BOOK COVER SUMMARY:
You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness. What do you do?
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He lapsed into silence, seeking for words. He wants something from me, I thought, for I could not imagine that he had brought me here merely as an audience.
“When I was still a boy I believed with my mind and soul in God and in the commandments of the Church. Then everything was easier. If I still had that faith I am sure death would not be so hard.
“I cannot die…without coming clean. This must be my confession. But what sort of confession is this? A letter without an answer…”
No doubt he was referring to my silence. But what could I say? Here was a dying man—a murderer who did not want to be a murderer but who had been made into a murderer by a murderous ideology. He was confessing his crime to a man who perhaps tomorrow must die at the hands of these same murderers. In his confession there was true repentance, even though he did not admit it in so many words. Nor was it necessary, for the way he spoke and the fact that he spoke to me was a proof of his repentance.
“Believe me, I would be ready to suffer worse and longer pains if by that means I could bring back the dead, at Dnepropetrovsk. Many young Germans of my age die daily on the battlefields. They have fought against an armed enemy and have fallen in the fight, but I…I am left here with my guilt. In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are, I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough.”
I said nothing. The truth was that on his battlefield he had also “fought” against defenseless men, women, children, and the aged. I could imagine them enveloped in flames, jumping from the windows to certain death.
He sat up and put his hands together as if to pray.
“I want to die in peace, and so I need…”
I saw that he could not get the words past his lips. But I was in no mood to help him. I kept silent.
“I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left…
“I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”
Now, there was an uncanny silence in the room. I looked through the window. The front of the buildings opposite was flooded with sunshine. The sun was high in the heavens. There was only a small triangular shadow in the courtyard.
What a contrast between the glorious sunshine outside and the shadow of this bestial age here in the death chamber! Here lay a man in bed who wished to die in peace—but he could not, because the memory of his terrible crime gave him no rest. And by him sat a man also doomed to die—but who did not want to die because he yearned to see the end to all the horror that blighted the world.
Two men who had never known each other had been brought together for a few hours by Fate. One asked the other for help. But the other was himself helpless and able to do nothing for him.
I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands. Between them there seemed to rest a sunflower.
At last I made up my mind and without a word I left the room.
Imagine you are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi SS soldier asks for your forgiveness for his part in a horrendous crime committed against hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children. What would you do? This is the unfathomable dilemma for Simon Wiesenthal in his autobiographical account. The second section of the book is a collection of responses from individuals around the world who reflect on what they may have done in the situation described.