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What It Means to Forgive

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This is a true story. Thus, the names of persons and places have been purposely changed to protect Meir, the main person involved. It has been quite a privilege to experience how Meir has changed through the years. Although he tells me he will never be able to erase these terrible memories, he looks a lot happier. He is on his way, most of the time being accompanied by serenity.

Here is the story I experienced the first time I came to the USA in 1986. I came to participate at an experiential workshop called “The Six Days,” which took me and probably everybody else to the limit of our physical, mental, and emotional being.

Meir arrived at the training complex in the same bus as I did, thus becoming a member of our team. He was quiet, never talked about himself, and I felt he was deep water, really deep. There was also this atmosphere of sadness and sometimes the look of helpless rage, a mixture of anger, madness and resignation, which passed by his eyes in an instant.

Our first task, even before we were installed, was to walk towards a video camera, say who we were, where we came from, and something of ourselves, and then walk away. There I noticed Meir marching towards the camera as if he were on parade; he made his announcements in a clear, carrying, and somewhat too loud a voice. His posture was ramrod straight while he talked; he about-turned and literally marched away.

After four strenuous days of passing over our limits in the rope courses, encounter workshops, and intellectual debates, we were shown our pictures of those first video films. There we had the opportunity to compare and see how we looked like then and how we look like now by standing next to a forty-eight-inch monitor. Meir looked healthier; there was more color in his face, his eyes were brighter, and he seemed now to be more aggressively challenging.

He was then asked to describe his own face on the film. With some hesitation, he said he saw a man, a strict disciplinarian, a man you could count on to do what he said he would do. He kept looking at the picture in silence, his face working. He then looked at the course trainer and slightly shook his head.

The trainer then asked the participants to say what they saw. They said about the same things he said. One of them mentioned he looked like Col. Klink and everybody laughed except me. So I had to be told that “Herr Oberst von Klink(-endorf)” was a figure in a humorous TV series called Hogan’s Heroes, the scenario of which was a WW II prison camp in Nazi Germany for Allied aviators. Col. Klink was the camp commandant.

I noticed that Meir had paled. The trainer had noticed it, too. So he asked Meir to tell them about his life. I saw Meir literally pulling himself together. Then he started. He told us that he was born in Iasi, Rumania in 1936. He had lived in a house with his mother, father, and both his grandfathers. All men were actively involved with the Socialist Party, so when the Nazis occupied the country, they had to be very, very careful.

One day, coming home from school, he witnessed his entire family executed in the street in front of his home. The SS had pulled them out of the house, lined them up against the wall, and mowed them down with their machine guns. A friendly neighbor had recognized him in the street, smuggled him into his home, and took care of him for a few weeks. Then he was moved every few weeks to another family.

One day he and the family he was staying with were caught. He was deported to a concentration camp and miraculously survived. After the liberation, he lived in Holland, studied and became an aircraft engineer at the Fokker Works, and was sent to the USA, where he decided to stay.

There was silence in the room when he finished telling us his biography. The trainer then asked him softly what did he intend to do about the rest of his life.

He told us that he had done ten years of psychotherapy. However, looking at his own face now, it seemed that the therapy had been of little effect. He didn’t know what he was going to do about his life. It seemed so useless.

The trainer then asked him if he would be ready to listen to him, for he had a suggestion to make. Meir nodded his head. The trainer then said quietly, “Forgive them all!”

The wild look of hopeless rage sprang into Meir’s eyes while he shouted, “Forgive those bastards! NEVER!”

Softly, the trainer spoke, “I don’t think you understood what I mean.”

He then asked his assistant to read out aloud out of the Encyclopedia Britannica, that “to forgive” means “to cease to feel resentment against an offender; to give up resentment of or claim to requital of; to give up wanting revenge; to pardon one’s enemies.”

“What you may want to understand is that forgiving your enemies has nothing to do with them. It is an act that relieves you, that acquits you to have to take revenge. To forgive means to give away your right for revenge. Thus you become free of it.

The question is, do you want to forgive them now?”

Meir stood silent for some time. Then he said, “I forgive …”, running down a mental list of all those involved in the murder of his parents, the deportation of the Iasi Jews and Socialists to the death camps, the name of the SS commandant and staff of the concentration camp. It seemed to me that he had researched to find out exactly who they had been. As if one day, he’d be in a position to eliminate each name one by one from his list.

Well, today, he had crossed off that list all in one go. Tears were running down his face (and down mine, too) while I was watching his face becoming softer and softer. For a while, he didn’t notice that everybody had stood up and that they were clapping. He then looked up out of his emotions, smiled softly at the group of over eighty participants, walked slowly to his chair, and sat down.

Later, I went to congratulate him and saw that his eyes had become calm. A quiet intensive light had replaced the hopeless desolation.

I then decided that I had a lot of forgiving to do, too.


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