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Forgiveness and World War II

Were I in Simon Wiesenthal’s place, I would not have forgiven Karl, the SS officer, nor would I have walked away silently like Wiesenthal did. If I had been a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp and had been mistreated and humiliated by SS officers like Karl, I would be too angry to forgive this man who claimed to regret what he did and the part he played. I would have told Karl the horrors of my tenure as a concentration camp prisoner, as a Jew, and as a person who had friends and family who were being persecuted by officers like Karl. Then, I would have explained to him why I could not pity him even as he was on his deathbed.

Karl was not forced to commit the crimes he performed or to partake in the activities he participated in; however, he did these things. In freely choosing to denigrate, torture and brutalize persons from a select ethnic group, Karl consciously denied the humanity of the Jewish population. It was only as he lay on his deathbed, that he sought forgiveness. It does not appear that there were true recognition and awareness on his part of the magnitude of the harm that his decision had caused. Moshe Bejski says, “Only the awareness of imminent and certain death induced Karl to think that his actions had been crimes against both humanity and God. Had he not been mortally wounded, he would almost certainly have continued to commit these crimes” (Wiesenthal 113). In other words, had Karl many more years to live, he most likely would not have had these same thoughts of regret that came to him as he was on the verge of death. Forgiveness would allow him to die in a state of peace that he had not allowed his victims.

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Forgiveness should only be given to those who are truly sorry and regretful of what they’ve done. Karl does not seem to be truly repentant. His lack of true remorse is apparent when he requests the presence of “a Jew,” meaning any Jew, and when he states that Jews were not as guilty as he was. Karl says to Wiesenthal, “I only know you are a Jew and that is enough”(54). Karl does not care whom he is speaking to. He believes that he can clear his conscience by asking forgiveness of anyone categorized in the same group as those he killed and harmed. Alan L. Berger agrees, “in asking for a Jew to hear his confession, Karl perpetuated the Nazi stereotype. Jews were not individuals with souls, feelings, aspirations, and emotions. Rather, they were perceived as an amorphous, undifferentiated mass. … Karl has learned nothing” (Wiesenthal 119). By asking for merely a Jew, Karl proves that he has still not learned that Jews are people like himself. Furthermore, when he says, “those Jews died quickly, they did not suffer as I do though they were not as guilty as I am” (Wiesenthal 52), Karl seems to be trying to justify himself and his actions.

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When one is truly sorry for what he has done he need not justify himself because he knows he was wrong. Karl does not deserve forgiveness because he does not seem truly regretful of his actions. On the other hand, both Theodore M. Hesburgh and José Hobday would have forgiven unconditionally. Hesburgh states, “if asked to forgive, by anyone, for anything, I would forgive because God would forgive” (Wiesenthal 169).

Hobday says, “I would have forgiven, as much for my own peace as for Karl’s” (Wiesenthal 175). Simply because he was dying and thinking only of himself, Karl felt that he was worthy of forgiveness from a randomly selected Jew. He burdened Wiesenthal with his confession expecting this to be enough to gain his forgiveness. The results of Karl’s crimes are not so easily repaired. Karl had not yet acknowledged the true harms of his crimes and therefore could not be fully repentant. His request for forgiveness is limited to one of his crimes. Where is his recall of all the others? All that he did as an SS Officer needed to be understood and repented. Karl had not yet reached that stage.

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