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Would you forgive this man?

"Would you forgive this man?" Continued...

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

Wiesenthal makes clear Seidl's deep sincerity, quoting him as saying, "I cannot die . . . without coming clean. This must be my confession. I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. . . . I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace."

Seidl begged for forgiveness, but he apparently did not die in peace: Wiesenthal said nothing and walked out. Over the subsequent two years Wiesenthal told fellow camp mates of this incident, each time asking them, "Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong?" He stipulated that Seidl sounded truly repentant, truly haunted by his sins. He noted that Seidl died the next day and left Wiesenthal all his possessions-but he refused to take them.

Wiesenthal argued that only the victims can truly forgive their perpetrators: The dead cannot offer forgiveness and co-religionists cannot take their place. "Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision," he wrote.

Wiesenthal did not forget and did not forgive. One of fewer than 34 survivors out of 149,000 prisoners originally in that camp-89 members of his extended family perished in the Holocaust-he ferreted out information that led to the arrest of over 1,000 Nazi war criminals. He died in 2005 at the age of 96.

Asked by other Jews why he devoted his life to documenting Nazi crimes and providing information that led to the capture of over 1,000 Nazis, he said that he believed in life after death: "When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us, 'What have you done?' there will be many answers. You will say, 'I became a jeweler,' another will say, 'I have smuggled coffee and American cigarettes,' another will say, 'I built houses.' But I will say, 'I didn't forget you.'"

After Wiesenthal wrote in The Sunflower his account of meeting with Seidl, he solicited responses from leading theologians, psychiatrists, genocide survivors, human-rights activists, and others. Of the 53 who responded, roughly one-fourth said he should have forgiven the man. One-fourth said he should not have. One-half did not have a clear position. Christians tended to say Wiesenthal should have forgiven Seidl. Jews tended to say no.

Most of the Jewish respondents were strong on memory and tough on forgiveness. Some cited the sage Moses Maimonides, who argued that no apology is real until the sinner has the opportunity to do wrong a second time and does not. One respondent, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, who later committed suicide, said Seidl was manipulating Wiesenthal and deserved no respect.

Most Christian respondents said Wiesenthal should have forgiven Seidl: Forgiveness is a virtue commanded by God. South Africa's Desmond Tutu emphasized the personal difficulty for Wiesenthal but argued, "Without forgiveness there is no future."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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