The Irish Times, January 19, 2023
As we remember them and all other victims at memorial ceremonies in the coming days, spare a thought for those whose lives have been destroyed in Ukraine
“I have not forgiven any of the culprits nor am I willing to forgive any one of them unless he has shown with deeds not words and not too long afterwards that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors and is determined to condemn them, [to] uproot them from his conscience and that of others.” Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor.
On Friday January 27th, Ireland together with other countries commemorates the Holocaust, remembering the victims of the Nazis including six million Jews. The question of forgiveness will inevitably linger, pressed up against the window, looking in on proceedings, an uninvited guest. With the attendance of religious leaders at most Holocaust memorial ceremonies there is often an unspoken sense that some, nuanced act of forgiveness is unfolding, even unconsciously. Given the scale of the Nazi atrocities and the absence of any regret from the perpetrators, does forgiveness serve any purpose for the victims and their families?
Forgiveness, in a religious sense, was impossible for many Jewish victims for whom faith in God was put to the ultimate test.
Forgiveness, in a classic Christian sense, is very problematic. The Nazis did not acknowledge that their actions were criminal. Indeed, Efraim Zuroff, director of Jerusalem’s Simon Wiesenthal Centre, who has been hunting Nazis since 1978, claims that he has never encountered a Nazi who showed the slightest remorse for their actions. For the victim, a confession by the person responsible for the crime committed against them, allows the process of building a new life to begin. Often the perpetrator is also liberated of the burden.
This is the essence of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions which have successfully rebuilt communities in South Africa, Rwanda, Colombia and elsewhere. Often the victim must accept an amnesty for the perpetrator’s crimes in exchange for their confession. It is not perfect justice but enough to break the emotional logjam for the victim who needs to be heard as a victim.
The Nuremburg trials in 1946 were a grand statement but their significance in influencing Human Rights Law was more meaningful than any real justice they could offer to Nazi victims. Those on trial did not accept culpability.
Forgiveness, in a religious sense, was impossible for many Jewish victims for whom faith in God was put to the ultimate test. Rabbi Hugo Gryn, an Auschwitz survivor and a famous BBC broadcaster, declared that Auschwitz was not a case of “where was God” but a case of “where was man?”
A well-known, imaginable but probably apocryphal story, has a group of rabbis meeting in a barrack in Auschwitz one Friday afternoon. They discuss whether God has broken his covenant with Abraham and abandoned the Jews. God is found guilty. They conclude the meeting and hold Sabbath prayers as the evening draws in. God had been forgiven. For some, faith is blind.
For my mother, a child captive of the Warsaw Ghetto for two years who spent the entire occupation evading the Nazis, the question of God and forgiveness is much simpler. She says, “You can have Auschwitz, or you can have God. You can’t have both.”
At 83, a lifelong opponent of the death penalty, she confesses that she could have killed Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s Angel of Death with her bare hands, given the opportunity. She has succeeded in living a full, purposeful life unconcerned by forgiveness for Nazis.
One day, peace will return to Ukraine and, decades from now, heirs to the tragedy will be living with their inherited histories, trying to understand the behaviour of older generations devastated by war.
Last year proved to be a momentous year for my own understanding of the Holocaust and how it has shaped my life. Launching The Objects of Love at Dublin Castle, an exhibition that details my family story, allowed me to look at this inherited past in a continuum rather than the episodic quanta that I had been drip-fed or stumbled upon during my childhood. The effect was impactful, making unexpected connections and offering me an expanded definition of personal forgiveness. Most revealing was the connection made between honour and forgiveness, nebulised between sophistry and mystery.
When the exhibition opened in January, we were overwhelmed by the interest. The snaking queue of visitors, including attendance by the President, Taoiseach, Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Finance and other officials, brought to mind the removal in Limerick of my late father-in-law, David Punch. A much-loved solicitor, hundreds came to pay their respects. For me, the exhibition goers were unwittingly participating in a State funeral; a State which allowed fewer than 100 Jews entry in the 1930s. For Jews there were no funerals, no unmarked graves. Decades later, in a foreign country, my family was being honoured.
As the need to honour my family became increasingly important to me, the link to forgiveness began to develop. I have no interest in forgiving the perpetrators; they have taken enough from us, and I acknowledge that there are some people who are beyond redemption. I had already begun to explore the idea of forgiving myself for having such heightened feelings around my legacy; a concept first promoted by Viktor Frankl, camp survivor, author of Man’s Search for Meaning and founder of Logotherapy, the third Viennese School of Psychoanalysis after Freud and Adler.
But the exhibition took me a step further: I understood that I needed to forgive my family for the fate that befell them and for involuntarily passing that inheritance on to us. It is significant, even to this staunch atheist, that honouring your parents is the fourth commandment, the first practical one after three concerned with religious ritual. To honour my family, I needed to forgive them. And here lies the route to loving these lost and damaged souls; some, like my maternal grandparents were alien to us growing up. Relationships with their grandchildren were impossible for them to nurture; their own trust in love had been betrayed too deeply. They could not take a risk again.
As we remember them and all the other victims at memorial ceremonies in the coming days, spare a thought for those whose lives have been destroyed in Ukraine. One day, peace will return to that part of the world and, decades from now, heirs to the tragedy will be living with their inherited histories, trying to understand the behaviour of older generations devastated by war: dislocated, distended lives, unable to approach anything remotely resembling forgiveness, their hearts too broken to express love coherently or freely. They will need our patience and our compassion.
Oliver Sears is founder of Holocaust Awareness Ireland