Monday 1 April 2013

The Ethics of Forgiveness in The Storyteller

My piece from Critics at Large
Simon Wiesenthal
In the Epilogue of That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013, I wrote that “not a single SS officer arrested after the war demonstrated any remorse.” I had not yet encountered a perpetrator seeking forgiveness from a victim until I read The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (1969, 1997) by the late concentration camp survivor and Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal. He recounts that when in the camps he was once assigned to hear the death-bed confession of a SS officer in the hope that he, a Jew, would offer the dying man absolution. Although the young man appeared to show remorse over the crimes in which he had participated in the East, he was also self-centered, as he repeatedly indicated that he was too young to die, and more offensively, he contended that Jews died quickly, whereas, he was suffering a slow death. Wiesenthal offered compassion by holding his hand and by listening, but he remained silent throughout this ordeal. He left without saying a word. That meeting unsettled him and disturbed his equilibrium when he debated with camp inmates the morality of forgiving this man. Two years later, his companions are all dead but that encounter with the SS officer continued to preoccupy him and invaded his dreams as he talked about it again. After the war, he visited the young man’s mother to hear her story about her “good son” who would never have committed the crimes that she had heard about. He decided not to compound the woman’s sufferings by disabusing her. Wiesenthal came to the conclusion that the only individuals who could offer forgiveness were those who had directly suffered from a perpetrator’s actions. He also noted that twenty five years later at the Stuttgart trials only one of the accused acknowledged his crimes and showed contrition; the rest challenged what the victims said and, according to Wiesenthal, only regretted that there were survivors to testify against them.