To Forgive a Killer

To Forgive a Killer

My Hebrew name is Hadassah Henya. I am named in memory of  Henya Sabo, my great-grandmother who, I have been told,  perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Down below you can see the wedding photo from when she and my great-grandfather were married, in about 1920. She was just a little bit older than me when she was murdered by the Nazis, along with family members and friends, and millions and millions of others. Their eldest son was my Saba, my paternal grandfather, who lived a long life before passing away in 1997. My great-grandfather Mordechai survived, and remarried after the war.

How would I feel if one of those Nazi guards came to me today, and asked me to forgive them for killing her? For killing so many of my family members? How would I react if I was asked to forgive the murderers of millions of people? Is it even my place to be able to grant such forgiveness, even if I felt I could?

For the record, I believe that the only one that can grant true forgiveness to a killer is the one that they killed.

I have been pondering this deep question for days, ever since I read Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller. The book follows a young woman, a baker, who befriends an elderly man who she finds out was a Nazi guard in his early adulthood. He wants to be forgiven. He committed horrible atrocities, and seeks forgiveness from a Jew before he dies. Oh, and he also wants her to kill him.

It isn’t often that I stay up until I have finished reading a book. I was up till 2 am on Friday night reading this – my heart seizing here and there, tears falling as Picoult took us back to the horrors of that time. I didn’t hear many Holocaust stories or accounts from the family while growing up – they didn’t want the young people being traumatized, but from the snippets* that I did hear, her recounting of that time was pretty accurate. She wove such an evocative story – expertly weaving present day with past, true happenings (true to the book, anyway) with a piece of vampire fiction that threads its way through the book. Trust me – the vampire story totally fits in, but isn’t all sparkly and Twilighty. Shudder. I felt as if I was that woman, the baker. I could see myself in her shoes. Picoult outdid herself with this book. I could not / would not sleep until I’d read it through to the end.

I have read other reviews that talk about lack of character development, or mention that they found this book disappointing in comparison to her other ones. Maybe because it struck a chord within me I didn’t feel that way at all.

Pick up your own copy today – it is well worth the read.

Let’s return to the question – would you be able to forgive the Nazis? Or the killer of a close relative or friend? What do you think – is it for us to forgive?

[*I once watched Escape from Sobibor with my grandparents and great-aunt - they all survived untold horrors during the Shoah. I got up to turn the TV off when I realized they were sitting down to watch with me. I didn't want to bring back terrible memories for them. I may as well have made them popcorn. All the way through they were pointing out inaccuracies in the story, and they kept commenting on how "fat" the actors were. I guess starving the actors into skin and bones was not union-approved. It was an experience I will never forget. My Savta told me later that no movie, no matter how well done, can accurately portray the horrors that they went through].

[I was not compensated in any way for this review].

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  1. Your personal connection to the characters is so much more important than any lack of development. My grandparents were much luckier and escaped Russia as children to come to the United States. Getting wrapped up in a book that touches us emotionally is the goal of an author. I’m glad that Jodi Picoult was able to touch you in that way.

  2. No, I would not forgive.

  3. Lady Lock N Load says:

    Great book, I knew you would love it, my dear Henya!

  4. Justine says:

    If you find the subject interesting then you should read The Sunflower – it deals with exactly the same topic.

  5. Mark says:

    What the Germans did in WWII wasn’t only crimes against individuals, but it was a crime against a nation/people, and a crime against humanity. A crime, even murder, against an individual can be forgiven. Perhaps even forgiven by others who are less related to the victim. But the crime that the Germans committed cannot be forgiven by anyone, not then, not now, not ever.

    Interestingly, I also read two Shoah-related books over chag, one of which was impossible to put down until completion:

    1. The Secret of the Just
    2. Once we were Brothers (can’t put down after starting)

  6. Princess Lea says:

    I never think about forgiving Nazis. I think about dead Nazis.

    I am also named after a great-grandmother who was murdered in the war, and all of my grandparents are/were survivors. Frankly, I don’t like to expend much though about Nazis, and I never consider forgiveness. Why is that on the table? What would forgiveness accomplish, anyway? Closure? Like hell.

  7. Lady Lock N Load says:

    I have never heard of a Nazi apologizing for anything, even when they were caught and had to face trial and punishment.
    I think the German people today are ashamed of that era, and are careful about antisemitism. Plus they continue to give money to Holocaust victims. (My father who was a survivor called it blood money).

  8. Abe Kohen says:

    My sister’s aunt, a survivor of several Holocaust camps, could not bear to watch Hogan’s Heroes. I have read many Holocaust histories in both English, Hebrew and Hungarian, including a books by R’ Dov Ber Weissmandl. It made me very angry, so I no longer read such books. Curious about the name Sabo. Were it Hungarian it would be Szabo as in Taylor, since S in Hungarian is like a shin, while Sz is like a sin or samech.

    • HaDassah says:

      We used to have a Z in it as in Szabo. I have no idea when we dropped it. Yes, I am of Hungarian extraction.

  9. Lady Lock N Load says:

    My in laws did not allow my husband to watch Hogan’s Heroes, as it made the Germans to be funny clowns when they really were not!

  10. Rebecca Fistel says:

    Once We Were Brothers is also a book I could not put down. My father was in the invasion at Normandy and he never, never spoke of the War to us. We knew he was a trouble man but never knew why. We as children always walked on eggshells. Now, when reading and learning I can see where his pain came from. I just wish I knew it then. I guess he wanted to shield us. Hadassah, please if u have the time, read the above book.

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