Sunday, November 21, 2010

Forgive but never forget

According to a survey recently conducted here in Israel that I saw in the Jerusalem Post online today, only 23% of Israelis feel that now, 65 years after the Holocaust took place in Europe, that it’s time to forgive the German people and Germany for crimes committed in the Holocaust. 70% say they don't forgive and 7% are undecided.

My first thought when I saw this was – what does the question mean? Are we talking about forgiving the Germany and its citizens of 65 years ago for the crimes committed in the Holocaust, or are we talking about withholding forgiveness from the Germany and the German people of 2010?

Obviously there is a huge difference between the two.

On second thought – or is there?

The question isn’t really about the Germans – or more specifically the Nazis. It’s not even really about the Holocaust itself. The question is really about us - and how do we define ourselves as the Jewish people, as the State of Israel, and as individual human beings.

Nobody is suggesting (I hope!) that we forget the Holocaust – God Forbid! That would be unthinkable!

It is crucial that we always remember the Holocaust – not to dwell on how terrible things were, not to wallow in misery, and certainly not to garner sympathy or to make any connection between what happened 65-80 years ago with today.

No. We need to remember the Holocaust, and to continue teaching it in its entirety to future generations in order to ensure that this can never happen again. Not to us, and not to anybody.

The Holocaust is a very concise lesson in the depths that mankind has it in itself to sink. Never again can we fool ourselves into thinking that people “simply can’t do {fill in the blank}”. We know that they can do pretty anything, and that they have. What’s worse, we know that others will sit back and allow it to happen.

However, that’s not the only lesson of the Holocaust that can, and should be relevant for us today.

In his book “Faith after the Holocaust” (published, 1973), Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz, z”l discusses the inability of so many people to believe in God in light of the Holocaust. So many people became convinced that the depths to which people sank in their inhumanity disallows any possibility of the existence of a Supreme Being, an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God.

While Rabbi Berkovitz very respectfully understands this logic, he offers an alternative way to see the bigger picture.

For all of the documented stories of man’s un-natural and inexplicable inhumanity to his fellow man, there are also many documented stories (from the Holocaust) of an equally un-natural and inexplicable love for his fellow man, and despite all that was happening, the steadfast refusal of many people to abandon their belief in God.

Rabbi Berkovitz brings examples of people in the death camps who would give what little bit of food they had to somebody else that seemed even more starving than themselves. People who offered hope and encouragement – and love – to others when all around them was hopelessness and death. He argued that there were so many acts of loving-kindness, and of faith, that in the death camps was every bit as unnatural and abnormal as were the acts of depravity and wonton hatred and cruelty.

If the un-natural inhumanity can prove the absence of God, why can't the equally un-natural humanity prove His presence?

For me – this is also the lesson of the Holocaust that we must always keep with us. The knowledge that no matter hopeless and black everything around us may be, people still can find within themselves that spark of humanity. The spark of love. The spark of godliness.

So, no – we can never ever forget the Holocaust – there are too many lessons that are absolutely essential to us as human beings.

But forgiving? Perhaps that's different.

Forgiving doesn't mean saying "it's all behind us and bygones…" Many Nazi war criminals have been captured and brought to justice over the years, and while there aren't many of them left, and those that are there are very old, they should continue to be chased down and brought to justice.

Bringing to justice does not disqualify forgiveness.

They committed crimes and even 65 or 70 years later, they absolutely should have to pay whatever price is appropriate for those crimes.

But forgive them?

I'll let you all in on a little secret. People much wiser than me have said, and I fully agree with them - Forgiveness isn't about those being forgiven. It's not even about whatever it is that they've done – no matter how indescribably horrible it may have been.

Forgiveness is all about those doing the forgiving.

Whether or not I forgive a person will not (should not) effect what they do with their lives. My forgiveness – or lack thereof – will not be a factor in any decisions they make on a day-to-day basis, and I seriously doubt that they will lose any sleep over whether or not I've forgiven them for whatever it is they have done, or that I have perceived that they've done.

The one that will lose sleep over it is me. I'm the one that will still have the anger and the hatred burning inside of me, effecting my judgments, actions and behavior. I'm the one that will be carrying the grudge and living in the painful history. I'm the one whose decisions of that I make on a day-to-day basis will be influenced and effected by the past.

And in doing so, I will be ignoring the present and avoiding the future.

And nobody should have that kind of power of me. Especially not people as inhuman and despicable as the Nazis.

So – can I forgive? It depends.

The German people that were a part of what happened, yes. I can forgive them. Because I refuse to let them be important enough to keep me from looking ahead and from living my life.

Even that's not all Germans, and it's certainly not Germany as a nation – either then or now.

As soon as I start blaming (and conversely, forgiving) a nation as a whole for the actions of its individual citizens, even when it's a majority of the citizens, then I am essentially doing what the Nazis, and anti-Semites throughout history have done to the Jews. I've grouped them together, taking away all individual identity and relating to a nation as "if you've seen one, you've seen them all".

And if we're supposed to remember the lessons of the Holocaust, then we'll understand that that would be the first step towards sinking to the depths.

1 comment:

  1. Ever since I read this I have been trying to think of something profound to say. It deserves some profound observation or comment. Unfortunately it will not be getting that from me! I would heartily agree with two points you have made though; forgiveness is all about the one doing the forgiving, and blaming/forgiving a whole group for the actions of individuals is not a fair thing to do. (Simplistic paraphrase there, I know...) I think these two points are life lessons indeed.