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Should We Forgive the Nazis?

Should We Forgive the Nazis?

The Jewish Response to The Sunflower's Moral Dilemma


A marked Jew, an accommodating nun, and a dying Nazi.

These characters take center stage in the moral drama presented by Simon Wiesenthal in his world-famous book, "The Sunflower," mandatory reading in many schools the world over due to the profound and stimulating discussion of ethics it generates.

The author – an Auschwitz Jew facing probable death at the hands of his cruel Nazi handlers – is brought before a fatally wounded S.S. soldier about to breathe his last. Before dying, the Nazi requests forgiveness from our Jew for participating in atrocities against the Jewish people.

An excerpt from his confession:

In vain, he desperately awaits the comforting words that might provide him a peaceful death"Behind the windows of the second floor, I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the mother of the child. With his free hand, the man covered the child's eyes…then he jumped into the street. Seconds later, the mother followed. Then from the other windows fell burning bodies…We shot…"

Viewing Simon as a representative of his people, he seeks to absolve himself and ease his unrelenting conscience through confessing and expressing his regret to him. He asks – no, begs – for a response, for confirmation that his remorse is accepted; in vain, he desperately awaits the comforting words that might provide him a peaceful death. Young Simon, torn and confused, himself still captive in a living hell manned by this man's comrades, holds his silence.

That silence will forever haunt him, tugging at his conscience till his last day.

The author concludes his book with:

"You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, 'What would I have done?'"

This question was later addressed to fifty-three noted religious and world thinkers (thirty-two in the first edition) and their responses make up a symposium presented as book two.

But what might the Torah's perspective be on this delicate issue? What does the book that communicates G‑d's wisdom, speaking on behalf of the creator of morals and ethics, have to say about this? If G‑d were confronted, so to speak, with this complex moral query, how would He respond?

An Ethical Check

Interestingly, it has been pointed out1 that without exception, every Christian respondent (as well as some representatives of other faiths) felt that Simon was wrong in not forgiving the Nazi murderer, while those who were Jewish believed he was right.

It has been suggested2 that this astonishing fact stems not from man's frail nature, the tendency to side with his own – in this case Jews with their coreligionists and Christians with theirs – but from the fundamentally different teachings of these respective religions.3

it has been pointed out that every Christian respondent felt that Simon was wrong in not forgivingOn this issue, Judaism departs radically from other world religions, offering a unique viewpoint and a most necessary contribution to ethical thought.

The Unforgivable Sin

The single most evil generation chronicled in the Bible is undoubtedly the one that earned itself complete annihilation, having been entirely wiped out through the Great Flood.

Never before and never since has the world seen such complete destruction, as the old model was deemed irredeemable. The generation of the Flood was seen to possess no redeemable merit, hence the need for their utter demise.

How inconceivable is that?

Isn't the G‑d we worship a forgiving G‑d, always ready to accept penitence, turning nobody away4? Isn't G‑d the very source of forgiveness?

Man to Man Combat

The answer lies in better understanding the cause of the destruction of this population. Why were they, of all generations ever to live, considered hopeless and incurable? In Judaism, is there any sin considered unforgivable and unworthy of absolution?

The Mishnah states5:

For sins against G‑d, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) brings forgiveness. For sins against one's neighbor, the Day of Atonement brings no forgiveness until one has become reconciled with one's neighbor.

Isn't that ironic? This awesome Day of Pardon holds the power to absolve one of all of one's sins towards G‑d, but proves utterly useless in the face of crimes committed against one's fellow!6

If we were measuring the harshness of sin, wouldn't the opposite be true? Wouldn't the offense against lowly man, a mere creation and subject of G‑d, rank lower than the affront to G‑d, his creator and master?

But the point here is simple. On this unique day of clemency, in a show of unrestrained compassion, G‑d forgives any sin He can, but He does not forgive those he "cannot."

G‑d forgives any sin He can, but He does not forgive those he "cannot"He remains unforgiving when it comes to an offense committed against man not due to a lack of will, which would be quite un-G‑dly, but rather, as He Himself willed it to be, due to a lack of "right" or "power" to forgive sins committed unto others.

He gave the injured party a power He withheld from Himself.

Only those who were wronged can right.

Only he who has suffered, against whom a crime has been committed, is entitled to forgive, if he so desires. He alone can exercise that right.7

The sinners who brought on the Flood sinned not against G‑d as much as they did against their neighbors. They robbed and cheated each other blind. They lived and breathed deceit. They were a society gone rotten, ethically bankrupt as a whole. All they wanted in life was to bring each other down, rejoicing in each other's suffering.

Never before or after this wicked era was mankind that corrupt.

And yet, as evil as these men were, they still retained a residue of conscience. At times they would feel remorse. Rarer, but existent, were moments when they sought to resolve their conflicts. But unlike those experiencing these moments, their neighbors, not afflicted with guilt at the time, wouldn't hear of reconciliation. With ill-concealed pleasure, those seeking forgiveness were turned away. And when they were visited similarly by the very individuals who rejected them, they responded in kind.

Ultimately, as close to appeasement as these people may have come, the end-result was always the same: hard feelings and the exchange of even harsher words and actions. They were "close, but no cigar."

For failing in their attempt to gain forgiveness from one another, thus remaining in actuality un-forgiven, they sentenced themselves to move on from this world where decency, civility, and decorum are a must.

For G‑d could not forgive as long as those were wronged did not.8

NO in Capital Letters

To come back, then, to our inquiry of how Torah would respond to the question raised by Wiesenthal.

The question is not a moral one, pertaining to right or wrong, although it is loosely related; it is, rather, a question of fact, concerning ability: Has one the power to forgive for another?

The real question is not whether or not he should have forgiven, but whether or not he could have Thus, the real question, overlooked by many of the respondents, is not whether or not Simon should have forgiven the Nazi, but whether or not he could have forgiven him.

Perhaps his response could have been: "I may want to (especially given the circumstances) but I simply am not able to."

This is Torah's answer and attitude, derived from an eliminated generation seeking absolution from G‑d for sins towards man: an unequivocal no.

The victim alone owns the copyright to forgive the criminals who committed crimes against him. Anyone who speaks on his behalf, without permission, is no different than a common thief.

What's in It for Me?

This simple yet novel idea underscores the power entrusted to man by G‑d. He alone, from all of creation, can both commit and absolve an act that falls outside of G‑d's jurisdiction, so to speak. The one domain that G‑d handed over to us, providing us with total autonomy, is the sphere of forgiveness—for those acts committed against us personally.

Undeniably, this is a huge honor, coupled with an even greater responsibility.9

One which He, in his infinite wisdom and kindness, saw fit to bestow upon mankind alone.

Let us make Him proud.


See the responses of Denis Prager and Eva Fleischner.


See ibid.


Interestingly, Eva Fleischner, in her response, identifies the common Christian belief that forgiveness is unconditional, etc., as a misunderstanding of Christianity. She asserts that Christianity, like its source in Judaism, maintains that one cannot forgive a sin committed to another.


To quote the Midrash: A king had a son who had gone astray from him on a journey of hundred days. His friends said to him, "Return to your father." He said, "I cannot." Then his father sent a message to him, saying, "Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you." In a similar way, G‑d says, "Return to me and I will return to you."


See Tractate Yoma, 85b.


Ironically, in Christianity, there is one sin that is deemed unforgivable. To quote Edward H. Flannery, "It is a cardinal principle in Judeo-Christian ethics that forgiveness must always be granted to the sincerely repentant. The only seeming exception to this in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is in the New Testament allusion to the 'unforgivable sin' . . . [referring] to a person's rejection of G‑d and therefore precludes a relation to forgiveness of humans."
The contrast, then, to Jewish thought is stark. For in Judaism, the one kind of sin that is unforgivable (by G‑d) is not a sin committed against Himself; that he can find it within Himself to forgive. Rather, it is the sin committed against one's fellow man that He does not forgive.


The story is told of the rabbi of Brisk who was once unassumingly traveling home on the train. He shared company with a group of callous Jews playing cards. Bothered by his aloof attitude, one of them demanded that he join the game or leave the car. When the rabbi didn't comply, the fellow physically removed him from the train car.
When the train arrived at Brisk, also the stop of the offender, he was shocked to see the throngs of people who stood there waiting to greet their rabbi. Mortified, he ran over to ask forgiveness but was denied. Not able to be calmed, he tried again and again. Finally he made contact with the rabbi's son and begged him to find a way for him to be absolved.
The boy, surprised at his father's uncharacteristic behavior, agreed to do whatever possible. He visited his father and began discussing the laws of forgiveness. Their discussion touched upon the law that a person must not turn away someone asking his forgiveness more than three times. Taking his cue, the boy asked his father, "What about So-and-So, he's asked you to forgive him numerous times; yet you deny him forgiveness?"
He replied, "Him? I cannot forgive him for he didn't offend me, the rabbi of Brisk; he offended the simple Jew he took me to be. Let him ask forgiveness from a simple Jew."


Interestingly, though the generation of the Flood was seen to possess no redeemable merit in this world, hence the need for their utter demise, in the World-to-Come, according to one Zoharic opinion, in the after-life otherwise known as "Paradise," there they are, enjoying a substantial portion.
How inconceivable is that?
What merit is so small that it is not enough to keep one alive in this world, but is large enough to earn one a spot in the next?
The Rebbe explains (Likutei Sichot, vol. 3, pg. 755), that because the men of that generation retained a semblance of a conscience and at times felt remorse, they were worthy of a portion in the World-to Come. In the world of the spirit they had redeemable qualities, thus enabling them to enjoy a spiritual reward.
But for failing in their attempt to gain forgiveness from one another, thus remaining in actuality un-forgiven, they were sentenced to move on from this world which must operate based on final results, a world where people actually get along with each other.
For their un-forgiven deeds they were banished from this world, but for their well-meant intentions, they were welcomed into the next.


See Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 606:1, where he discusses the importance of forgiving an individual who is sincerely remorseful.

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—, and is also the author of a popular book titled Seeds of Wisdom.
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Discussion (320)
April 21, 2014
as events unfold in the Ukraine, memories of Babi Yar and of Russian pogroms return. no, not forgiven, not forgotten.
Los Angeles
April 18, 2014
First of all, we have to define forgivness
There's no point in holding a grudge or forgiving Nazis. Their memory should simply be wiped out.

Forgiveness should be reserved only for those who committed a crime once or twice or for a limited time - those who did it because of an uncontrollable urge, in a moment of insanity, those who still have some goodness in them and have completely changed. But those who devote their entire life to hatred and satanic ideology and war and extermination - those people cannot change, nor where they acting because they temporary lost their self-control. They were doing it in cold blood, in sound mind and complete self-control. Those people cannot be forgiven.

An animal which acts on instinct can be forgiven, but not the Satan that acts out of pure evil.
November 20, 2013
Do Not Forgive But Move On With Your Life
Evil such as that does not deserve to be forgiven but eradicated. What rabid dogs and Nazis need is death. If not then ostracism. Alone forever, no friends, no family as long as they live. Also, anything a rabid dog like that ever gets in his life, money, property, even anything as small as a spoon or as large as a house must go to his victims. Of course these things will have to be forcefully taken from him because he will never give them willingly (since rabid dogs never are sincere), but that's ok. Take them from him and leave him in the cold with nothing and no one until the day he dies alone.

As for the Nazi animal's victims and/or their children and grandchildren move on with your lives and find real happiness within yourselves and your families, friends and communities. Make a happy life full of joy and love and lots of children, thrive and stay true to Torah always.
va beach, va
November 19, 2013
How Can We Fail To Forgive?...
Isn't the Question: How Can We Not Forgive? The victims could not have failed to forgive the repentant soldier; if G-d forgives those who commit sins against Him, then we must as well; as a member of the Jewish community the author certainly had the power to forgive the sins against himself as a member of the community and, if one accepts the theory that the victims had an obligation to do so as well, could have spoken on behalf of all (on this point)
New York
October 7, 2013
Very impressive writing.
This writing is very impressive. I remain, however, with some doubts: Certainly that Nazi asked for forgiveness, and it is the right of the victim to give or not to give. What about collateral victims, relatives, friends or whatever they are? When both victims and perpetrators are no longer in this world, are the collateral victims the ones who exercise the right to forgive? What is the relationship between forgiveness and justice which has to be served? Are they equivalent?
October 5, 2013
The Nazis
It is Hitler to blame not the Germans of Europe Hitler turned a very normal culture to a evil group the Nazis overnight Hitler is the one to blame the Nazis are not to blame.
October 4, 2013
We should never forgive
October 4, 2013
Never forgive!
My grandparents were murdered by the Nazis aided by many people who wouldn't stand up for what was right. I will never forgive.
Pacific Northwest
October 3, 2013
Germans and the Others
Because I was not involved, Baruch Hashem, in the Shoah, (I was 4 when the war ended) but it wasn't just the Germans who treated us as sub-humans, the Polish people couldn't wait to get rid of Jewish property. There WERE wonderful Germans and Poles who protected Jews, but for the most part, they swallowed the Nazi's BIG LIES about us. I think that Simon was right because the Nazi should have asked G-d for forgiveness which I don't know if he did.
What the Nazi's did to 11 million human beings--never forget that there were 5 million non-Jews who were also exterminated as though they were vermin.
I do not blame the post-war generation of any country EXCEPT the Poles who continue to fertilize Jew hate. Again, not ALL do that, but Poland is still not safe for Jews.
I try to live an ethical life as a Jew should live. I love Hashem. I wish I could keep kosher, but it isn't possible where I live, and WAY too expensive to purchase over the 'Net. Sigh...
Beverly Kurtin
October 2, 2013
Many believe that forgiveness is a right and belongs to us all. Forgiveness is achieved, not given. Only through justice and sincere repentance can one be truly forgiven. There is no way to know how far even a seemingly simple evil act can travel. Only G-D knows how many people were effected by the evil act of even one person. Therefore, there will be no absolute forgiveness until all that were affected by a single evil act are balanced.
David Levant
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