Can a Holocaust survivor ever forgive the Germans?
Anita Epstein, who was born in the Krakow ghetto in 1942, reflects on the collective guilt experienced by post-war Germans and on her own inability to see past the death she was spared.
It was more than 15 years ago, but I still remember the day clearly. My husband and I hosted a dinner at our home for emerging young German leaders. They were participating in an exchange program with the American Jewish Committee that included a week in Washington, D.C. I viewed the evening as a test of how I would deal with Germans — indeed, of whether I could deal with them at all.
The Germans, after all, had murdered almost all of my family in the Holocaust, to say nothing of their wanton slaughter of millions of other Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and others. I escaped that gruesome fate myself only because shortly after my birth in the Krakow ghetto, in November 1942, my parents gave me away to be hidden by a Polish Catholic family. More than a million Jewish children, however, were not so fortunate: They were strangled or starved, shot or gassed, bashed against walls or tossed out windows, burned in ovens or buried in mass graves.
I tried to behave myself that evening. I really did. But I could not help myself: I asked a wispy young German woman with whom I was speaking whether she thought she was capable of throwing a baby off a balcony.
She was stunned. “What do you mean?” I told her that Germans routinely had thrown Jewish children off balconies during the Holocaust. Did she think she could do something like that? She protested. She said that she was not even alive during the Holocaust. How could I think such a thing?
Wouldn’t I ever be able to forgive the Germans? She began to cry.
I told her that it was not hard for me to think such a thing. I think about such things often. I think about how easily I could have been one of the murdered babies. I think of how the Germans killed all pregnant Jewish women they discovered in the ghetto along with so many others. I think of how my mother avoided their clutches to bring me into this world and, after she suffered terribly in four Nazi camps and returned from the brink of death, found me again after the war. And I think of the father, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and others I will never know, of the postwar anti-Semitism in Germany and Poland, and of the resentment heaped on me by some Holocaust survivors whose own sons and daughters had perished. (When I was older I realized that I was a constant reminder to them of their inability to save their children. I evidently was being punished for living.)
Despite all of this and more, I have managed to have a full life, if a deeply scarred one. After several years spent chiefly in a displaced persons camp in Germany, I came to America on a crammed troop ship, the U.S.S. Taylor, and in New York survived a different kind of ghetto — Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. I married and raised two wonderful daughters who have given me five marvelous grandchildren. I have done fulfilling work in publishing, in teaching and, for 30 years, as a Washington lobbyist.
None of this, however, has been thanks to the Germans, who are responsible only for the darkest corners of my life, including, among other things, my regular nightmares, my survivor guilt (why was I spared?), and my persistent fear of intruders and attackers. No, I cannot forgive the Germans. That’s God’s job.
Of course, many people would disapprove of this view, and they can draw on an extensive literature about the importance of forgiving, including texts from the world’s religions, pronunciations of literary lions and volumes from modern psychology and psychiatry. For me, though, most of their arguments miss the point. Consider perhaps the most well-worn dictum in favor of letting bygones be bygones: Alexander Pope’s “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” In my case I find it easily dismissible. This is not only because it would be disgraceful to apply a remark about literary criticism — the line is from Pope’s 1711 “An Essay on Criticism,” which is actually a poem — to Germany’s systematic extermination of more than 6 million innocent people. Even more, it would be outrageous to characterize so immense an abomination as “erring.”
I am also unpersuaded by those who favor forgiveness because the act often makes the person doing the forgiving feel better. That’s a favorite of psychiatrists and psychologists, who are of course dedicated to making their patients feel better about themselves. Thus one can find works about how bestowing forgiveness can lift a weight from your shoulders, set you free, bring you peace and improve your physical health in the process. The problem is that I have long felt tolerably well about myself. Indeed, for me, the idea of forgiving those who perpetrated the Holocaust would have the opposite effect: It would make it hard for me to live with myself, to get out of bed and look in the mirror. I could not dishonor the memory of my family members and the millions of other Holocaust victims by giving a free pass to their murderers. That would only signal to other bestial beings that they, too, would be forgiven if they were to commit genocide.
Granted, a good number of people have followed the healing-through-forgiveness advice and benefited. They range from passed-over employees with deep grievances and divorcées seeking revenge to victims of childhood sex abuse and mothers in Northern Ireland who have had to bury their sons. In the Jewish community, one of the most striking examples is Eva Kor, a victim of Dr. Josef Mengele’s vile genetic “experiments” at Auschwitz on Jewish and Gypsy twins, dwarfs and others. The subject of a documentary film called “Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” Kor stood at Auschwitz in the winter of 1995, 50 years after its liberation, and declared that she was granting “amnesty to all Nazis who participated directly or indirectly in the murder of my family and millions of others,” including Mengele.
So dramatic a declaration took the Jewish community aback and infuriated other twins who had been Mengele victims. After all, the “Angel of Death,” as the racial researcher was known, had brutalized and killed thousands. He selected twins for “experiments” on heredity, relationships between racial types and disease, on eye coloration and other questions raised by his mentor, Otmar von Verschuer, a pathologist who was a leading proponent of Nazi racial policies. Mengele put children through excruciating pain, ordering surgeries, spinal taps and other procedures without anesthesia. He had some twins infected with deadly diseases, others castrated, still others injected in their eyes with chemicals and at least one set sewn together. Many twins were killed with injections of phenol or chloroform into their hearts, after which their bodies were dissected and their eyes and other organs sent to Verschuer in Berlin. That is the man Kor wanted to forgive.
Whether she knew it or not, however, Kor had her own Jewish problem: Judaism does not give her the ability to forgive Mengele or others. Judaic paths to forgiveness are, of course, unlike those of other religions. In Judaism, a person cannot obtain forgiveness from God for wrongs done to other people, only for sins committed against God. For sins against others, Jewish law and tradition require offenders to express remorse, genuinely repent, provide recompense to victims if appropriate — and directly ask the victim, three times, for forgiveness. Obviously, Josef Mengele did not repent, and he did not beg Kor or other victims for forgiveness. Kor was thus mistaken when she thought, and said, that she had the power to forgive Mengele. She did not, at least so far as Judaism is concerned, and she certainly could not speak for her family or other victims or forgive all other Nazis, only those who specifically sinned against her.
Like anybody else, Kor naturally could come to terms personally with the atrocities committed by Mengele and other Nazis. While that would not absolve Mengele or anybody else, it could — and evidently did — help Kor. “I felt a burden of pain was lifted from me,” she has said. “I was no longer in the grip of pain and hate; I was finally free. The day I forgave the Nazis, privately I forgave my parents whom I hated all my life for not having saved me from Auschwitz. Children expect their parents to protect them, mine couldn’t. And then I forgave myself for hating my parents. Forgiveness is really nothing more than an act of self-healing and self-empowerment.”
I’m afraid not. Forgiveness is, by definition, much more than a self-centered act. What Kor is describing is closer to catharsis, a purging of pain, a very different process — and one that not all Holocaust survivors wish to experience. Elie Wiesel, for example, has remarked, “I want to keep that pain; that zone of pain must stay inside me.” While I did not suffer from the ineffable horror of the concentration camps as Wiesel, my mother, my murdered family members and so many others did, I know what he means. I, too, want to hold onto my pain. It helps ensure that the past is always present in me. It is an important part of what keeps me close to those I lost and to the world that died with them.
It also helps me deal with questions that keep rattling around in my head. For example, while the overwhelming majority of today’s Germans obviously were born after the Holocaust, do they nonetheless share guilt for the actions (or inactions) of their parents and grandparents? I have family members and friends who think not, who firmly believe that one can never hold children guilty for the sins of their parents. I have even been called some unpleasant names for holding an opposing view. I have noticed, however, that such opinions usually come from people who did not suffer from the Holocaust, who are a generation or two removed, and whose beliefs are rooted in theory, not experience. I think that such people, good-hearted though they may be, may find that the answer is not as simple as they think.
They are often among the first, after all, to insist on collective guilt for atrocious episodes in our own nation’s past — the horrors of slavery, the slaughter of Native Americans, the World War II internment of Japanese Americans and other acts committed in our name. Such American guilt has been passed from generation to generation (though our forbears were in many cases not even on these shores when the events occurred), and it has triggered such public responses as affirmative action; Japanese-American reparations payments; compensatory education, jobs and housing policies; and repatriation of tribal graves and cultural property.
Like a number of other nations, today’s Germany also struggles with collective guilt for the sins of parents and grandparents. Germany’s burden is especially heavy, because it stems from what former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder termed “the greatest crime in the history of mankind,” the ultimate sin. Nations cannot easily shed that kind of guilt, and certainly not in a generation or two.
That’s why Germany tries so hard, to this day, to make amends with the Jewish community, a seemingly impossible job. It not only has made restitution payments to a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors for more than 60 years. It also stands behind Israel in the Middle East. It is Israel’s second-largest trading partner. It has encouraged the renewal of a sizable Jewish community in Germany. It has built Holocaust memorials, created Holocaust school curricula, maintained former concentration camps as museums.
This is as it should be. If the pain of the past is always present in me, as it is in many other survivors and their children, it does not trouble me that contemporary Germans live with the hurt from that past as well. After all, just as children inherit wealth and otherwise benefit from what their parents achieve, so do they sometimes inherit their parents’ debts, including this one.
As for forgiveness, the truth is that I could not forgive today’s Germans even if I wanted to. While I never explained this to the young German woman at my home that day, under Judaic law both the perpetrators and the survivors must be alive to have even the possibility of forgiveness. It is because of this, in fact, that some Jewish and Christian scholars have been groping with the question of whether, when all of Hitler’s henchmen and their victims are gone, the Jewish community will have any ability to grant forgiveness for the Holocaust. The answer seems to be that it will not. For me, though, this is not a terribly difficult question to begin with: I believe that the Holocaust is among what Moses Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, the 12th-century compilation of Jewish religious law, suggested were sins so hideous as to be beyond the realm of human forgiveness.
Nevertheless, many in the American Jewish community at least want to pursue reconciliation, if not forgiveness, with others. They are understandably eager to respond to Germany’s gestures toward the Jewish community and Israel, as well as to public statements of remorse by Protestant and Catholic leaders for the mistreatment of Jews. I certainly endorse reconciliation with Christian communities in general. I also understand the importance of Jewish and Israeli links to Germany today, just as I understand how U.S. national interests dictated that our main World War II enemies, Germany and Japan, become our postwar allies or that today we have shifting alliances with former foes like Russia and China. Such is the world of realpolitik.
On a personal level, however, I feel quite differently. I have never sought any restitution payments from Germany, and while I am mindful of how many Jews in Germany today are from the former Soviet Union, I still find it hard to comprehend why any Jew would want to live in that country. As for myself, I will never again set foot on German soil. I flinch just hearing someone talking German, the language I spoke myself when I first arrived in the United States at age 7.
In short, then, there are obvious strategic and practical reasons for reconciling and dealing with Germany. None, however, would move me to forgive all Germans today even if I had the ability to do so. In the end Germans will have to ask the Almighty for such absolution (though I sure would like to be there to have my say during those conversations).
Anita Epstein, who is among the world’s youngest Holocaust survivors, is preparing her memoirs with the help of her journalist husband.
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