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Can we forgive the Nazis?

An Auschwitz guard's recent apology can't reach those he wronged, and nobody else has the right to accept it

Just a few days before Yom Ha-Shoah, a 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard currently standing trial in Germany, apologized to his victims in court. Reinhold Hanning, on trial for being an accessory to the murder of 170,000 people, said in court last Friday that he is “ashamed that I knowingly let injustice happen and did nothing to oppose it,” The Jerusalem Post reported.

Mr. Hanning continued with what appeared to be a sincere apology.

But can we ever forgive a Nazi for his misdeeds?

We constantly repeat the mantra, ‘Never Forget.’ Does that include ‘Never Forgive?’

In his Laws of Repentance (2:10), Maimonides writes that it is “prohibited for one to be cruel and not be appeased. Instead, one should be easily appeased and slow to anger…” He adds that, “he who refuses to forgive is the sinner” (2:9). And by being compassionate, slow to anger, and quick to forgive, we imitate the Divine (see Mekhilta, Beshalah 3).

It is Jewish nature to be forgiving. We are, after all, ‘merciful, the children of the merciful.’

But are there some sins so egregious, some offenses so beyond the pale, that they can never be forgiven?

After describing the rivers of Jewish blood he shed during the destruction of the Holy Temple, the Talmud (Gittin 57b) relates that Nebuzaradan, the “Chief Butcher,” became a righteous convert. The Talmud continues and states: “Na’aman became a Ger Toshav… The descendants of Haman taught Torah in Bnei Brak, the descendants of Siserah taught children in Jerusalem, the descendants of Sancheirev taught Torah to the masses. Who were they? Shamaya and Avtalyon…”

In this talmudic account, our enemies and their children are embraced as converts; welcomed into the bosom of Judaism — even becoming the teachers of Torah to the Nation!

The very real question of allowing someone with Jewish blood on his hands to convert was raised in the years following World War II, when a former Nazi officer, contrite and repentant, applied to convert to Judaism in the newly minted State of Israel.

Moshe Ha-Levi Steinberg, a Galician rabbi who served as Av Beit Din in Kiryat Yam and considered one of the preeminent experts on conversion, was consulted. He responded,

If we judge the matter based on humanity in general, or our National dignity or emotions in particular, it is clear that our conscience would not allow us to answer in the affirmative. A person like this, whose hands are full of Jewish blood, has no place in the Camp of Israel… His place is far from the House of Israel. How difficult would it be to say of him: ‘You are our brother.’ (Hukat Ha-Ger, 1971, pp. 103-104)

But Rabbi Steinberg continues and writes, “But from the perspective of dry Halakha, I can see no reason not to accept him.”

Rabbi Steinberg then cites the talmudic passage about Nebuzaradan, et al., along with other talmudic and midrashic passages which speak to the power of teshuvah, repentance. He concludes that if a Beit Din is convinced that this individual truly regrets his misdeeds, has done complete teshuvah, and is sincere in his desire to join the Jewish People without any ulterior motives, he may become a Jew.

Rabbi Shmuel Wosner also ruled that if sincere in his contrition and in his desire to come under the wings of the Shekhinah, a former Nazi can be accepted as a convert (Shevet Ha-Levi 5:149).

And over the years, former Nazis, along with children and blood relatives of those who committed atrocities, have converted to Judaism. As impossible as it sounds, relatives of Adolf Hitler are living today as Jews in the State of Israel.

But allowing one to convert isn’t the same as absolving them of their sins. As Rabbis Steinberg and Wosner write, according to the strict letter of the law, there is no reason not to accept them, assuming they are sincere. However, Jewish law also teaches that a convert who has committed crimes in his past must pay for them following his conversion. Concerning a righteous convert who stole from a Jew before converting, R. Yair Bacharach (17th C., Germany) ruled that the theft must be repaid (Havot Yair, 79). He cites Sanhedrin 71b, which states that a gentile who commits murder and then converts to Judaism is subsequently punished with the death penalty. When it comes to sins like blasphemy, the new convert is exempt, as his conversion makes him into a ‘new man.’ Tosafot (ad loc.) explains that this may be true of sins of man against God, but the convert is still held accountable for sins against his fellow man.

Accordingly, a former Nazi with Jewish blood on his hands would still be culpable, even following his conversion. The conversion does not imply forgiveness or atonement.

The question of ‘can we forgive?’ became a national conversation in the days following the founding of the State of Israel, when an agreement was made with West Germany to pay reparations for Jewish slave labor and to compensate for Jewish property and assets lost. Advocates like Ben Gurion argued that the reparations demand was based on recovering as much Jewish assets as possible, “so that the murderers do not become the heirs as well,” in addition to the need to finance the absorption of Holocaust survivors in Israel. Menachem Begin famously opposed accepting any reparations, seeing it as granting forgiveness to the Germans. Students of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik report that initially he too was against Israel accepting reparations, only to later concede that the nascent nation most likely needed the reparations to survive the early years following independence.

In his book, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Simon Wiesenthal provides a fictional account of a concentration camp inmate summoned from his labor detail to the bedside of a dying SS soldier. The soldier, his hands soaked with Jewish blood and his conscience torturing him in his last moments on Earth, seeks out a Jew to whom he could confess and beg for forgiveness before dying. Instead of providing atonement, the Jew is silent; leaving the room without saying anything to the Nazi. Wiesenthal ends his book by posing the ethical dilemma of whether or not to forgive the soldier to his readers. Subsequent editions of the book contain responses from leading thinkers, religious figures, theologians, and even former Nazis.

But the truth is, repentance and contrition aside, no one has the power, or the right to grant forgiveness, except the individual victim upon whom the crime has been perpetrated. As the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9) states, “Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between man and God, but for a transgression against one’s fellow man, Yom Kippur cannot atone until he appeases his fellow…”

Forgiveness is personal; individual. Not even God Himself will forgive the trespasses carried out against another man before that individual grants forgiveness.

So Mr. Reinhold Hanning’s apology, as sincere as it may be, falls on deaf ears. Those holy souls who could grant him forgiveness are no longer here to forgive.

As to the question of whether we can ever forgive the Nazis, I, like the protagonist in Weisenthal’s The Sunflower, do not have an answer. I remain silent.

About the Author
Rabbi Shimshon HaKohen Nadel lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as Rav Kehilah of Har Nof's Kehilat Zichron Yosef.
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