Those of you who saw the interesting and controversial German television series ‘Generation War’ may recall the scene where Red Army troops overrun a German field hospital and proceed to shoot the wounded soldiers left behind. One Russian soldier is about to rape Charlotte, a German nurse, when a female Red Army Officer stops him with the words, ‘We are liberators, not rapists.’ Charlotte is astonished to find that the officer is a Jewish woman whom she betrayed a couple of years before. In the most telling scene in the series she asks ‘Why did you save me after I betrayed you?’ The Officer thought for a moment and replied ‘because if we don’t forgive this will go on forever.’
There has been precious little talk of forgiveness recently in our old world as the awful events in Gaza unfold and the innocents of flight MH17 lie in the sun kissed fields of eastern Ukraine. Seeing a small child lie by the side of the road covered with sunflowers placed there by a local woman was simply heart-breaking. It reminded me of the Simon Wiesenthal book ‘The Sunflowers: On the possibilities and limits of forgiveness.’ Wiesenthal, a Jewish holocaust survivor, Nazi hunter and author, recalls in the book that during his time as a prisoner in Lemberg Concentration Camp he could see the nearby German military cemetery. By each soldiers grave a sunflower seed was planted and as the months unfolded a virtual forest of tall sunflowers grew there. One day he is summoned to the local military hospital where a dying SS man, Karl Seidl, had asked to speak to a Jew from the nearby camp. Wiesenthal is shown into the room where the SS man is lying in bed, obviously near death. He whispers to the rather astonished Jew that he took part in many atrocities in Russia against the Jews including herding over 300 of them into a building and burning it to the ground. Any who tried to escape were mercilessly mown down by Seidl and his SS comrades. Seidl is haunted by his crimes, knows his death is near and fears he is going to hell. He asks Wiesenthal to forgive him. The dying man before him has committed awful crimes and Wiesenthal ponders what to do next. He then walks quietly to the door and leaves, without saying another word. In the book he asks the reader to consider what they would do in such a situation.
In these days of instant communication the tragedy in Gaza seems to be unfolding before our eyes. The power of social media to inform, occasionally misinform and to help mould opinion is undoubtedly huge. Many on the outside feel an impotent rage at their inability to do anything to stop these dreadful things occurring. This is compounded by the seemingly callous lack of concern shown by the governments of nations who could affect the situation for the better. This rage has led to some to castigate countries, governments and even individuals for their attitudes. We saw Nir Biton, Celtic’s Israeli midfielder being condemned by some, sometimes in the coarsest of language, for tweeting an image which seemed to support the Israeli Defence Forces. The fact that all Israelis complete compulsory national service and that Biton will undoubtedly have family and friends in the IDF was of no consequence as some demanded he be thrown out of Celtic Park for voicing an opinion at odds with theirs. It reminded me of a Wolfe Tones song which contains the lyric…’So this is your democracy, be silent or agree with me.’ Biton may have been foolish posting his message at such a fraught time and I for one will never accept the behaviour of the IDF in Gaza as anything other than murderous, but he has a right to his opinions nonetheless. He faces a difficult time when he returns to Scotland and wouldn’t our crummy media just love it if he was ‘driven out’ by some of his own club’s fans?
Amid the strong words, the condemnation and invective, good people work quietly away for peace. They’re found in every land and are the hope for humanity’s future. Few of us will ever be put in the situation Simon Wiesenthal was in when the SS man asked him for forgiveness but some have and their responses can be surprising. Gordon Wilson, who lost his daughter Marie in the Enniskillen bombing of 1987 said at the time…
"She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, 'Daddy, I love you very much.' Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. She's in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night."
It is astonishing that a person who lost so much can find forgiveness in his heart after such an experience. Such people remain one of the best hopes we humans have of moving on from our bloody squabbles. As the Russian Officer said in the German TV Series when asked why she helped someone who had betrayed her…
‘because if we don’t forgive, this will go on forever.’
I don’t mind admitting I’ve shed some tears this last week over events in our world. It seems the innocents always suffer and the guilty literally get away with murder. Life can seem so cruel and unfair but as Anne Frank wrote in her Diary a long time ago…
‘In spite of everything I still believe people are good at heart.’
I try to believe that, I really do.