Rabbi, Christian philosopher weigh notion of forgiveness after Holocaust Unthinkable, say two survivors

November 23, 1992|By Meredith Schlow | Meredith Schlow,Staff Writer

For Rubin Sztajer, "forgiveness" and "Holocaust" don't belong in the same sentence.

In fact, the question of forgiveness for the people who imprisoned him hasn't entered the 66-year-old concentration camp survivor's mind in the nearly 50 years since his liberation from Bergen-Belsen.

"Forgive who?" he asked incredulously. "The priest who pointed me out? Should I forgive him? Should I forgive those who killed my parents, or those who killed my brother or my two sisters?"

That was how Mr. Sztajer reacted to the topic "Forgiveness after Auschwitz," which a rabbi and a Christian philosopher explored before a crowd of nearly 400 last week at Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville. The discussion encompassed the entire Holocaust, during which 6 million Jews and millions of other victims, including Gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, clergy and Slavs, were murdered.

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis from Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., and Dr. John K. Roth, a professor at Claremont McKenna College who specializes in American and Holocaust studies, spent two hours discussing the theory of forgiveness, and how it might affect Jews and Christians.

"The question is not whether to forgive; the question is how to remember," said Rabbi Schulweis. "How do I remember the past without laying a heavy stone of despair upon the heart of Jewish children?"

Rabbi Schulweis urged Jews who want to educate their children about the Holocaust to place an emphasis on Christians who risked their lives and the lives of their families to hide or help Jews escape during the war.

"These are the people who for days and nights . . . falsified documents and would not turn Jews back to a country of genocide," he said. "And in remembering the heroes, we do not forget the villains."

"I do believe that forgiveness is needed after Auschwitz," Dr. Roth said. "If forgiveness is more forthcoming, then the world is truly on the mend . . . though after Auschwitz it will remain scarred in a way that no amount of forgiveness can entirely heal."

But for two concentration camp survivors in the audience who found new lives in the United States, theory and philosophy paled next to memory. And even a discussion exploring forgiveness is incomprehensible. Deli Strummer, imprisoned in 1941 for 4 1/2 years in five concentration camps, speaks frequently on her experiences in the camps and wrote a book, "Personal Reflections of the Holocaust."

"How is it possible for a person like me to speak of forgiveness? I was an eyewitness to the murder of children -- hundreds of them," she said, recounting one Sunday morning when the Nazis used 4- and 5-year-old children as targets.

"Their little heads used for target practice. Can you ask forgiveness for something like that?" said the Austrian-born survivor of Auschwitz. "Only people can speak about this time who really felt it. . . . You had to be starved, you had to be burned, you had to be tortured, you had to be without dignity to understand it."

Mr. Sztajer, whose parents, brother and two sisters were killed by the Nazis, was 16 when he was captured in Poland and taken to a German concentration camp. He spent three years there before his liberation. "It would be unthinkable for me to ever think of forgiveness -- forgiveness is forgetting. I'd like to show everyone here pictures of Bergen-Belsen, how people died without being shot or gassed -- from disease and starvation," he said after the meeting.

The Rev. Christopher Leighton, director of the Institute for Christian Jewish Studies, who helped organize the discussion, said he empathizes with the survivors' reactions.

"It is more than an emotional response -- It touches nerve ends that reach into the depth of their hearts and minds," he said. But he worries that an inability for Jews to forgive may fuel animosity between Christians and Jews.

When a Nazi war criminal is located, some Christians will wonder why Jews continue to demand trials for old men who committed crimes so long ago, he said.

"The implicit assumption is that the reason why the Jewish people have to focus obsessively on the Holocaust is that they are unable to forgive and forget. They are unable to put the past behind them," he said.

But both survivors say their inability to forgive does not encompass an entire religious group. And both say they can look toward the future, without abandoning the past.

"Don't ask me to forgive. Just ask me to respect your religious beliefs and your world will be in peace," Mrs. Strummer said. Survivors "can't forget and we can't forgive. However, we can try to be a person who has learned to live in peace. To earn respect and dignity back."

"I'm not holding a grudge against Christianity," Mr. Sztajer said. "But for those who committed the atrocities, it's absurd to think about forgiveness. . . . It's easy for people to come and speak about forgiveness." But the memories of the concentration camps "are something I have to live with the rest of my life," he said.

Mr. Sztajer said the Holocaust shook his religious beliefs and faith in God. "My wife has the best answer. She says this is one time that God fell asleep at the wheels. . . . I accept that as a partial explanation."

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