The true meaning of forgiveness

During the 2015 trial of former SS guard Oskar Groening, the “Accountant of Auschwitz," Holocaust survivor Eva Kor forgave the man she was testifying against.

The response to Kor’s statement was extremely varied. Some praised her, others were shocked and some even reacted with scorn.

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Forgiveness is one of the most misunderstood and controversial words in the English language.

Forgiveness does not mean that what the other person did to us is right or in any way admissible. It does not mean we will trust the person or even want to be close to them.

It is interesting to note, for example, that Eva Kor’s forgiveness had nothing to do with the culpability of the accused. Groening was still guilty, and that was indeed the verdict of the court. 

Forgiveness is simply one way a person can choose to respond when wrong is done to them.  It is certainly easier to do when the one who harmed us is remorseful and willing to accept just reparations. In this case, Groening admitted what he had done, he realized the importance of speaking the truth, especially in a world where people still deny the Holocaust, but he did not say he was sorry.

We also should never be coerced into forgiving. It is simply wrong to expect a person to forgive, especially when they have experienced trauma. We each deal with suffering in our own way.

The other survivors who testified in the Groening case simply wanted the truth to be known.  Regardless of how a survivor processes their trauma, simply speaking the truth is what is most important.

Eva Kor’s decision to forgive was hers alone. She was only ten years old when she and her twin sister Miriam were brought to Auschwitz in 1944. Josef Mengele, better known as the Angel of Death, demonstrated what medical research looks like when it is completely devoid of ethics. He regularly used twins as human guinea pigs. Eva and Miriam both miraculously survived Mengele’s experiments and then survived the remainder of their internment before they were freed in 1945. 

The Groening case was not only controversial because of Eva Kor’s testimonial, but also because of the advanced age of the accused. His crimes at Auschwitz came to the attention of the courts because he openly shared in the media what it was like to be an SS officer processing people as they arrived at a death camp. He wanted the truth to be known. There were countless other Nazi collaborators who had committed similar crimes, but they kept them secret and simply died of old age.

Unfortunately, there have been many genocides and crimes against humanity, both before and after the Holocaust. After the Second World War, we proclaimed “never again.” Yet we not only continued to commit these crimes, we continue to cover them up. The danger in doing so is that we have created a culture of impunity among those who are responsible for unthinkable transgressions.

The Groening case demonstrates that there is no statute of limitations for murder and genocide. Regardless of how survivors choose to process their trauma, what is important is that truth be spoken and justice delivered.

The world has entered an unprecedented time where we are showing greater willingness to look at our inhumanity toward one another. While our legal systems are all imperfect, they are the best tools we have for righting past wrongs and moving forward in a way in which we finally respect the inalienable rights of our neighbours. 

It is our job to not only hear the cries of the persecuted, but to hold the people and the governments who once controlled their fates accountable. This has nothing to do with forgiveness. It is simply a matter of doing the right thing.

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