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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 the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
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Discussion (330)
May 17, 2016
Marcia Alter
Firstly, Jessica is the name of Shylock's daughter in The Merchant of Venice. Portia is a Christian character. Second, there were NO Jews in England (legally) after 1290. Shakespeare had no knowledge of Jews except for what he was told by unsympathetic Christians. Third, Portia, the lawyer, uses a legal split hair to defeat Shylock, saying that while he may take a pound of flesh, he may not spill any blood, nor may he take even a bit more or a bit less, it must be a perfect pound that he takes. She would appreciate that even if we were to offer forgiveness for the wrong done to us we cannot forgive because we don't have the power to do so for actions against another person. For example, any person may forgive a murderer for killing their relative, but that only takes care of the harm done to them, not to the murdered person.
Sarah Masha
West Bloomfield MI USA
May 12, 2016
This explanation come up short. I understand that only the "victim" has the "ability" to forgive. However, the beauty of this "right" is the opportunity to make the choice to forgive and in so doing, both the victim and perpetrator are free to move forward toward a more positive future instead of allowing the past to restrain them. It

Shakespere's JEWISH character, Shylock's daughter, Portia, the attorney said it best, "The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justi
Marcia Alter
United States
May 6, 2016
I personally feel sorry for them
They chose the wrong path in life and have ended up where they are, it could have been avoided so easily.
Jack Harley
February 22, 2016
Gentiles have a great difficulty in coming to terms with Jewish terminology. For instance a Jew can grieve for the loss of a gentile friend but not mourn for them, as that involves ritual. By the same token a Jew cannot forgive in the same way as a gentile does because the parameters are vastly different and very specific
Howarf Crawford
February 16, 2016
No one can forgive the Nazis
Except those they actually hurt (though it would be suicidally stupid to do so).

No one can forgive a murder except the victim and they can't because they are dead. Ergo, murder is unforgivable. Too bad for Nazis and Jihadis but not something civilized people need to waste time on
Albany NY
September 21, 2015
this is for the Moshiach to decide, and, if they don't pass his test, if they have not turned to HaShem, they will meet the same fate as the Pharoah. If they have turned and connected to HaShem, he will also know and treat them accordingly. B''H.
Los Angeles
September 20, 2015
The point some of us raised is that only the person harmed may forgive someone for the harm done to him. In this instance, Simon W. could forgive the wrong that Nazi had done to him, and him alone, if he so chose. He is not eligible to forgive the harm done to anyone else.
To say that the Nazi would promise to not harm anyone again in this case is silly. He is about to die, and he is incapable of harming anyone. The question might be if he were not on his deathbed would he regret his actions?

But you come very close to a very important point, that the victims should not be asked to forgive. The survivors I know who forgave at any level forgave so they would not be eaten up by pain and bitterness.

By just asking one Jew to stand in for another the Nazi proves that he doesn't get that he killed X number of individuals. He is saying, "One is as good as another, they are just like pegs in a board." The apology is worthless, because the Nazi still doesn't even understand what he did.
Sarah Masha
West Bloomfield
September 13, 2015
I continue to be perplexed......
This subject is vexing. While the answer is a good one up to a point, it does not answer whether the individual wronged (all Jews were wronged by the Holocaust. Some more personally than others.) "should" forgive. I do not believe the onus is on the victim to forgive such an atrocity, particularly when a perpetrator has neither asked for forgiveness, understands the hurt they have caused, made restitution, and/or promised never to engage in such evil again. (I realize this is not the case of the Nazi in the Sunflower but that was an exception rather than the rule.) Should a person wronged in such an unspeakable way be asked to forgive his/her perpetrators? I say NO. If that forgiveness should come naturally, then it is certainly acceptable. No one should push that person towards forgiveness. The task of those who have been truly victimized is to "work through" their pain and rage in such a way so as not to victimize others. It is not to absolve the perpetrator of responsibility.
Chicago Illinois
August 13, 2015
Christianity is based on Yashka supposedly dying for everyone's sins. In Torah we learn that each person is responsible for his own sins and therefore the claim of the New Testament is not applicable to the human condition. In light of this it is understandable they believe that one person can forgive a guilty party for his crime against another individual.
Judith Bron
Spring Valley, NY
August 12, 2015
It is Hate that strengthens Love, the Male does not exist without the Female, Night and Light, Polarity, Equality to Mankind, including Forgiveness. Love will always conquer for the transformation of consciousness, and we will evolve.
Ruel Valadez
Orange Grove, TX
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