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Never Forget…But Can I Forgive?

by Ora Weinbach, 2022 Seminary Fellow

There was never a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust.
The mass murder of millions of my people is a fact imprinted into my eyelids.

Never Forget.

Every Tisha B’Av1 afternoon, we watched Holocaust movies:

Striped prison uniforms,

Polished S.S. boots—

Rail thin, naked bodies.

Vicious, frothing, barking dogs.

Fear, fear, hunger, fear.
Every time the rabbi wanted to bring his sermon home, he crescendoed with Auschwitz:

Carry the flame of Judaism!
Fuel it with religious fervor!

Because Hitler tried to put it out.

Every year on Yom HaShoah, we had an all-school assembly:

They were trying to kill all the Jews.

I am a Jew.


They were trying to kill me.

Never Forget.

Growing up, the Holocaust was the reason for a lot of things.
Why my grandparents chose to send my mother to private Jewish day school. Why the State of Israel exists.

Why I should always be a little bit afraid of non-Jewish neighbors. Why I should never buy German cars.
Their land is soaked with our blood.
Don’t give them our money too.

Never Forget.

But what about forgive?

This summer, I participated in FASPE, a fellowship in Berlin and Poland for professionals to consider contemporary ethical issues in their fields through the lens of the Holocaust.

I was nervous about going.
My grandmother swore she would never visit Germany “after what they’ve done.”

Within my first hours of arriving, I nearly had a panic attack. The sirens sound different in Europe than in America…a noise I had only ever heard in movies about Kristallnacht, deportations, and children hiding in dark cellars. When a police car siren went off outside the hotel window, my heart exploded.

“Relax!” my rational brain told me. “You don’t have anything to be afraid of.”

But another part of me whispered,

“Never Forget.”

Over that week in Berlin, it would have been impossible for me to forget the Holocaust. I spent all day every day talking about it. Yet what I discovered would probably have surprised my grandparents; it definitely surprised me:

Germany has done teshuva.

Teshuva (repentance) is a foundational belief in Jewish tradition. We believe that not only can people repent from their wrongdoings, but they are in fact obligated to do so. The great sage Maimonides identifies three stages of teshuva.2

1) Verbally confess the sin.

Across Berlin, there are government-funded museums and memorials clearly acknowledging Nazi atrocities.

2) Genuinely regret the sin.

German citizens with whom I spoke readily acknowledged the Holocaust with collective discomfort and horror.

3) Commit to never repeat the sin.

The museums and historical sites we visited were full of German school children learning about the war crimes and atrocities committed there.

But most of all, I was convinced by Isabell.

Isabell was another FASPE fellow. She was herself born and raised in Germany. Her family is ethnically German as far back as they know. I was apprehensive when we first met. She has an obvious German accent, and I knew she knew I was Jewish. Carefully casual, we chatted about coffee and sightseeing. A few days later, over lunch at the Brandenburg Museum dedicated to Aktion T4, Isabell shared with me how visiting memorial sites was difficult yet important for her.

1) Verbally confess the sin.

She wondered with apprehension about her great-grandparents’ role in and attitudes during World War II. She wondered if, but doubted that, she would have resisted herself had she been alive then.

2) Genuinely regret the sin.

She described a kind of guilt and responsibility she felt about Nazi crimes.

3) Commit to never repeat the sin.

She joined this fellowship to ensure that something like the Holocaust will never happen again.

I listened with a mixture of emotions: confusion, anxiety, but—most of all—respect. I appreciated her willingness to admit all these things, to make herself uncomfortable. I was surprised to realize that I understood her sense of guilt; it mirrored my feelings of fear. When Isabell and I looked at the photos displayed in exhibits, we each instantly saw ourselves. While my eyes focused on the victim, hers found the face of the perpetrator.

The next day, we visited Buchenwald Track 17, from which the majority of Berlin’s Jews were deported. As I walked up to the track, I couldn't stop imagining myself 80 years ago, overwhelmed and anxious, lugging a suitcase lined with family photos, a crying baby in my arms. I looked up, half expecting to see a train waiting. Instead, I saw Isabell standing alone, solemn, also imagining herself 80 years ago.

Time collapsed around us both. We made eye contact, but she looked away quickly, sad and nervous—perhaps a little ashamed?

For sins committed against other people, as opposed to sins committed solely against God, Maimonides adds that the offending party must

4) Ask for forgiveness.3

But can I grant forgiveness?

In that instant, I felt the kind of power that accompanies a genuine moment of choice. I knew that I could walk away from Isabell, shrouded in the privacy of my own meditations and pain, leaving her to hers and me to mine. Or I could walk towards her. I could say “It’s OK.” I could extend friendship, extend forgiveness.

The city of Berlin, Isabell’s eyes, and my FASPE experience ask me:

Can I forgive?

Maimonides writes:

It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and unappeasable, rather he must be easily appeased and difficult to anger; and at the time a sinner asks him for forgiveness, he should forgive with a whole heart and a desirous spirit. Even if one who persecuted him and sinned against him exceedingly he should not take revenge and bear a grudge. This is the way of Israel and of their excellent heart.4

Can I forgive?

I really, really want to…

I don’t want to be afraid of an accent.
I don’t want to avoid an entire city.
I don’t want to bear all this trauma.

Forgiveness is healing. Forgiveness is transformative.

If I could forgive, I could let all that go—

If only it were so simple.
Forgiving the Holocaust takes more than a single moment, no matter how poignant.
Who am I to extend forgiveness for an evil done to my entire people, an evil I can't even begin to imagine?

I didn’t hide in an attic,

resist in a forest,

starve in a concentration camp. I wasn't beaten,


or shot.
I didn’t lose my job,

my home,

every single member of my extended family.

Who did I think I was? What did I think I was doing?

Granting forgiveness for Holocaust crimes is the central question of Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. In the first half of the book, he recounts a personal story from his time as a prisoner in Lemberg concentration camp. A mortally wounded SS soldier named Karl summons Wiesenthal to his deathbed. Karl confesses his horrible genocidal crimes against Jews and asks for forgiveness.

As I read Wiesenthal’s story, I found myself hoping he would forgive Karl—

He didn’t.

I was disappointed, but quickly rebuked myself for passing judgment. In the second half of the book, Wiesenthal poses the same question to over 50 contemporary thought leaders, inviting them to write a short reflection: would you forgive this soldier?

I scanned the table of contents for a name I recognized.

Abraham Joshua Heschel…page 170.

Rabbi Heschel is my rebbe, my personal teacher and spiritual guide, a wise, generous, and compassionate person. I was confident he would forgive Karl.

I was disappointed yet again.

After recounting a tale about the famous Rabbi of Brisk, Heschel concludes his short essay: “No one can forgive crimes committed against other people. It is therefore preposterous to assume that anybody alive can extend forgiveness for the suffering of any one of the six million people who perished. According to Jewish tradition, even God Himself can only forgive sins committed against Himself, not against man.”5

My heart rioted at these words. My throat caught; my eyes burned. My own rebbe was telling me I could not possibly do what I wanted. These were not my sins to forgive. In fact, in the whole book, not a single Jewish author confidently states that they would have forgiven Karl. The Dalai Lama, Catholic priests, and Desmond Tutu advocate for Karl’s forgiveness. But no Jews.

Why do I have such a different
opinion than these Jewish
thought leaders, than my grandparents, than
my own rebbe?

Because I am of a different generation.

In the Ten Commandments, God
proclaims: “I am God, your God, a zealous God,
I recall the sins of the fathers onto the

children, for three and four
Even God holds on to sins for three or four generations.
But after that…?
Forgiveness has become possible in my generation. Not because I am forgetting—

Never Forget—

But because I am granting forgiveness for something else. As Rabbi Heschel taught, I can only forgive sins that were done to me.

My contact with the Holocaust—movies, sermons, and school assemblies—is incomparable to the real-life experiences of survivors. Yet the formal and informal Holocaust education of my youth molded me to carry the concerns and conclusions of my predecessors.

Some of that is beautiful:

I am committed to my Jewish faith, and am honored to carry my tradition.

Some of that is unfair:

I am suspicious of an entire ethnic group and scared of sirens. Some of it is education;
Some of it is intergenerational trauma.
Can I forgive?

I cannot pardon Isabell for sins she didn’t do. I cannot absolve sins that were not done to me. However, such extreme and horrific wrongs were done to Jews during the Holocaust, that they continue to impact Jews today. They continue to impact me. The trauma inflicted on them has been passed down to me.

That—I can forgive.
I forgive
the aspect of
any and all sins
committed during the Holocaust that contributed to
the intergenerational trauma that pains me

even to this day.

It may seem small to some, but to me it's enormous.

Back on Track 17, I shyly approached Isabell. Without saying a word, we hugged

and hugged
and cried
and hugged.

Embracing Isabell was an act of forgiveness. Not of her, nor of anyone. Rather, it was forgiveness for me. I chose to let go of the fear I had been lugging around in my soul. Don't worry—I will not forget.

Never Forget.

I learned, though, that I can forgive.

Ora Weinbach was a 2022 FASPE Seminary Fellow. She is a Master of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School.


  1. A Jewish communal fast day commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It is considered a national and religious day of mourning. Many historical tragedies, including the Holocaust, are commemorated on this day as well.
  2. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, “The Laws of Repentance.”
  3. Maimonides also requires the offending party to make restitution. A discussion of such issues, including the ethics of reparations, is beyond the scope of this piece. I would briefly argue that for a sin on the scale of the Holocaust, commensurate compensation is beyond human comprehension, all the more so ability. The German government has already paid over 85 billion dollars in reparations to Holocaust victims and their families. However, it remains an obvious fact that no amount of money could make up for the overwhelming magnitude and variety of Nazi crimes.
  4. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, “The Laws of Repentance,” 2:10.
  5. Wiesenthal, S. The Sunflower. Shocken Books Inc., 1998. p 171.
  6. Deuteronomy 5:9, author’s translation.