This book is divided into two parts. The first part tells the story (presumably autobiographical) of the request of a dying SS officer for forgiveness from a Jewish prisoner. The prisoner is randomly selected, brought to the room of the dying man, and hears a confession of participation in atrocities. He remains, however, silent. By the next day the officer is dead. The prisoner survives the war, visits the mother of the dead SS officer, and closes the book with the question, should he have forgiven the dying man. The second part of the book is a group of thirty-two comments to the story, some drawn from the original symposium and some elicited for the Schocken edition. The list of contributors is impressive and includes: E. Flannery, H. Habe, A. Heschel, M. Konvitz, H. Marcuse, J. Maritain, J. Oesterriecher, C. Ozick, and M. Sperber. The group, thus, includes Christians, Jews, survivors, Germans, and others. Both the story and the comments deserve serious attention.
Because the book is in two parts, the reaction of the reader cannot help but be in two parts — a reaction to the story and a reaction to the commentaries. The story is artfully told and clearly sets forth the problem. On the one hand, the prisoner cannot forgive the SS officer and, on the other hand, any expression of (justified) hostility would have brought down upon him some form of retaliation. Hence, the prisoner cannot act in a hostile manner. In the face of the all-powerful SS (even though this officer is dying), silence was the most prudent course of action, indeed the only prudent course of action.
The commentaries to the story, however, are a disappointment. Not one of the commentators makes an effort at defining the terms under discussion: “absolution,” “atonement,” “repentance,” and “forgiveness”! Comments are simply spewed forth based upon personal interpretation of these general issues. Actually, the terms “absolution” and “atonement” are both cultic terms. They are states of purity achieved by confession and sacrifice, respectively. Both involve the action of a duly authorized priest. In the story, the Catholic SS officer seems to be seeking absolution but the Jew is not the one to administer it for such can only be done by a Catholic priest and, in any case, “absolution” in this sense does not exist in Judaism. “Repentance,” by contrast, is an act that involves inner regret, an overt confession, a resolve not to commit the transgression again, and some positive, redeeming, reconstitutive act. In the story, it should be carefully noted that the SS officer does not actually ask for forgiveness. He says that he has wanted to ask and then remains silent, leaving it to the prisoner to infer his request (p. 57 [p. 54 in the 1997 edition]). Furthermore, the SS officer who is guilty of depersonalizing the Jews, does not ask the prisoner’s name. He does not offer him extra food. He intervenes neither on his behalf with the camp or hospital authorities, nor on behalf of the Jews in general, even on his deathbed when the pangs of remorse appear to beset him. It is also unclear that he would have been beset by pangs of remorse had he not been mortally wounded. This differentiation between “absolution-atonement” and “repentance” is not clarified by the commentators and hence their judgements are confused.
Lastly, “forgiveness” is a state of mind vis-à-vis another. It is not something that can be “granted.” At best, it is an agreement between two people on their respective states of mind, on the nature of their relationship. In any case, it too usually follows some some reconstructive, reconstitutive act — which is entirely missing in the actions of the SS officer.
Another disappointment experienced by the reader of the comments in the assumption by some of the Christian commentators that the Jewish prisoner should have acted as a good Christian. Surely the time for such ethnocentric judgments is long past; such judgment must be preceded by the qualification that no Jew could be morally or religiously obligated to react that way. Cynthia Ozick’s doctrine of justified vengeance, of vengeance as public justice in appositive dress, stands as a clear challenge to Christian moral theologizing on the Holocaust. It is a dangerous but clear doctrine which, together with the clarification of the terms, is the proper framework for discussion.
Why was the book written at all? The author does not tell us. It does bring certain types of moral dilemmas to the surface but, if as some have suggested, the author has used the book to express a certain moral ambivalence about his act, there is no reason for that. He could not have acted otherwise without great risk of life. He, the powerless one, did exercise power over the powerful one but he did it in a manner that should not, even in retrospect, arouse guilt. How unbelievable that the nobody should have moral life and death power over the somebody. Yet why not? The temptation to vengeance here is greater but temptation is not limited to such situations alone. Even in retrospect, one lives with one’s resisted temptations. The prisoner surpasses his commentators in judgement.
[*] Appeared in Jewish Social Studies, 40:3-4 (1978) 330-32. Bold-face added here for emphasis.