Progressively Speaking: What does Eva Kor teach us about forgiveness?
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Progressively Speaking: What does Eva Kor teach us about forgiveness?

Rabbi Danny Rich reflects on a topical issue with a progressive Jewish response

Eva Kor and Oskar Gröning
Eva Kor and Oskar Gröning

Any decent human being can only respond with humility and respect to news that Holocaust survivor and educator, Eva Kor, declared in an interview before her death: “Everybody should be forgiven. Not because Hitler deserves it, but because every victim deserves to be free of what Hitler imposed on us.”

Jewish theology is clear that the ‘forgiving of wrongdoing’ is in the hands of the victim, and, if the victim is unable or unwilling, the matterof teshuvah (atonement) rests with God.

This concept of returning to the correct path or to God is underpinned by the assumption that the perpetrator acknowledges the wrongdoing, expresses regret, makes recompense and intends to change conduct.

Eva – who even underwent experiments by Josef Mengele and who lost all her family apart from her twin, Miriam – had the right to offer forgiveness because that power rests with her and because, as she herself observed, it may contribute to a personal ability to live with one’s past.

Her personal forgiveness, however, does not complete teshuvah for Mengele or Hitler, since it is an unknown whether any of them even reflected or regretted, never mind compensated or sought to do better.

The object of her forgiveness – ‘to close the wound’ – is laudable and understandable, but it may not necessarily be achieved in the case of other victims. They may require, for example, punishment of the perpetrator, a formal recognition of their experience, or a public memorial of the event.

Any or all of these measures may enable different victims to become a little reconciled to what has happened to them.

Eva, who died last month at the age of 85, was an inspiring Holocaust educator. She demonstrated, by personal example, that on occasion forgiveness “can overcome hardship and tragedy”.

But in truth it is not always so simple. Justice is not about vengeance, but neither is it always about only forgiveness.

Forgiveness may need to be earned by the sincerity of those who seek it, and, in the case of dead Nazis, their fate lies beyond human understanding.

Danny Rich is senior rabbi of Liberal Judaism

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