Simon Wiesenthel & The SS Officer

Simon Wiesenthal was a young  Jewish man working in a Polish architectural office when Hitler’s Nazis invaded his homeland. From 1941 until the end of the war in 1945 he was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. he survived, but 89 of his relatives did not.

After the war he wrote a book called The Sunflower. The Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. In that book he relates an odd but haunting experience. At one stage Wiesenthal and some fellow prisoners were given the job of removing garbage from a hospital for wounded German soldiers. As they did so they would pass the a cemetery housing German soldiers who had died. The graves were covered with sunflowers, something Wiesenthal envied knowing he would probably be buried in a mass grave under a pile of other Jewish corpses.

One day a nurse approached him as he was on garbage detail at the hospital. She asked him to follow her, and led him into a hospital room containing a wounded soldier.  He came across a man whose face was covered in bandages, with openings cut for mouth, nose, and ears. he was dying.

The man started to speak. “My name is Karl…I joined the SS as a volunteer. I must tell you something dreadful…. Something inhuman. It happened a year ago… Yes it is a year since the crime I committed. I have to talk to someone about it, perhaps that will help.”

He grabbed Wiesenthal by the hand, holding him tightly so he could not get away. “I must tell you of this horrible deed – tell you because…you are a Jew.” Karl told of atrocities too savage to repeat. Of hatred and rage directed against Jews. Then he turned to Simon Wiesenthal and said “In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I know only that you are a Jew and that is enough. I know what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and again I have longed to talk to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. I know what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace…I beg for forgiveness…”

Simon Wiesenthal, an architect in his early twenties, now a prisoner, stared out the window at the sunlit courtyard. He watched a bluebottle fly buzzing the man’s body.

“At last I made up my mind” Wiesenthal says in The Sunflower. “And without a word I left the room”.

Source: Reported in Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower

Shoes on the Mantlepiece

There was once a very poor orphan who wanted nothing more in the world than to belong to a family. Finally, his opportunity came. He was eight years old and a family wanted to adopt him! Introductions were made, papers were signed, and just 6 days after his eighth birthday he left for his new home. He took with him his hope and his possessions – the old worn and torn clothes he was wearing and a single soft toy. His new parents were excited to have him with them, and wanted him to feel like one of the family. A special celebration dinner was held, he was given his own room, and he was introduced to the other kids in the street. His new parents took those old clothes, threw them away and bought him beautiful new clothes. They bought him a bike and more toys, and pretty soon he began to feel just like all the other kids in the neighbourhood, loved and part of a family. One thing however was curious. The young boy’s old shoes, the ones with the big holes in them, weren’t tossed out with the rest of his clothes. His new father placed them on the mantelpiece. It wasn’t long before the newly adopted son found out why. Every time that boy did something wrong his father would go and get those shoes and say “Look at all we’ve done for you. We took you in when you had nothing, but look at how you’ve behaved”

Unfortunately we do the same thing all too often in our relationships. We dredge up the past and throw it back in someone’s face, never letting them forget how much they’re in our debt. Forgiveness means throwing out the shoes as well as the clothes, refusing to dredge up the past and make it a reason for action in the present.