The Limits of Forgiveness
How can we offer forgiveness on behalf of people we don’t know or have never even met? The famous Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal illustrated this with a story that began on 10 October 1944. At the time, he was a young architect incarcerated in Janowska Concentration Camp, just outside Lviv, in Ukraine.
One day, Wiesenthal was summoned by guards to the bedside of a young Waffen-SS officer, Karl Seidl, who wanted to “speak to a Jew”. Mortally injured with burns, the dying Seidl whispered to Wiesenthal that the SS had herded dozens of men, women and children into a house, set it alight and shot all those who tried to escape the flames. Seidl admitted his involvement and claimed he was tormented by his conscience – he needed to confess his sin to a Jew and begged for forgiveness.
Wiesenthal listened to this tale of horror, pondered for a minute and said nothing. Then he walked out of the room.
For years, Wiesenthal was tormented by the memory. Had he had done the right thing? Should he have offered the dying Nazi his forgiveness?
However, when he told his story to Jewish friends and rabbis, they agreed that he had been right not to offer forgiveness. How could he do so on behalf of victims he had never met? He was right to walk away.
By the same token, the alleged “sins” of our ancestors should not be visited on subsequent generations.