Reconciliation, never forgiveness

During the past month, two ostensibly totally unrelated events focused attention on one of the most controversial aspects of the aftermath of the Holocaust.

By
July 25, 2019 22:26
US ASTRONAUT Buzz Aldrin is pictured during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the Moon, July

US ASTRONAUT Buzz Aldrin is pictured during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the Moon, July 29, 1969. Right: Holocaust survivor and Mengele twin Eva Kor. What do they have in common? . (photo credit: REUTERS/ WIKIMEDIA)

During the past month, two ostensibly totally unrelated events focused attention on one of the most controversial aspects of the aftermath of the Holocaust.

To date, no one has linked the two events together, but both the death of Holocaust survivor and Mengele twin Eva Kor and the 50th anniversary of the successful American Apollo 11 moon landing give us pause to consider the question of possible forgiveness for Nazi war criminals. Both events generated quite a bit of media coverage, with the latter naturally of greater interest, but despite the fact that she was “only” the founder and director of a small Holocaust museum in Terre Haute, Indiana, not exactly a major metropolis, Eva Kor received her share of obituaries in some of the most important newspapers in the Western world, among them The New York Times and The Guardian, as well as an entire op-ed in The Washington Post.

Of course Kor’s claim to fame was not as a museum director, but rather her unique call to forgive Holocaust perpetrators. Unlike the overwhelming majority of those who survived the Shoah, Kor preached forgiveness for those who committed Holocaust crimes, and went to what many would regard as highly questionable extremes to push her agenda. Whether it was to return to Auschwitz with one of the doctors who performed selections on the ramp at Birkenau, or even more problematic to kiss Auschwitz bookkeeper Oskar Groening in a courtroom in Germany where he was facing charges of accessory to murder in thousands of cases, she succeeded in bringing her message to the wider public.

And judging from the obituaries in leading print media, rather than being regarded as an oddball, publicity hound, or curiosity, who by no means spoke for the survivors, her approach was treated with considerable respect. Thus, for example, The Jerusalem Post’s Barry Davis referred to her in a recent article as “a remarkable person who must have been a highly emotionally robust individual” with “an incredibly healthy outlook on life” who was very active in “dispensing goodwill to those in her vicinity... and spreading her positive message across the globe.”

The Apollo 11 moon landing anniversary was widely celebrated as the incredible scientific achievement that it was, and an obvious source of pride for the United States, but numerous accounts also pointed to the high moral price paid by the American government to achieve it. After all, among the leading scientists and engineers whose expertise was critical in the successful launch were Nazi war criminals who were responsible for the creation and production of the V-2 rockets, which were built by concentration camp inmates working under horrific conditions, which in many cases proved lethal and wreaked death and destruction in London and Antwerp, killing thousands of innocent civilians. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, these men were knowingly recruited in “Operation Paperclip,” despite their role in Nazi war crimes, and brought with their families to the United States, where they were put to work on military and aerospace projects.

What ties these two issues together is the question of how to relate to those who committed the crimes of the Holocaust. One could suggest that in both cases the motivation of Kor, on the one hand, and the Americans behind Operation Paperclip on the other, was to produce some good out of evil. Kor was ostensibly offering survivors and others a means of “liberating” themselves from hatred and hostility, while the US officials were helping to defend the Free World from potential Soviet aggression. But at what price and under what conditions? Did Kor or the Americans ever ask for an apology or detailed testimony about the crimes they had committed and witnessed?

I often am invited to speak to groups of teachers who come to Yad Vashem from all over the world to learn how best to teach about the Holocaust. One of the questions I am frequently asked at these seminars is: “So many years have passed since the crimes were committed. Those criminals still alive [who were relatively young at the time] are probably sorry?”

And I sometimes reinforce that question by adding that certainly in the last 15-20 years, during which there has been so much information available about the Shoah – books, films, plays, not to mention what’s on the Internet – these people might realize that they had participated in this crime and might apologize?

My answer is unequivocal. In almost 40 years of hunting Nazis, in which I have dealt with suspects from many different nationalities, levels of education, intelligence and religiosity, I have never had a single case in which any perpetrator expressed any remorse or regret. If anything, I encountered people who were still proud of what they did, like Dinko Sakic, commander of the notorious Croatian concentration camp Jasenovać, who asserted that the problem with the camp in which close to 100,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascist Croatians were brutally murdered individually by the guards, was that they “did not let us finish the job,” and that he gladly would repeat his actions if given the chance. Not to mention all the defendants at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg who answered with a resounding “Nicht schuldig,” “not guilty” when asked by the judge how they responded to the charges against them.

Reading the recent interviews with a few of the children of the Nazi scientists who were brought to America, and seeing a photograph of the bust of leading Nazi physicist Werner Von Braun in front of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, it becomes obvious that the failure to prosecute these people helped create a convenient amnesia regarding their crimes.

“They’re not sociopaths. They didn’t do evil things. They were caught in the web of war,” says Klaus Heimburg, one of the children of the Nazi scientists recruited by the Americans. Von Braun’s daughter Margit doesn’t appreciate those who refer to her father as “the Nazi Werner Von Braun.” In her words, “The Americans recruited rocket scientists, and the rocket scientists helped America get to the Moon. So I would think that characterization is more accurate.”

She obviously is impervious to the fact that between 10,000 and 20,0000 inmates at Dora died because of the horrible conditions in the camp. Even worse are the comments by Americans in Huntsville, where a V-2 rocket built by the prisoners in Dora stands next to Von Braun’s original office at the Space and Rocket Center, with no explanation as to its origin. Stephen Waring, a historian at the University of Alabama, explains that in Huntsville “History starts in 1945. Everything was the fault of Adolf Hitler... the German engineers were the victims of the SS”
Far too many people would like nothing more than for the Holocaust to be forgotten. What a relief it would be for all those countries and individuals who have a guilty conscience because of their shameful past, if they could lay the crimes and atrocities to rest once and for all. And that could probably be best achieved if we were to foolishly forgive those responsible for the Shoah.

In fact, we cannot do so, because only the victims can forgive, but the temptation to do so exists apparently, even in a survivor like Eva Kor. Such temptations must be ignored, however, and every effort must be made to preserve the accurate record of the events. Under these circumstances, the most our generation can hope for is reconciliation, but we have to remember that genuine regret must precede repentance, and only then can there be a basis for reconciliation, but never forgiveness.

The writer is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the center’s Israel office and Eastern European affairs. His most recent book, with Ruta Vanagaite, Our People; Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust will be published in early 2020 by Rowman & Littlefield.


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