Last Tuesday German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the first high level visit to a Concentration Camp as Head of State, since the last SS Commandant turned to flee the advancing Allied Forces in 1945. Merkel had a very comforting message for those looking to be reminded that out of darkness comes light, as the world lurches though very unsure and turbulent times. She also made an honest attempt at healing old wounds for both the Holocaust survivors accompanying her to Dachau as well as those who would later read her remarks in the papers the following day. Despite the understandable difficulty in revisiting her country’s darkest hour, a somber yet stately Merkel, known by much of Europe as one of its more humane and temperate leaders, asked how Germans only a generation ago could have once gone so far as “to deny people human dignity and the right to live based on their race, religion, their political persuasion or their sexual orientation.” It is important to note that in times where the world is still fighting with terrorism and genocide, that places such as Dachau serve to warn the world that evil on such a scale should never be known by civilization ever again.
Because of the indecency that was once Nazi Germany, the Holocaust left a stain of shame and culpability on a generation of Germans who supported and served the Third Reich. And because the generation which preceded those currently sitting in the Bundestag had tried to extinguish the Jewish flame, It’s acting leader made the point to repeat that her Germany bears a responsibility is preserving that same flame today. This, according to Merkel, forms the very foundation of the relationship between Germany and Israel. “It means that we’ll never been neutral and that Israel can be sure of our support when it comes to ensuring its security.” By citing past transgressions as the fuel to forging better relationships with those once afflicted, or in other words Tshuva and Tikkun Olam, Merkel could very well have canonized herself into the late Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower.
Wiesenthal had a unique way of approaching morality in relation to the Holocaust, where he perceived moral ethics to be made up of two composite parts – guilt and forgiveness. The attempt to reconcile the two produced an interesting polemic involving some of the world’s leading minds in The Sunflower, in which Wiesenthal recounts an impressive episode as a prisoner in the Lemberg concentration camp, where he was summoned in the middle of the night by a dying German soldier to hear his confession in the hope of a clear conscience as he prepared to die. The soldier, an SS officer named Karl Seidl, had been a part of a unit which rounded up and locked 300 Jews into a barn and set it ablaze, shooting those attempting to escape the fire by jumping out of the windows.
The dying solider was not seeking absolution from a priest in his last moments. Only a Jew could provide him with the kind of forgiveness he was looking for. The SS officer explained to Wiesenthal, who would later spend the rest of his life hunting down Nazis, that murdering all those people had been too much for him to bear and tormenting him ever since. Wiesenthal was not able to sort through the emotions and tumult inside of him to respond. He simply stared at the dying Nazi, and eventually turned his back and walked back to his barracks, leaving us to answer the question of whether or not forgiveness for a crime so heinous should be withheld. The question it seems, still looms large over Germany.
As Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel has worked closely with the governments of England, France, Poland, Russia, and of course Israel. It is without question that in the eyes of the Europeans, the Germans have been taken back into the fold. But as Merkel stood in Dachau’s main square, where role call took place every morning under the most difficult and humiliating conditions, she asked what more could Germany do in order to be fully rehabilitated in the eyes of those left who could not forgive what happened to them or their loved ones, seventy years ago. Merkel was asking, just as we as Jews will do in the next few weeks, for a clean slate and a better portion of world to come, asking world Jewry for the same thing SS officer Karl Seidl asked Simon Wiesenthal on that dreary night in Lemberg. She was asking for the kind of forgiveness which affords the guilty party an opportunity for second chance, for a chance to redefine oneself.
Visiting Dachau as I recently did, is a strenuous experience. To a Jew, Dachau is a place of mourning and pain. A place of death and tortured souls, nothing more. But for Germans, Dachau is an ordinary Bavarian town where life goes on unimpeded by the thousands of visitors making their way to the edge of town to visit one of the most chilling tourist destinations in all of Europe. Locals intermingle with tourists as they walk their dogs or stroll through the lush green fields along the old railway lines at the camp gates. For their own sake Germans have learned to cope with imposing reminders like Dachau. But I for one could not stop reliving A.M Rosenthal’s dispatch from Auschwitz noting just as he did that there is no place for beauty in a place of unutterable terror. That it was all too easy to feel anger at the birds for chirping, or at the people who I did not see, but knew to be living in the houses behind the camp. I was angry at the train conductor who brought me to the place. I was angry at Ahmadinejad. But most of all, I was angry at the proximity of this place to civilization. I am glad that there is still nothing to report from Auschwitz, and for a day at least, there was a honorable taking place at Dachau.