In his classic meditation on forgiveness, The Sunflower, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal tells the story of how he was forced to hear the deathbed confession of a young SS officer while he was in a concentration camp.
Wiesenthal was assigned a work detail in a hospital. A nurse saw him and motioned for him to follower her. Reluctantly he followed her into the room of a young SS officer who was clearly dying. His eyes were bandaged but he heard them entering the room.
Grabbing Simon’s hand he asked, “Are you a Jew?” He then launches into the story of how he was sent to the Russian front and during one expedition he was ordered to take part in the wholesale slaughter of the entire population of a Jewish village. He operated a machine gun while the men, women, and children were locked inside a two story house that was then set to flame. His job was to shoot all who escaped. He obeyed his orders.
When he finished his horrible tale he turns to Wiesenthal and says, “I needed to tell a Jew this story because I wanted to ask forgiveness. Will you please forgive me?” Wiesenthal was silent for a moment, then he withdrew his hand and walked out of the room without answering the young man’s plea.
When he returned to his barracks he was deeply troubled. Had he done the right thing? He asked his comrades. Some suggested the man did not deserve forgiveness and in fact by bringing Wiesenthal into his room he had placed Simon in grave danger. Their unofficial rabbi suggested Simon could not forgive the young man because the only people who had the right to forgive him were his victims and they were all dead. Still Simon was unsatisfied.
Wiesenthal closes the first half of the book with one question: “What would you have done in my place?” In the next section of the book are essays written by theologians, philosophers, and even the war criminal Albert Speer attempting to answer the question.
The question is a valid question. And of course we would have to begin the answer with, “There is no way for me to actually understand what you went through…”
The question still remains: What would you have done? and to that I would add What should be done by a follower of Jesus?
So, what do you think? What are your answers?