which he and others then set on fire, killing all who’d been forced into the building.
Wiesenthal – who’d been summoned seemingly to stand in for the Jewish People – kept silent during the man’s confession, left as soon as he could, and afterward refused to accept a parcel that the now-deceased SS man had bequeathed him. He told the messenger to send it instead to the mother of the deceased. Nevertheless – and perhaps because of the perceived sincerity of the dying man’s remorse – Wiesenthal felt gripped by the episode, revisiting it in this memoir where he invited others to comment.
Although I wasn’t in the number of those invited, anyone who reads the story will sense the same summons. So okay, what do I think? What would I say to this dying SS man? Well, to begin with, I would look at his bandaged face with great curiosity, wishing I could see more. At least I would like to see his eyes – said to be the window of the soul. For I know he was a rare fellow, not your typical SS veteran.
I met an ex-SS man one time, when I and a woman friend were on our way via auto stop (hitchhiking) to Vienna. The driver who picked us up answered a question from me about post-war attitudes by explaining that Hitler had been very good for the youth. I demurred, saying something about Anne Frank, who’d been quite young herself.
“Oh,” he responded, “Yes, yes. I know all about Anne Frank. It’s much exaggerated. You know,” he continued, “nowadays they say terrible things about SS. I was in SS. All my friends were in SS! We were all picked men. Not a one of us under six feet!”
So I learned that a contrite SS man is no common find. But what else, besides SS, had this young man been, who was now on his death bed? What would I have said to him? What was there to say? Let’s give it a go.
“I wish I could welcome you back into the human community. But, to meet Jewish requirements, you must carry through your repentance by mending the damage done, as far as possible. Unfortunately, in the case of murder, it’s not possible. Even if, for the sake of argument, we suppose reincarnation – that we go on to live many more lives – you’d still have to go to each victim, make clear that you fully understood and were most sorry for the harm you did, and (if found credible) ask each victim to show you how you might best repair the damage. Then, insofar as repair proved feasible, the victim would be obligated to forgive you.”
But how could repair be feasible? It would have to extend to all who were harmed – physically, morally or psychologically – by the harm inflicted on just one victim.
Not one of us is only one.
“So repair is not feasible. What you did is irreparable. Let that be a lesson to you!”
But why this suffering? Why does God permit it? Or is the Shekinah – the Divine Presence – simply, as one of Wiesenthal’s fellow prisoners opined, “on a leave of absence”?
So far as I can figure, any suffering inflicted out of intentional cruelty has at least this much significance: if it had no victims, such cruelty might seem idle, harmless – a mere game. So, partly by the suffering of such victims, the map of permissible acts gets its defining limits. On account of the suffering caused by evil, the human world acquires moral intelligibility. Therefore ours continues to be a recognizable world. It doesn’t sink back into the chaos that obtained before creation.
But the cost to the victim is truly heavy.
No normal person
could want to pay it.