The week after next is Holocaust Week, assemblies that week at school reflect that theme and I'm due to be speaking to our year 10 cohort - 14-15 year olds. Please see below a draft of what I'm intending to say, I'm assuming, of course, that nobody who's going to be there is reading this now! I'd be interested in any feedback you might have, particularly, I'm intending to finish as indicated but am wondering about finishing with a prayer. What do you think? And if you think a prayer would be appropriate, what might a suitable form of words be?
Simon Wiesenthal was a Jew born in Austria in 1908. He qualified as an architect but was not far into his working life when he was sent to a series of concentration camps during the Second World War, coming close to death on a number of occasions. After the war he became well known for his tireless work in pursuing Nazi war crminals, resulting in numerous convictions. He continued this work until shortly before his death in 2005.
In 1963 the book, "The Sunflower" was published. The first half is an account by Wiesenthal of an incident which occurred when, as a concentration camp prisoner, he was made to work in a hospital. A nurse came to a group of Jewish prisoners and, apparently choosing Wiesenthal at random, told him to follow her, ending up at the bedside of a 21 year old German soldier, Kurt, who had been fatally wounded and was, in effect, waiting to die. The soldier told Wiesenthal how, about a year earlier, he had been part of a group of soldiers sent to force a large number of Jews into a house, cramming them in so tightly that they could barely breathe. They then threw hand grenades into the house causing it to set on fire, standing ready to shoot any Jews who tried to escape. Needless to say, all the Jews in the house lost their lives that day.
Now that he lay dying, Kurt was wracked with guilt and remorse as to his part in the atrocity and begged Wiesenthal, as a Jew, to offer words of forgiveness before he met his inevitable death. Wiesenthal, who moments before had been moving rubbish in the hospital, had to make an immediate decision as to how to respond. Should he say the words of forgiveness so desperately wanted to hear?
In a moment I will pause briefly and ask you to try to put yourself in Wiesenthal's position. He was living in appalling conditions, with death, suffering and humiliation all around him, simply because of his ethnic group. A young soldier in physical and mental agony was asking him to offer forgiveness for a terrible crime against a group of innocent Jews. What would you have said in that situation?
Well, I can tell you what Wiesenthal did, in fact say. Nothing. He walked out of the room to hear later that Kurt died a few hours later, never to hear the words of forgiveness he so desperately wanted. Wiesenthal, meanwhile, was considerably troubled by this incident, and confided in his two closest friends back in the camp that evening. They agreed that Wiesenthal had done the right thing but not for what would seem to me to be the obvious reason, that the crimes he had committed were too horrific to be forgiven. The two reasons they gave were these: firstly, it was not for Wiesenthal to forgive on behalf of people he did not know and had no connection with beyond their shared ethnicity. And secondly, there was no reason to bother with this, the Jews were being appallingly treated by the Germans, why should Wiesenthal worry about one of them?
The second half of the book is a series of essays by theologians, politicians, philosophers, human rights activists and others, grappling with the issues raised and particularly looking to answer the question, was Wiesenthal right to walk away? One issue which comes up several times is whether Wiesenthal had the right, the authority, to offer forgiveness at all, with several commentators suggesting that, even in his guilt at what he had done, the young soldier was continuing to engage with the thinking which had led to the Holocaust in the first place, that Jews could be thought of just as a worthless collective without meaningful individuality. But then, what was Kurt supposed to do on his death bed? The victims were all dead and it was completely out of the question for him to be going to look for their family and friends. To whom was he supposed to turn for forgiveness?
A few moments ago I asked you to reflect on what you would have done in Wiesenthal's situation. Let me say straight away that, speaking for myself, the only honest answer is that I just don't know what I would have done, I have never been put in the kind of situation Wiesenthal was in or anywhere close.
But let me tell you what I hope and pray I would have said. It is not for me to forgive on behalf of the victims of your crime. Bu I believe that God sent His Son to die for us so that, if we turn to Him in humility genuinely sorry for what we've done, however appalling those things might be, we can become right with God. And I would offer to pray with him so that he might offer His confession to God, and find forgiveness and peace at the foot of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.