Reading

The Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

Read the perspectives of authors, ministers, scholars, and rabbis and consider the meaning and limitations of forgiveness, responsibility, and justice.  
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At a Glance

Reading

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History
  • Social Studies
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • The Holocaust

This chapter traces the struggle to find an adequate response to the crimes of the Holocaust. In the aftermath of the war, many people wondered whether justice was possible for those who committed murder on such an enormous scale. Simon Wiesenthal, known as “the Nazi hunter,” was a Holocaust survivor who spent much of his later life tracking down Nazi war criminals so they could be held accountable for their actions. Yet Wiesenthal was also concerned with the question of forgiveness, an issue he explored in his book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.

In The Sunflower, Wiesenthal writes of an incident that occurred when he was a concentration camp inmate in Poland. One day, he was sent to clean a hospital for wounded German soldiers as part of a slave labor crew. As they worked, a nurse approached him and asked, “Are you a Jew?” When he answered yes, she took him to the bedside of Karl, a 22-year-old SS man who was dying. Karl’s head was completely covered in bandages and he was very weak. Karl wanted to tell Wiesenthal a story. As Wiesenthal listened silently, Karl confessed to participating in burning alive an entire village of Jews, at least 150 people. He expressed great remorse as he described throwing grenades into a house and watching as victims leapt from the burning building with their children in their arms. Karl said,

The pains in my body are terrible, but worse still is my conscience . . . I cannot die . . . without coming clean . . . In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I only know you are a Jew and that is enough . . . In the long nights I have been waiting for death, time and again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left . . . I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace. 1

Struggling inwardly, Wiesenthal chose not to answer, and he left the room without saying a word. The next day he learned that Karl had died.

At the end of his memoir, Wiesenthal addresses the reader directly:

The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition [a choice], and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.

You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, “What would I have done?” 2

While the details of Wiesenthal’s story have never been verified, his tale still challenges readers to examine the nature of forgiveness, justice, and responsibility. The book also contains a collection of essays by religious leaders, scholars, journalists, and survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides, all responding to the question Wiesenthal poses at the end of his memoir.

Novelist Rebecca Goldstein suggests that forgiveness for the Nazis’ crimes is impossible:

Yes, the SS man came to see, to some extent, his guilt, but not, I think, to the full extent in which that guilt exists and always will. For had he understood the enormity of his crimes, he would never have dared ask for forgiveness. Never. To have truly seen his guilt would have been to know himself as utterly dispossessed of all chances for forgiveness. It would have been to know himself as having forfeited forever any questionable right to “die in peace.” Perhaps then, and only then, in knowing his absolute unforgivability, would it even be conceivable that he be granted forgiveness—and only by those burning souls, multiplied by millions. 3

Author Cynthia Ozick also rejects forgiveness:

[F]orgiveness is pitiless. It forgets the victim. It negates the right of the victim to his own life. It blurs over suffering and death. It drowns the past. It cultivates sensitiveness toward the murderer at the price of insensitiveness toward the victim. 4

Rabbi Harold Kushner has a different perspective:

Forgiving is not something we do for another person, as the Nazi asked Wiesenthal to do for him. Forgiving happens inside us. It represents a letting go of a sense of grievance, and perhaps most importantly a letting go of the role of victim. For a Jew to forgive the Nazis would not mean, God forbid, saying to them “What you did was understandable, I can understand what led you to do it and I don’t hate you for it.” It would mean saying “What you did was thoroughly despicable and puts you outside the category of decent human beings. But I refuse to give you the power to define me as a victim. I refuse to let your blind hatred define the shape and content of my Jewishness. I don’t hate you; I reject you.” And then the Nazi would remain chained to his past and to his conscience, but the Jew would be free. 5

Minister and scholar Hubert Locke roots his response in Wiesenthal’s silence:

You ask if your silence to the dying Nazi’s pleas for forgiveness was right or wrong . . . No, I cannot answer your question of right and wrong, your silence was your answer and perhaps it should be ours as well. There is much that silence might teach us, if we could but learn to listen to it. Not the least of its lessons is that there may well be questions for which there are no answers and other questions for which the answers would remove the moral force of the question. There are matters that perhaps should always remain unanswered; questions which should lie like a great weight on our consciences so that we continually feel an obligation to confront their insistent urging. There are questions that are unanswerable queries of the soul, matters too awe-full for human response, too demonic for profound rational resolution. By our silence, perhaps we acknowledge as much; we own up to our humanness. We concede that we are not gods and that we lack, as much as we might be loath to admit it, the capacity to provide understanding and assurance for every inexplicable moment in life. 6

Connection Questions

  1. What is the dilemma for Simon Wiesenthal when Karl asks him for forgiveness? Why is this dilemma so difficult?
  2. What range of responses to Wiesenthal’s “crucial question” (“What would I have done?”) is shown in the four excerpted essays? Which response is most like your own feelings on the question? Which response pushes your thinking in a new direction?
  3. What is forgiveness? Who is forgiveness for? How has Simon Wiesenthal’s story added to your thinking on this subject? What other stories and experiences have shaped your perspective on forgiveness?
  4. What is the relationship between justice and forgiveness? What is the role of forgiveness in the aftermath of an atrocity?
  • 1Simon Wiesenthal et al., The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, rev. ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 2008), 54. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. and Librairie Arthème Fayard.
  • 2Simon Wiesenthal et al., The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, rev. ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 2008), 97–98. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. and Librairie Arthème Fayard.
  • 3Simon Wiesenthal et al., The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, rev. ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 2008), 151–52. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. and Librairie Arthème Fayard.
  • 4Simon Wiesenthal et al., The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, rev. ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 2008), 216. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. and Librairie Arthème Fayard.
  • 5Simon Wiesenthal et al., The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, rev. ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 2008), 186. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. and Librairie Arthème Fayard.
  • 6Simon Wiesenthal et al., The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, rev. ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 2008), 202–03. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. and Librairie Arthème Fayard.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, "The Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness," last updated July 26, 2018.        

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