Although ultimately it appeared that Wiesenthal was right—Waldheim was a cynical and shameless liar but not a Nazi or SS officer—the price he paid for his blunders in the Waldheim affair was high. It may have included his having forfeited the chance to receive the Nobel Peace Prize that many believed would be his in 1986. He thought it was more likely that he would have to share it with Elie Wiesel. But Wiesel received the prize alone.
In the late Sixties, Wiesenthal wrote about an incident that took place when he was imprisoned in the Janowska concentration camp. Sent with other prisoners to Lwów on a labor detail, he was put to work moving heavy equipment in the courtyard of the technical university, which had been converted into a military hospital for wounded German soldiers. A German nurse insisted that Wiesenthal follow her upstairs and left him alone in a room with a shape lying on the bed that turned out to be a German soldier wrapped from head to toe in bandages.
The soldier asked whether Wiesenthal was a Jew, and when Wiesenthal said yes, the soldier went on to tell him that he was a member of the SS and that his unit had participated in an atrocity—setting fire to Jews packed into a house—in a village in Ukraine. He asked Wiesenthal to forgive him so that he might die in peace. After a pause for reflection, Wiesenthal left the room without a word.
Having written the story, Wiesenthal asked a number of prominent people whether they thought that what he had done was morally right. Many of them replied, including Hannah Arendt, Günter Grass, Charlie Chaplin, Primo Levi, and Arthur Miller. Subsequently he published the story in a book, The Sunflower (1969), including in it his correspondents’ replies to his question as well as letters of those who did not choose to reply to the question and explained their reasons.17
The book was his third best seller, and it became a textbook used in many schools. Wiesenthal never deviated from his original insistence that the story was true. But many doubts have been voiced about its authenticity, particularly the improbability of a Jewish prisoner appearing at the bedside of a severely wounded SS man. Authentic or not, the story goes to the core of Wiesenthal’s Nazi-hunting enterprise.
Segev quotes a letter from Eva Dukes, an Austrian-American woman with whom Wiesenthal had a long relationship, in which she wrote about the wounded soldier:
You could almost have forgiven him, and as your suffering proves, you were closer to doing so than you realized then. It was largely your guilt toward your comrades and toward the dead that held you back, the dread of disloyalty. Apparently you were close to feeling, although incapable of saying, “Yes I forgive you.”
If Wiesenthal had forgiven the man, Segev believes, he might have been able to forgive himself, “and perhaps he would have shaken off the grip of the Holocaust that pursued him even more relentlessly than he pursued others…. He, who always tried to prevent the innocent from being punished, punished himself for a crime he didn’t commit.” Segev seems to believe that the crime was his having suffered, because of the decency of the two good Germans, considerably less than many other prisoners, indeed owing his life to those Germans. Perhaps that was one of Wiesenthal’s great sorrows; but it’s worth noting that like the survivors of other great catastrophes, Holocaust survivors are apt to be afflicted by feelings of guilt when they remember those around them who seemed more deserving but were lost. It is unlikely that Wiesenthal would have purged himself of that guilt by absolving the SS man of guilt for a crime that could have been forgiven only by his unit’s victims, and they, of course, were dead.
17 Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (Schocken, 1997), originally published as Die Sonnenblume (Paris: Opera Mundi, 1969). ↩
Jews Honored in Kraków March 8, 2012
Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (Schocken, 1997), originally published as Die Sonnenblume (Paris: Opera Mundi, 1969). ↩