I’m wrapping up another trip home to Israel. I have spent the past two weeks in Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem and now up in the Galilee at Vered HaGalil – a wonderful slice of heaven that can be considered a “guest ranch” – not from from Tiberias and Rosh Pina.

I was born in Israel and have come home to the this wonderful place many times – and I look forward to the day that I come home on a more permanent basis in the near future. I was amazed as Tel-Aviv is such a vegan-friendly city (which is good for me since I am vegan myself) and even Jerusalem seems a little more vegan friendly then it was three years ago. Israel has made a lot of progress – yes, I am well aware that it has its warts but no society is perfect. As much as the BDS crowd and the Palestinians wish to portray Israel as the worst possible country in the world it is most certainly nowhere near that. All countries have their problems – Israel is not immune to that for sure but Israel has people who are working to improve their society and their country. And like all other countries Israelis are people who yearn for peace with their neighbors – be they Lebanese, Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian and Palestinian.

As I sit here on the day before I leave back to the United States (where we also have our fair share of problems which I will not detail here) I marvel at what a jewel Israel has become over the past 71 years. There is still much work to be done but, as always, I am optimistic about Israel and her future.

I am reminded of the joke about the guy who dies and goes to be judged. It is determined that he go to Hell but he’s given options by an angel – he can go to Soviet Hell, Nazi Hell or Israeli Hell. He thinks for a moment and considers: “Hmmm…Soviet Hell – no way that is too oppressive; Nazi Hell? No…that would be like Auschwitz forever.” So he tells the angel “I’ll go to Israel Hell”. Immediately he’s transported to Israeli Hell. He opens his eyes and he’s standing on the side of the road on top of a hill and everywhere he looks there are orchards and fields of crops and beauty all around and thinks “Huh? Is this right?” A few seconds later an IDF Jeep drives up and the driver asks the man if he needs a ride to which he enthusiastically replies, “Yes”. He gets in and he says to the driver “I thought this is Israeli Hell – but it’s so beautiful.” The driver replies “You should have seen what a hellhole this place was 71 years ago!”

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This is one of those books that you pick up and immediately grabs your attention and gets you going.  I was infuriated from the very beginning of the book – not with Dr. Lipstadt but with the fact that there are these “deniers” out there who have gone and continue to go to great lengths to revise history and white-wash the German responsibility for World War II and for the Holocaust in particular.

Their methods initially were very rudimentary and poor in that they produced pamphlets that had limited circulation and were of low quality that is was obvious that their target audience was simply like-minded individuals.  Initially much of their effort seems to have been devoted to exonerating Germany’s role in the war and portraying the Nazi regime as more victim of the Allies and of Jews in particular.  The early deniers focused more on minimizing the numbers of Jews murdered in the death camps like Aushwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Buchenwald and others and on blaming those deaths to starvation and to the deprivations Nazi Germany experienced due to the Allies bombing campaigns.  The initial focus was not on the gas chambers but rather explaining away the deaths and minimizing them and even equivocating them to the German deaths due to the Allies.

Over time their tactics changed more to denying that any Jews actually were murdered in the homicidal gas chambers at the death camps.  The deniers focused on making claims that there was insufficient proof of wholesale slaughter (when in reality there has always been ample proof) and that the homicidal gas chambers were actually used for delousing prisoner’s clothes and property.  Over time they went from printing pamphlets to whole books (usually published by neo-Nazi publishing houses) and to updating their presentation to having a pseudo-scholarly look to it by creating an “Institute” for historical research that publishes a “journal” (I hesitate to call it that since the “methods” used by the authors of the “articles” in this “journal” are nowhere near the historiographic bar for legitimate journals). 

Dr. Lipstadt does an amazing effort to expose these people for who they really are: Antisemites who simply are looking to white-wash Germany’s crimes committed during World War 2 (particularly in reference to the Holocaust) and to bolster their false claims that Israel (and Jews in general) are trying to pull a “fast one” over the rest of the world. These people cherry pick their facts, misquote historical documents, or just fabricate lies to bolster their claims. Their behavior deserves to be derided by all – but yet they continue to attract like-minded neo-Nazis and Antisemites to them. What’s worse is that even those who are *NOT* neo-Nazis or Antisemitic sometimes fall into their traps and help promulgate their message unwittingly. The worst cases of these happens on university campuses where students and professors alike – who should have critical thinking skills – fail to realize that not all ideas or speech have merit and need to be defended.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about these deniers and their false messages and the danger they pose to historical accuracy and truth. We must be ever vigilant against them and call them out whenever they appear. Thank you Dr. Lipstadt for this wonderful work.

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of ForgivenessThe Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*FYI – Spoilers ahead*
This was quite an amazing book. I read it not really knowing what to expect but now that I have finished it I am rather surprised by the responses some of the individuals who were asked to write a response to Wiesenthal’s question of “What would you do?” if you were faced with a similar situation.

First a little background. The first part of the book is a retelling of Wiesenthal’s experience in a concentration camp where the prisoners are made to work endlessly and relentlessly by their German and German-allied captors (apparently in this case these were Ukrainians who tended to be more brutal to the Jews than even the Germans). The story revolves around the situation where Wiesenthal and other prisoners are brought to a German military hospital (which, it so happens, is situated in Wiesenthal’s former technical school where he was harassed by the other Polish students because he was Jewish) to work and clean up the medical waste. While there a nurse gets him and brings him to an isolated room where a patient is lying completely bandaged from head to toe.

As it turns out the patient was an SS officer who was dying from his wounds. He had asked the nurse to bring him “a Jew” so that he could speak with him and ask him for his forgiveness for the crimes that he had committed against the Jewish people. The SS officer, whose name is Karl, was raised as a Catholic by his parents but joined the Hitler Youth (against the wishes of his parents) and when the work broke out volunteered for the SS which resulted in his estrangement from his father. During his time in the war in the East Karl had witnessed and partook in atrocities against the Jews population. However one particular incident seems to have broken him. This incident occurred when in the city of Dnepropetrovsk in Russia the SS rounded up the Jews, put them all in a building and then set the building on fire. If the Jews tried to get out they were shot. But it was the father who threw his young son out of a second (or perhaps third) story window in order to save him from being burned alive and perhaps with the hope that he would survive the fall and somehow escape (in the end the fall killed the child) which sticks in Karl’s mind and won’t give him peace. Now, however, that he is close to dying the SS officer wishes to make his peace. So, he asked the nurse to bring him “a Jew” to whom he could confess and ask for forgiveness with the expectation that whomever she brought would give him the solace he seeks and which would allow him to die in peace.

However Wiesenthal listens to the officer’s story and is repulsed by the man. Instead of saying he forgives him, Wiesenthal stays silent. In the end the SS officer dies and bequeaths to Simon Wiesenthal whatever belongings he had left (which Wiesenthal rightly rejects).

After the war Wiesenthal goes out and searches for Karl’s mother. He wants to meet her (and possibly his father) to find out what kind of parents could have raised him and why they didn’t manage to prevent him from doing what he did. In the end he finds Karl’s mother and presents himself as someone who knew Karl before his death. He speaks with her (Karl’s father having died during the war) and discovers she has no knowledge of the things Karl did and the crimes he committed during the course of the war. In the end he does not tell her about what Karl told him – about the crimes he committed or the atrocities he witnessed and remains silent about those facts and allows her to continue to believe that Karl was good.

At the end of the story – Wiesenthal asks the reader: “What would you have done?” Would you have remained silent or spoken up (both with Karl and with the mother – although I felt the question was more towards the situation with Karl).

The second half of the book revolves around responses by various thinkers and intellectuals around the world as to how they would have responded to Karl’s desire for forgiveness and whether Wiesenthal should have forgiven him. The responses are varied but generally fall into two camps:

Those who argue not to forgive and
Those who argue to forgive

What’s most interesting about the responses is that the fault line in the responses falls pretty much where you would expect it to: along religious lines. Jews tend to fall in the unforgiving camp – but the reasoning is somewhat varied. In general everyone who falls into this camp argue that in order to attain forgiveness one must ask for forgiveness from those who were wronged. The problem for Karl is that those who could forgive are all dead. In Judaism there are sins between man and his fellow man and sins between man and God. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement provides for forgiveness for sins between man and God. But for sins between man and his fellow man this must be done by reaching out to the victim and asking for their forgiveness. Karl, whether in his arrogance or due to the inculcation of Nazi ideology, seemed to believe that if he just got “a Jew” – any Jew – then he could ask for forgiveness for the crimes and atrocities he committed against Jews through his actions while in the SS. He sees Jews as some amorphous “blob” – one is no different than the other. So, for him it doesn’t matter which Jew gives him forgiveness – any Jew can.

But that is where he is mistaken. He must ask for forgiveness for those whom he has wronged and murdered. But he can’t – because they are dead. Also, in Judaism, true repentance comes to an individual after making a sincere effort to change one’s ways. Karl seems to honestly regret his actions but, given that he’s near death, he has no way of showing that he is truly sincere in this repentance because he will never have a chance to prove it. The only way that could happen would be if he were to be put into a similar position in the future and turns away from that action. So, we have no way of truly knowing is he is truly repentant of his evil actions.

The other camp – which is espoused predominantly by Christian and Buddhist writers – holds that Wiesenthal should have forgiven him as it would have shown Wiesenthal to be the better man and that it would ease Karl’s conscience at the time of his death. The problem I have with this is that it presents a concept of “cheap grace” where someone can commit any atrocity and manner of crime and yet so long as he truly repents at the end and admits his faults he can achieve forgiveness. Some crimes are simply unforgivable – and the crimes which Karl committed were beyond the pale of tolerance by man or God.

The book really makes the reader ponder – what would you do if placed in a similar position. Would you forgive the Nazi?

View all my reviews

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