According to a survey taken a few years ago, 23% of Israelis felt that it was time to forgive the German people and Germany for their crimes in the Holocaust. 70% said they could not forgive and 7% were undecided.
The question has little, or nothing to do with the Germans – or even the Nazis. It’s not really even about the Holocaust. The question is about us. It is at the core of how we define ourselves as Jews, as Israelis, and as human beings.
God Forbid that we ever forget the Holocaust. We remember all that we can – not to dwell on how terrible things were, not to wallow in misery, and certainly not to garner sympathy or to draw connections between what happened then and today.
Rather, we remember so that we can teach and learn whatever possible in order to ensure that it never happens again. Not to us. Not to anybody.
The Holocaust taught us to never assume that there are limits to what people can do. Nor are there limits to what others will sit back and observe without lifting a finger to change anything.
In the wake of the Holocaust, many people felt that they could no longer believe in God. For them, the depths to which mankind sank made it impossible to accept the existence of a Supreme Being, an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God.
However, in his book “Faith after the Holocaust” (1973), Rav Eliezer Berkovitz, z”l wrote that beyond the many documented stories of man’s unnatural and inexplicable cruelty to his fellow man, there are also many documented stories from the Holocaust of man’s equally unnatural and inexplicable love for his fellow man.
There are dozens – if not hundreds of stories from the death camps of prisoners who gave what little food they had to fellow inmates who were in even more dire situations than themselves. Some of the camps’ prisoners found the ability to offer hope, encouragement, and even love –when all around them was hopelessness and death. Berkovitz held that these acts of faith and of loving-kindness in the death camps that were no less unnatural and abnormal as were the acts of depravity and hatred and cruelty.
If the unnatural inhumanity can prove God’s absence, then is it possible that the equally unnatural humanity can prove not only His existence, but His presence as well?
Perhaps this is the real lesson of the Holocaust for us today. The knowledge that no matter how hopeless and bleak everything around us may be, we can still have and find that spark of humanity and love. That is the spark of godliness.
No. We can never forget the Holocaust. It contains too many lessons – both positive and negative – that are crucial to us as human beings.
But can we forgive?
We have not stopped hunting Nazi war criminals, and many have been captured, tried and sentenced over the years. This (rightfully) continues even as the remaining surviving criminals are in their 80s and 90s.
But justice has nothing to do with forgiveness. Forgiving or not forgiving those who willfully participated in the attempted extermination of an entire people, is not relevant. Rather, what matters is that they pay the price for their crimes, no matter how little time they have remaining to do so.
There is a fine line between the “letting go” of forgiveness and the holding on to the memories and the lessons learned. This may be our greatest challenge today, and it is critical on many additional levels.
We can never forget the crimes and horrors of the Holocaust, nor the individuals who allowed it to happen. No more than we can forget terrorists today who perpetuate a reality of terror and fear.
But forgiving is not forgetting. Forgiving is not just letting “bygones be bygones.” It is not about those being forgiven, but rather about those who forgive.
Forgiving is about letting go of the anger that otherwise threatens to eat us up inside. Forgiving is about living in the “now” and looking ahead, not behind, all the while being aware of what has been to now and how we have come to be where we are.
That is why I forgive. It is not forgetting. It is about me making an active and conscious decision that my entire being is guided by that spark of godliness that exists in each of us, and not by the burning hatred that would prevent me from seeing the hope and the love that is possible in even the most hopeless moments.
Most of all, forgiveness empowers me to break away from the control that my enemies otherwise hold. It is me determining that I will learn from the past, but that neither my present nor my future will be dictated by it.
Most of all, I will not allow myself to do what the Nazis did, and what anti-Semites throughout history have done to the Jews, which is to blame an entire people, even 70 years after the fact for the crimes of their predecessors. By blaming (and conversely, forgiving) a nation as a whole for the actions of its individuals, even a majority of its individuals, I have grouped them together, stripping away their personal identities.
And in doing that, I risk taking the first step of sinking to their depths.