Simon Wiesenthal himself tells this story. When he was in the concentration camp in Lemberg, he was selected at random from a work detail and taken to a hospital room where there was a pitiful figure wrapped in blood-stained bandages lying on a bed.
It was a German officer. His name was Karl. In a trembling voice he told Simon his story. And then he spoke of a terrible atrocity, when his unit herded all the Jews from one village into a wooden building and put fire to all 150 Jews. Some of them, their clothes and hair ablaze, leaped from the second floor and the SS soldiers – he among them- shot them as they fell.
He started to tell of one child in particular, a young boy with black hair and dark eyes, but his voice gave way.
Several times Wiesenthal tried to leave the room, but every time the mummy-like figure would reach out with a cold, bloodless hand and constrain him.
Finally Karl explained why he had summoned a Jewish prisoner. He had asked a nurse whether any Jews still existed; he wanted to ask for forgiveness for all his crimes against the Jews.
Wiesenthal stood in silence for a long time, staring at the man’s bandaged face. At last he made up his mind. He turned around and just left the room, without saying a word.
The soldier was left to die in torment, unforgiven.
Wiesentahl finishes this story with a question. “If you were in my place and you and your people have suffered as much as I did from these Nazi soldiers, what would you have done?”
It is true. Forgiveness is impossible.
You need to be a God to forgive.
The whole point is that a Christian is called to become a God!
Corrie Ten Boom also was in a concentration camp. Ravensbruck. When the allies freed her, there began a long process in her heart of forgiveness. She wanted desperately to free herself from the terrible cage of unforgiveness.
In 1947, three/four year after her release from the camp, she found herself speaking in a church in Munich. She was talking about forgiveness. At the end of the talk, a heavyset man approached her. She recognized him immediately.
“Memories of the concentration camp came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, her ribs sharp beneath the parchment of skin…”
This man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where they were sent.
Now he was in front of her, hand thrust out: “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
Corrie herself continues. “It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.”
“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk, “he was saying. “I was a guard there. But since that time, ” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein” – again the hand came out- “will you forgive me?”
“I stood there – and could not forgive. My sister had died in that place – could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?”
He kept standing there, hand held out. And “still I stood there with this coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this flowing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”
Very true! There may be, and in fact there are, one thousand and one reasons why we should forgive. Emotional, psychological, spiritual reasons. However none of the reasons give us the strength we need to do it…
The bottom line is that we can only forgive if we have experienced forgiveness.
“God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is Saint Paul speaking. This is the whole key of everything. He himself has forgiven us repeatedly. He loved us when we were evil.
And so, yes, we can forgive. When you feel loved, you can love. When you feel forgiven, you can forgive.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.