Shall I Forget That Night:
survivors remember-they could never forget. But for what purpose does
the rest of the world remember? To honor the victims of the Holocaust
and to ensure that history will not repeat itself.
Remembering the Unforgettable
Between 1939 and 1945 the Nazis systematically murdered many millions of innocent people, including six million Jews and ten million other non-combatants (Gilbert passim).
For those who somehow survived the slaughter, remembering is not a choice. They struggle with their nightmares. Very little was written by survivors in the years immediately after the war. "'I realize,' wrote Dow Lewi, a survivor of Birkenau, to his sister in Palestine, 'that you, over there, cannot imagine even a hundredth part of the suffering, fear, humiliation, and every kind of bullying that we lived through. Lewi added, 'People who live and think as normal people cannot possibly understand'" (Gilbert 816).
But as the survivors age, that reluctance to speak of the unspeakable has increasingly given way to an even stronger imperative, the imperative "to give witness" (Gilbert 825).Elie Weisel was fourteen years old when he entered the gates of Auschwitz. He lived through Birkenau, Auschwitz, Buna, Buchenwald, and death marches. Ten years after his liberation from Buchenwald, Weisel finally broke his "vow of silence" to tell his story (Robert McAfee Brown, as qtd in Weisel, preface v). In his award winning novel Night, Weisel wrote a true story about the tragic horrors which Jews were forced to commit as a result of starvation, disease, brutality, and murder inflicted upon them by the Nazis. As hundreds of Jews stood, dying, in cattle cars, a few workmen began to throw in pieces of bread. "The audience stared at these skeletons of men, fighting one another to the death for a mouthful" (Weisel 95). A piece of bread flew into Weisel's wagon and there was chaos as men beat each other for a scrap of food. A man started to crawl away from the brawl and hidden in his shirt was a piece of bread. A smile lit his face as he drew out the bread and touched it to his lips. All of a sudden, the man was hit and fell to the floor. As he was being beaten he yelled, "'Meir. Meir, my boy! Don't you recognize me? I'm your father ... you're hurting your father ... you're killing your father! I've got some bread ... for you too ... for you too... '" (Weisel 96). The son snatched the piece of bread and started to eat it. "Two men had seen and hurled themselves upon him. Others joined in. When they withdrew, next to me were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son. I was fifteen years old" (Weisel 96).
For Many Survivors, A Horror Beyond Forgiveness
As survivors continue to put their memories into words, the world, too, must remember the inhumanities of the Nazis. Yet, remembering only goes so far. We must remember, but for what purpose? To exact revenge, or to ensure that it never happens again? Does "never forget" imply that we must "never forgive?" In the past few months the President of Germany has traveled to Israel, and asked the Israeli parliament for "forgiveness for what the Germans have done, for myself and my " (Chadwick). Pope John Paul II, too, has sought forgiveness, for the crimes committed throughout the centuries, by Christians in the name of Christianity (Stanley, 3/13/2000, Al+). In the face of these pleas, what response should be made?
Simon Weisenthal explores the limits of forgiveness in his book The Sunflower. Weisenthal relates that he was a prisoner in a concentration camp when he was asked to forgive a twenty-one year old dying SS man, Karl. The Nazi told Weisenthal he helped to set fire to a house filled with three hundred Jews. The SS were ordered to shoot anyone who tried to escape. The Nazi explained that he was tormented by the memory of what he had done. Karl told Weisenthal that he must be forgiven in order to die in peace. Weisenthal, who had remained silent throughout the entire incident, stood up and walked out of the room, refusing to grant the man the absolution he sought. For years, Weisenthal was haunted by this event in his life, and about whether or not he did the right thing. He asks his readers what they would have done (Weisenthal passim).
Abraham Joshua Heschel responds to Wiesenthal's question with a parable: A rabbi shares a train compartment with some salesmen, who are playing cards and talking loudly. They resent the rabbi's quiet study, and physically remove him from his seat. The rabbi is forced to remain standing for the rest of the long ride. At the train station, the rabbi is greeted by a throng of his supporters, welcoming him home. One of the rowdies, now realizing whom the rabbi is, feels guilty for what he did. The rabbi, however, refuses to forgive the man. When his son asked him why he didn't forgive the man even after three times, the rabbi answered, "I cannot forgive him. He did not know who I was. He offended a common man. Let. the salesman go to him [to all common men] and ask for their forgiveness" (Heschel, as qtd. in Weisenthal, 171). Just as the rabbi could not forgive the salesman in the name of all common people, so Simon Weisenthal cannot forgive Karl on behalf of Karl's murdered victims.
This same sentiment has been expressed by many, but perhaps most poignantly in an Israeli president's first speech to the German parliament. Ezer Weizman, who visited Berlin in 1996, said, "It is not easy for me to be in this land, to listen to the memories and the voices screaming to me from the earth.... As president of the state of Israel," Weizmann continued, "I can grieve for them and commemorate them, but I cannot forgive in their name" (Czuczka).
For many survivors, forgiveness is simply impossible. Lucille E., for example, a survivor who told her story to the Holocaust Oral History Project, said that she feels no resentment towards the Germans today, the Germans who were not involved in the Holocaust. But, she said, "the older ones, there is no forgiving, no forgetting, not for me. But I don't hate; you can't live a life and keep on hating. But no forgiving, no forgetting (Holocaust Oral History Project). Another survivor, Frances Gage, who survived the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz and Mauthausen, said, "We cannot forget. We cannot forgive ... We went through too much" (Weinstein).
Building A Future Together
It is not possible, by the standards of Judaism or humanity, to forgive people in the name of others. It is possible, however, to not bear a grudge against those who had the bad luck, as it is, to be born in Germany. A memorial for the victims of the Holocaust will soon be built in the heart of Berlin, a memorial that Germans will pass on their way to school and work every day of their lives (Young). For all eternity, Germans will know that their ancestors were members of the Third Reich or just everyday Germans who went on with their lives, ignoring their former friends who had inescapable death sentences. There should be no grudge held against these Germans. They will have a sentence of their own: Remembrance. They will never forget what their own flesh and blood did.
When Pope John Paul II spoke in the Hall of Remembrance at Israel's Holocaust museum and memorial a few months ago, he called for remembrance and repentance, in order to "avoid repeating the mistakes of the past." The Pope said,
In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to make some sense of the memories that come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah .... Our religious teachings and our spiritual experience demand that we overcome evil with good. We remember, but not with any desire for vengeance or an incentive to hatred. For us, to remember is to pray for peace and justice, and to commit ourselves to their cause. Only a world at peace, with justice for all, can avoid repeating the mistakes and terrible crimes of the past (Stanley, 3/24/2000, Al+).
Words of apology are painfully inadequate. But the world can do something to honor the victims of the Holocaust, alive and perished. We can remember the sins committed against them. The world will remember, lest it may happen again. The world will remember so that it does not happen again.
"The dead are inside us. They observe us, guide us. They wait for us... They are judging us." -Elie Weisel (Jacoby A15)
Weisel, Elie. Night. 1960. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.
The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by
the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the
Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.