It’s the Jewish high holidays where Jews ask for — and give — forgiveness for bad deeds, no matter if these actions were done intentionally or accidentally. We also ask for forgiveness for wrongs we committed by standing idly by when others were doing evil.
The process of forgiveness is not a science. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if we are getting it right or wrong.
When it comes to evil actions, the Holocaust is in a category of its own. There were layers of evil. At the top was Hitler and key members of his team who created and executed evil deeds. There were people who “followed orders” and did terrible things themselves. There were those people who voted to put Nazis in power. And there were “bystanders” who simply did nothing to stop the evil from happening.
Who and how can they be forgiven? Is there a time limit on this? Does the guilt pass onto their children or country? Is this still relevant today?
My grandfather, Daniel Laszlo M.D., and my grandmother, Edith Vincze Laszlo M.D., were Jewish. They went to medical school in Vienna, Austria. They then lived in Germany as visiting scientists and doctors when the Nazis started their rise. Jewish and with a newborn baby (my father), my grandparents hastened back to Vienna. There my grandmother published scientific papers and practiced psychology and neuroscience with Anna Freud, and my grandfather was a breakthrough thinker in medicine.
As you certainly know, that was not a safe place for Jews either as the Austrian people voted the Nazis into power.
In 1938, my father and his parents were in their family apartment at 58 Wahringstrasse as Nazis paraded in. Hitler himself was welcomed as a hero. A huge parade celebrating Hitler went directly under my family’s apartment. There were soldiers, tanks, and tens of thousands of cheering Austrians. My father and his parents saw it all.
Eventually, after a lot of struggles, my father and his parents were amongst the relatively few lucky to escape to the United State. However, much of our family was trapped in Europe killed by the Nazis.
When my father turned 85, three generations of our family went to Vienna and saw where he lived as a child. We also visited here his parents were doctors. It was deeply moving.
Today, using DNA, various ancestry tools and experts, we are still looking for surviving family members. Sadly, while we have confirmed how and where many of our family members were killed, in terms of survivors we have only gotten as close as fourth cousins.
So back to the high holiday question of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. We must never forget what happened.
The Austrians CHOSE to bring in Hitler after he wrote Mein Kampf which called for genocide against Jews. So, does Jewish law require us to forgive them? Do they want forgiveness? They do and have been demonstrating it for a long time.
Decades ago, I met Austria’s then Ambassador to the United States, Helmut Tuerk. He was reaching out to Jewish leaders and building ties. Since then, I have met several of their ambassadors, including Peter Moser, Eva Nowotny and Martin Weiss. Each continued to do the same thing as well as to host events acknowledging Austria’s role in the Holocaust.
Are there anti-Semites still in Austria? Sadly, like pretty much everywhere else, they exist.
Decades ago, when I was working in strategic communications, I was invited to Austria to help political and other campaigns push against bigoted leaders and groups. The non-Jewish Austrians I worked with, including major political, media and union leaders, were amazing in fighting haters.
More recently I was invited to receive an award at the United Nations in Vienna for work on disability issues. From the floor of the United Nations – in front of more than 3000 people from 70 countries — I reminded the audience about Austria’s Nazi past. Wearing my Lion of Judah pin – which has a large Jewish star – I spoke about how Nazis killed Jews and people with disabilities alike. The Austrians and others in the audience were actually grateful for the reminders and determined to do more and do better.
At this point I have been to Austria many times. Every time I go, I wear a Jewish star which is almost as visible as the yellow Stars of David that Jews were forced to wear during the Nazi regime.
I know Jews who live in Austria today. While today’s community is only a tiny fraction of the size of the pre-Holocaust Jewish population in Vienna, the current Jewish community in Vienna is thriving.
This year, taking advantage of a program that the government of Austria has to help account for the crimes of the Holocaust, I got Austrian Citizenship for myself and our children. There is a fair amount of paperwork involved, and the embassy staff was very helpful. I am grateful to the government of Austria and to my many Austrian friends for their openness in acknowledging their history and learning from it to promote a better future for everyone.
It was meaningful for me to close a loop to take back the citizenship that was denied to our family by the Nazis. It was, and remains, a part of forgiveness, the theme of this holiday period and a key part of our tradition. It’s not easy and I don’t think people who themselves were personally victims of the Nazis can necessarily forgive. What happened to my father and his family — my ancestors – was inhumane.
I don’t know if my long deceased grandparents would approve of my getting Austrian citizenship for myself. But given how hard it was for them to get out of Europe, I imagine that they would be happy that my children have more citizenships and European passports as options.
One clear lesson of the Holocaust is that it is good to have ways to escape when terrible things happen.