This third story is about humanity, forgiveness and redemption. This story starts with the death of eleven million non-combatants and ends with the death by hanging of 11 top Nazi commanders held responsible for crimes against humanity. The book is Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis authored by reporter Tim Townsend.
The horrors of what the Nazi machination did during WWII are unimaginably cruel and even unbelievably macabre. Countless of books have been written about the massacres and yet it would take at least a few lifetimes to come to terms with the evil perpetrated by seemingly normal men with family and children of their own.
The book traces the arrest, imprisonment, trial, conviction, sentence and execution of 19 Nazi top officials. The chaplain who was assigned to shepherd them into repentance before they face their fate was a Lutheran minister named Henry Gerecke. While most of the convicted regretted what they had done, their conviction and death could hardly do justice to the millions of lives lost in pursuit of a sick and perverted ideology and leadership.
In one of the honest confessions by a former field Marshal, Keitel, he told the Court these words that came many years too late. “In the course of the trial my defence counsel submitted two fundamental questions to me, the first one…was “In case of a victory, would you have refused to participate in any part of the success?” I answered, “No, I should certainly have been proud of it.” The second question was: “How would you act if you were in the same position again?” My answer: “I should rather choose death than to let myself be drawn into the net of such pernicious methods.”
But my story only begins with a man named Simon Wiesenthal who is a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter. In the book, the author narrated an encounter that Wiesenthal had with a member of SS named Karl. The year was 1941 and the place was Janowska work camp. Wiesenthal was only 31 years old when he worked in the camp.
One day, he was assigned to a nearby hospital and a nurse approached him. “Are you a Jew?” the nurse asked. Wiesenthal nodded and followed the nurse to a Red Cross building. They walked up a flight of stairs and into a room where a man lying on the bed called out to him softly, “Please come nearer. I can't speak loudly.” As Wiesenthal drew nearer to the man, he introduced himself as Karl and told him that he has not much longer to live. He added that he is “resigned to dying soon.” But before he die, he wanted to tell Wiesenthal something that has been tormenting him. Karl specifically asked for a Jew so that he could confess to him what he had done to his people.
He started off with a brief background of his life. He told Wiesenthal that he was 21 years old when he joined the Hitler Youth. His faith as a Catholic altar boy faded away during the war. Karl insisted that he was not born a murderer but one day he was assigned to join a unit of SA storm-troopers somewhere in the Russian front. His unit found a deserted town and everything in it was either destroyed, bombed or burnt. As they searched the place, they found a large group of civilians huddling together and under guard. They were all Jews.
The next part of the story is described in the book with details unsparing. “The order was given and Karl, along with the rest of the unit, marched toward the huddled mass of families – 150 people, maybe, 200. The children stared at the approaching men with anxious eyes. Some were crying. Women held their infant children. A truck arrived with cans of gasoline, which were taken to the upper stories of one of the small houses on the square. Karl and his unit drove the Jews into the house with whips and kicks. Another truck arrived, and those Jews, too, were crammed into the small house before the door was locked.”
At this point, Wiesenthal wanted to leave the room as he was all too familiar with the ending. But Karl begged him to stay and allow him to finish. Reluctantly, Wiesenthal returned to his seat and Karl continued.
In the book, the author wrote, “The order was given, and the SS unit pulled the safety pins from their grenades and tossed them into the upper windows of the house. Explosions, then screams, then flames and more screams. The men readied their rifles, prepared to shoot any of the Jews who tried to flee the fire. Karl saw a man on the second floor of the house, holding a child. His clothes were on fire. A woman stood next to him. The man covered the child’s eyes with one hand and jumped. The woman followed. Burning bodies fell from other windows. The shooting began. “My God,” Karl whispered. “My God.”” Therein ends Karl's confession.
To Wiesenthal, God had on that day taken a leave of absence from that god-forsaken town. And in His place, Hitler and his ideology stood as a testament to the evil of humanity.
What Karl was asking from Wiesenthal, a Jew, was forgiveness. In his own words, Karl said, “In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him…I know what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.” After he had finished, Wiesenthal stood up and left the room without saying a word.
This powerful story moved me deeply because the symbolic juxtaposition between Wiesenthal, representing the murdered Jews, and Karl, representing his tormentors, shows without a doubt the insufferable pain of humanity in their bid for personal redemption. For Karl, it was to be redeemed from guilt by seeking forgiveness. And for Wiesenthal, it was to be redeemed from hatred by forgiving. Their pain is real and I have learned that we all struggle with this pain to a certain extent.
In our lives, the hurt we experience may be the hurt we have inflicted on others (as in Karl) or the hurt that have been inflicted on us (as in Wiesenthal). On either side of the divide, the question is the same: How do we move forward with our life carrying the burden of this hurt? This is essentially a question of redemption, our humanity, and forgiveness.
Redemption because we all want a second chance to set things right. Humanity because we are fallen creatures and deep inside, we long to make the connection with our true self, that is, the broken, vulnerable but still hopeful self. And lastly, forgiveness, for those forgiving and for those asking for it, because without which we will forever be tormented by the hurt we seek so futilely to deny in our living years. Cheerz.