Forgiveness Extends to Holocaust

by Gary James '10

September 27, 2007

Forgiveness can mean different things to different people. Professor John Roth has exerted a substantial amount of time, energy and thought into probing the nuances of what some consider one of life’s most profound virtues.

John K. Roth is the Robert and Carolyn Frederick Distinguished Visiting Professor of Ethics at DePauw University. He shared his insight Sept. 26 into the necessities and difficulties of Forgiveness in his talk, Forgiveness? Reflections on Ethics after the Holocaust.

The main thrust of Roth’s lecture centered on the implications presented by the question, "Who needs forgiveness?" The question possesses two possible inflections, Roth said. One questioned the universal need of everyone to be forgiven, and the other questioned the virtue of the act itself. Suspicion about the whether or not everyone needs forgiveness came from the observation that some people inflict more harm than others. Suspicion about the virtue of forgiveness sprung from the concern that the mercy would be seen as a pretext to forgetting or trivializing the action that led to need for the forgiveness in the first place.

"To forgive is an act that can have very different meanings," Roth said. "To forgive means to be merciful, to pardon an offense or an offender, to give up a claim against another individual, to set aside a debt, to relinquish anger or resentment however justifiable those feeling may be, to free a person from the burden of guilt. Thus, forgiveness is what we may call afterward. It has that status partly because of the holocaust and other human catastrophes."

It was through crises like the holocaust and apartheid that Roth explored different ways of thinking about forgiveness.

He began with an anecdote about the context of a lecture about forgiveness he delivered at the Cape Town Holocaust Center in South Africa last year. It corresponded with the media attention surrounding an earlier meeting between Reverend Frank Chikane and Mr. Adriaan Vlok. Vlok was former Police Minister during the Apartheid regime. He was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people and was expected to have been involved in an attempt to poison Chikane in the 1980s. In 2006, Vlok performed the symbolic gesture of washing Chikane’s feet.

"The question and answer session was particularly lively that evening," Roth said. "We will see how that discussion plays out tonight. But I think it’s safe to say the theme of forgiveness especially when it is explored in relation to events of atrocities –holocaust and apartheid among them- is bound to be vexed and fraught."

Roth surveyed the different ways of approaching the holocaust by examining the different conclusions scholars and holocaust survivors reached when deciding whether or not perpetrators of the holocaust should be forgiven.

Roth opened his inspection with a statement attributed to Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who survived Auschwitz and eventually became a writer:

"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. "

Rudolf Vrba was a Polish Jew who was able to escape Auschwitz. In 1964 his memoirs were published with the title, "I Cannot Forgive." Although the memoir does not address Vrba’s ideas about forgiveness, Roth argues the title indicates that forgiveness was on his mind and that he thought it important to reject forgiveness for holocaust perpetrators.

"There is a sense that forgiveness is out of place where the holocaust is concerned," Roth said. "Indeed the holocaust is often judged to be unforgivable."

Simon Wiesenthal was an Austrian Jew who survived the holocaust and spent the rest of his life hunting down Nazi war criminals. In one encounter, he came in contact with Nazi soldier on his death bed, who confessed he had participated in the mass murder of Jews, with the hopes of being forgiven before he died. Instead, Wiesenthal walked out of the room without saying a word, conflicted about what to do.

Auschwitz-survivor Jean Amery thought Wiesenthal’s anguish was irrelevant because forgiveness had no place outside of politics, and he refused to forgive criminals. Former Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh said his instinct was to forgive because God would forgive. Lawrence Langer felt that the atrocities of the Nazis were unforgivable

African-American scholar Hubert Locke focused on Wiesenthal’s silence. Some questions don’t have answers, he said. Some answers remove the moral force of the questions. Abraham Joshua Heschel believed no living person could give forgiveness for the 6 million dead at the hand of the Nazis.

Primo Levi understood why Wiesenthal may have been filled with doubts because the issues he was dealt with were not simply "yes" and "no" decisions, Roth said. There was always something to be added to either side.

Roth concluded his lecture by affirming there was no one-size-fits-all approach to forgiveness. Instead he offered six points that could be derived from the considerations of the different perspectives in the Jewish, scholarly, and religious communities. The first was that forgiveness is necessary; the second was that to forgive is dangerous because it can minimize accountability, trivialize suffering, and cause people to forget; the third was to avoid the dangers of forgiveness while reconciling the human need for it by establishing basic conditions for granting forgiveness, such as repentance; the fourth was that forgiveness is a relationship between specific living persons and a living person cannot not forgive on behalf of someone not living; and the fifth was that forgiveness cannot be received through coercion and is gift.

"In their most fundamental sense, our inquires about forgiveness are nothing less than the restoration of a broken human image and the maintenance of any healing we’ve achieved through forgiveness or in the wake of its impossibility," Roth said. "Reflections about forgiveness are by no means the only path in that direction but the quest to recover and deepen our humanity will be impeded and impoverished unless we continue to ask and respond thoughtfully to versions of the question, "who needs forgiveness?"

"I think when you bring people of this stature and this level of expertise on important matters like the holocaust and challenging issues like forgiveness, I think we are all prodded in our thinking," said Religion Professor Jonathan Baer, who handled the logistics of bringing Mr. Roth to campus. "I think we are pushed to consider at a deeper level things that we might not have thought through so clearly. Personally I find that enormously helpful, and I think it’s part of what President White has called part of the ongoing conversation that makes for a liberal arts college that’s more dynamic."

"It was a good talk," said Jeff Kessels ‘10. "It raises questions about self-forgiveness and forgiveness of a community. I can’t forgive anyone for sins he or she has committed against another person. I can only forgive what was actually committed against me. I think the topic was very abstract and raised more questions than it did provide answers."


Wabash College • P.O. Box 352 • Crawfordsville, IN 47933 • 765.361.6100