In 1961, Adolf Eichmann, among those most responsible for the organization and implementation of the Holocaust’s killing process, was sentenced to death in Israel. Up to that point, no state execution had ever been carried out by the young nation. Israel had abolished the death penalty for murder in 1954. But the sentence could still be imposed for Nazi war criminals and their collaborators.
A death sentence automatically triggered an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court. While the court was deliberating, many of Israel’s most prominent academics, artists and intellectuals joined in opposing a death sentence for Eichmann.
Among them was the renowned philosopher Martin Buber, who had escaped from Germany in 1938. Buber and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, two secularists, were members of a Bible study group. Anticipating that the high court would validate the death sentence, Buber approached the prime minister at a session of the study group and asked if they could meet so that he could argue for clemency. Ben-Gurion agreed.
During their two-hour meeting, Buber cited the Hasidic rabbi Menachem Mendel Hager of Kosov (1768-1825): “The Torah teaches us, none but God can command us to destroy a man.” Ben-Gurion, an opponent of the death penalty, decided to bring this idea to his Cabinet ministers. They rejected it.
When news of Buber’s request became public, the newspaper Maariv was unequivocal: “A pardon for Eichmann? No! Six million times no!” Israel’s leading poet, Uri Zvi Greenberg, responded in more personal terms: “I am not speaking on behalf of the Jewish people and not on behalf of the millions. I am speaking for myself. The murder of my father and my mother is my affair. Buber can waive retribution for his parents’ death if they were exterminated by Eichmann, but neither he nor other Bubers can demand amnesty for the murderer of my parents.”
I was reminded of this incident when I learned that Eva Mozes Kor had died this month at age 85. Kor, who was imprisoned at Auschwitz for 10 months, was among the 1,500 sets of twins upon whom the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele conducted horrific experiments.
That alone would have rendered her an iconic figure. But Kor did something else, and it made her controversial. She declared that she forgave those who had tortured her, together with all who had participated in the genocide.
She traveled to Auschwitz in 1995 with one of the doctors who had conducted the experiments. She grasped his arm and held him tight, while he gallantly helped her up and down the stairs. She appeared in 2015 in Lunenburg, Germany, at the trial of Oskar Groening, the “accountant” of Auschwitz, where she held his hands and patted his shoulder and accepted his grateful kiss her on her cheek.
Kor always insisted she was forgiving these perpetrators in her name only. Nonetheless, many survivors were troubled by her actions. I watched them grimace as audiences gave her standing ovations and the media described her as someone “who found it in her heart” to forgive, the implication being that survivors who did not follow her lead were unable to rise above their resentment. Survivors told me they felt they were being depicted as hardhearted, while Kor was being celebrated as the hero, someone bigger than they. Echoing Greenberg, they wondered: How can I forgive my parents’ murderers? That’s for them to do. And they didn’t survive to do it.
Forgiveness is a paramount quality in Jewish tradition. According to tradition, a Jew prays for forgiveness a minimum of three times a day. The holiest season of the year, Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, is built around forgiving.
Jewish tradition requires someone who has been wronged to forgive the person who has acted against them. But this is built on the expectation that the “sinner” has acknowledged the wrong, tried to “right” it, resolved to never repeat it, and then - and only then - turned to the person they have wronged to ask for forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not some talisman that magically cleanses wrongs. One can, of course, as Kor did, forgive someone without this process. Kor often spoke of how the act of forgiving released her from the anger in her heart. That is completely understandable.
What rankled many survivors and their children was not her forgiving but her public and rather dramatic bestowal of amnesty on all Nazi murderers, including those who had done little - if anything at all - to demonstrate that they grasped how terribly wrong was their attempted annihilation of an entire people. She appeared to be giving them not just her personal forgiveness but theirs, too.
At this point, as the generations of those who can speak in the first-person singular about what they endured are diminishing, the issue is becoming moot. All that is left is remembrance. That is no small thing.
The founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism is credited with having said: “Remembrance is the secret of redemption.” But what of earthly, not divine, redemption for societies that have murdered and enslaved? They, and the generations that have benefited from the crime, are redeemed not when a survivor says, “I forgive you,” but when they honestly confront what happened and, when possible, make recompense for it.
Deborah E. Lipstadt teaches Holocaust history at Emory University and is the author, most recently, of “Antisemitism: Here and Now.”