Simon Wiesenthal’s Guilt: Wrong Questions Asked
The Sunflower: On the Possibility and Limits of Forgiveness, includes an episode in Simon Wiesenthal’s life that he felt guilty about for all his days. In it, a dying SS soldier asks him for forgiveness, which leads to silence. The silence is the reason for the guilt that followed.
Simon Wiesenthal asked others what they would do in his position. And received different answers from being justified to he should have forgiveness, since the SS soldier knew he was dying, which showed remorse.
Asking what others would do is the wrong question. No one can truly place themselves in his shoes at that time. This means no one can truly know what they would do.
The right question should be why did he feel guilty decades later for not offering forgiveness. What was it about that single moment that weighed on his soul?
Answering with silence, rather than forgiving the dying SS soldier left him feeling guilty for an important reason.
From Chabad, To Forgive Is Divine:
“For our own sake. Holding on to past hurts and grudges is a heavy burden to carry. The longer we hold on to the grudge, the more power we give to our past tormentors. We owe it to ourselves to move on in life and establish an identity apart from them. Forgiveness is the best way to remove their ability to hurt us.”
That sums up the reason Simon Wiesenthal felt guilty. Not forgiving in that very human moment meant the dying SS soldier had power over him. Perhaps, more than any other atrocity he witnessed, since there are no other moment like it that caused him to feel guilt.
From My Jewish Learning, Is Forgiveness Necessary:
“Teshuvah [return] is part of the structure of God’s creation; hence, the sinner is obligated to do teshuvah and the offended person is obligated to permit teshuvah by the offender.”
According to God, when someone asks a Jewish person to forgive them and that person is sincere, there is a requirement to forgive. There is nothing more sincere than someone who knows death is coming, and wants to right their wrongs.
By remaining silent, rather than forgiving the SS soldier, he allowed that man to have power over him, which spiritually weakened him later. That was the reason for the guilt that continued.
The right question to ask is not if he was right to remain silent, or what someone else would do in his position. It is to ask why he felt guilty about it?
There was a need to make peace with God, since Simon Wiesenthal clearly believed he should have forgiven the dying SS soldier.
Making peace with God through later forgiveness would have severed the power a dead SS soldier had over him.
The dead can be forgiven by the living, since the dead have power over man via past actions. Forgiveness is the means to regain control and become spiritually stronger.