November 10, 2017, The Jewish Standard published Dr. Dennis Klein's article on Holocaust memoirs called “Not forgetting, redefining forgiving.” Below are some notes on this thought-provoking publication:
Why did few Holocaust survivors tell their stories publicly until decades after the Shoah ended?
Why did some of the first stories trickle into print in the 1960’s?
Was it all psychological – survivors had to wait as their brains and nervous systems and will to live rewired themselves – or did external reasons contribute to the timing as well?
“They weren’t just telling a historiographical story. They had a strong moral purpose, that is called bearing witness.”
“…the counter narrative is the desire to “begin to resume to reconnect with their contemporaries.” That is, their German contemporaries. “They were yearning for a relationship with Germans. The country was eager to move on, to forgive and forget, to move forward.”
“It’s really counterintuitive and hard to grasp, but these two things are going on at the same time, and in contradiction to each other. The writers’ main goal was to disquiet their German contemporaries, but at the same time they were trying to find a way to reconnect with them.
The most obvious reconnection, it might seem, would be a quest for an apology, but Dr. Klein said that’s not exactly right. Instead, he said, “all three of them, in very different ways, engage in an act of unconditional forgiveness.
“They each do talk about waiting for the Germans to apologize, but they recognize that the Germans will never apologize. So they engage in unconditional forgiveness.”
Does that sound Christian? “To some extent, there is a Jewish tradition of divine forgiveness.” The Germans were far from divine, but “unconditional means that they will forgive, even if they don’t receive an apology.”
So if they are, but are not, forgiving, what does that mean?
“What I have discerned in these memoirs, picking up on some of the language, is that they reject forgiveness as we conventionally understand the term. They are offering us another way to understand forgiveness.
“They reject the conventional idea of forgiveness, which is conditional. When you accept somebody’s sincere apology, you are obligated to forgive. That is something they cannot do.
“Conventional forgiveness means that you are forgiving both the criminal and the crime. What these writers do is decouple the crime and the criminal. They continue to focus on the crime, which they never forgive, but they do begin to rethink that criminal.
“They understand that it is a form of forgiveness to begin to recognize the humanity in the criminal, even though they condemn the crime.”
All that does sound like the Christian notion of hating the sin but not the sinner. “It is pretty conventional in Saint Augustine‘s thinking, but it is different,“ Dr. Klein said. Augustine‘s approach is to remember the sin but let it fade a bit; to concentrate on the sinner “to begin to form what he calls a common good, bringing society back together.“ Therefore, Augustine “downplays the sin part.“
But the survivors “never forget the sin, and they never downplay it. They can never get rid of it.
“It is the manifest narrative of their work.“
Still, though, “they still look for something in the criminal that they can reconnect with,” Dr. Klein said. “And to me that is a very honest way to forgive.“
He cannot say if the three men are typical, but he does know that they were very much of their time and place. “They talk about their loneliness so strongly,“ he said. “They are so resentful toward their contemporaries“ – the Germans, who are able to leave the war behind them. The Jewish survivors, on the other hand, “are trying to find a way out of the trap of resentment.
“For about 20 years, they had been feeling loneliness and isolation.“ First, like most survivors, they had lost most if not all of their families. Second, “there was a more existential loneliness. They had lost their anchor in the world.
“Before the Holocaust, they had had so much. They had been so ambitious.“ They had been very much part of the outside world – in fact, these three men, all intellectuals, were able to rejoin that world eventually, Wiesenthal as the well-known Nazi hunter, Amery as a successful writer, and Vladimir Jankelevitch as a musicologist at the Sorbonne.
Overall, Dr. Klein said, “the great narrative of these memoirs isn’t as much about destruction as it is about betrayal.“ And like many people who are betrayed, on a level perhaps beneath the rage was “the longing for acceptance that they still retained.“
They know that their neighbors betrayed them – the neighbors with whom they thought they shared basic assumptions and values, who they at time thought of not only as acquaintances but also as friends – and “they knew that they couldn’t go back,“ Dr. Klein says. What they were feeling was not nostalgia. “Nevertheless, they want to form relationships. And I conclude that what they present to us is the conception of a society after atrocity. A society where it is important both to be suspicious of the neighbors and to long for a relationship.
“That’s what I call a negotiable society. It means that we have to be constantly vigilant in our world, but we cannot give up on it. We cannot be innocent or gullible but we must reconnect.“