Forgiveness is hard. Both seeking it and granting it are complicated for most people most of the time. Yet we all have things for which we should be seeking forgiveness and almost as certainly those we need to forgive. Told by Toby Axelrod, the story of Eva Kor, a survivor of Nazi doctor-torturer, Josef Mengele contains important lessons in both seeking and granting forgiveness.
Kor says she has forgiven Josef Mengele, who conducted experiments on her and her twin sister, Miriam, at the Auschwitz concentration camp….”Here I am, this little guinea pig from Auschwitz, and I have the power to forgive Josef Mengele! And he can’t do anything about it,” the diminutive, energetic woman who will turn 76 on Saturday said this week at Auschwitz. “I stopped being a victim, and that makes me a very powerful person.”
Not surprisingly, other survivors object strenuously to Kor’s offering forgiveness. In 2007, the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors called it “abhorrent to forgive this monster, Josef Mengele,” and the group’s president said other Mengele twins were very upset with Kor for talking about forgiveness.
Kor’s response is interesting because it holds the key to what I believe are the limits of forgiveness i.e. our own readiness and the fact that we can only forgive what which was done to us.
Kor admits that if others do not want to forgive, “It’s their choice”, but says that she would feel like an eternal victim if she did not forgive Mengele.
Kor is a master of forgiveness, neither insisting that others follow her path, but showing us how forgiveness can accomplish far more the one who offers it than for the one who receives it. Especially in this case, since Mengele is dead! And the fact that he is, seems to be central to her ability to forgive him.
When it comes to the living terrorists who blow up cafes in Israel, but who have not actually harmed her, Eva says that she cannot forgive and neither should others. Ironically, she ends up sounding like those who castigate her for forging Dr. Mengele. And that is another forgiveness lesson to emerge from the story: when we start dictating about the forgiveness practices of others, we seem to lose our spiritual generosity.
So perhaps we need to admit that in the same way that we can only forgive what was done to us, we ought not to comment on the propriety of others forgiving what was done to them.
Ultimately, forgiveness is a remarkably intimate act. It is neither the eternally correct posture which New Age spiritualists tell us, nor does it always dilute accountability and diminish memory as so many others seem to fear. Forgiveness is a gift and because it is, it can never be compelled and should never be scorned.