Forgiveness and Power

I have been reading a wonderful book written by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. It’s called “Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach us about the Mysteries of Life and Death.”

Kubler-Ross came into adulthood after World War Two. To get home to Switzerland after the war she walked and hitch-hiked half way across Europe. She did not have enough money to sleep in hotels, so she slept in the most safe and quiet place in the towns and villages she passed through: the local cemeteries. This came to symbolise her life, as she later became perhaps the world’s best known thanatologist: an expert on the dying process. She passed away in 2004.

I know less about David Kessler. But I found the following words he wrote in the book to be particularly relevant at this time. They are about forgiveness, and they involve the story of a woman who lost her family in the Nazi concentration camps of WW2. Somehow, many of us have forgotten how to develop a healthy relationship with the past, and the individuals and groups who hurt us or our people. And perhaps we need to forgive certain people and groups in the present, if we seek peace and healing – and empowerment.

The authors write:

“When we do not forgive, we hang on to old wounds, hurts, and upsets. We keep the unhappy parts of the past alive and feed our resentments. When we don’t forgive, we become slaves to ourselves.“

Here is the story, as told by David Kessler…

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Sometimes it seems impossible to forgive, for the act committed was too offensive. Here, Elisabeth Mann could us teach many lessons about tolerance, love, anger, and forgiveness.

Elisabeth has much to be angry about. When she was a teenager, she and her family were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, a concentration camp where the average life expectancy was brief. Shortly after her arrival there, she asked a guard where the rest of her family was. He pointed to the smoke coming out of a massive chimney, saying, “That’s where they are.”

After the camp was liberated by Allied soldiers, Elisabeth found herself in Denmark, waiting for a train to Sweden. There were other survivors with her, but her family was gone. “I was given a cup of coffee that tasted so good, I’ve never had anything to match it,” she declares. A nurse brought in two women and a man, saying they were also concentration camp survivors. “I suspected they were not, for they had bags with them. No one from a camp had luggage, we didn’t even have an extra piece of cloth. These two women and the man started asking us questions about which camp we came from, how we got here. My fellow survivors shared their stories.

“The next morning the train arrived to take us to Sweden. I was put in a compartment with the two women who had asked the questions, plus three others. There wasn’t a lot of room in the car, especially with the suitcases the two women had brought. The two of them sat on the floor, the three others took a bench, and I climbed overhead, in the place where you normally put the luggage. That night, when they thought everyone was sleeping, I heard a noise. Looking down, I saw that the two women had opened one of their suitcases, and inside were photos of people in SS uniforms. The women were tearing the pictures up and throwing them out the window. You have to understand that no one in a camp would have had, or even wanted to have, pictures of the guards.

“Some officials got on the train at one of the stops and asked us all questions. When he asked the two women and the man where they had been, which camp and so on, they recited the stories they had heard from my fellow inmates the night before. I could have said something, but I was so full of happiness that the war was over. I was convinced that every soul had learned from the war. I thought it was not my place to punish these people. If God wants to punish them, he will. We arrived in Sweden and I never saw them again.

“What I did was not to condone what these people had done. It was to trust God that forgiveness was in his hands, not mine. It wasn’t my place to decide their fate. With all the people who had died, my little brother, my parents, how could I say, ‘It’s okay, it doesn’t matter?’

“But it was important to me to never have the desire for revenge in my heart. I remember, in the camp, we would pass a bakery every morning as we were taken to clean the streets. We were always hungry, and that fresh-baked-bread aroma would hit us. We would say, ‘When we are free, we will run to the bakery and eat up all the bread.’ We never said we would run to the bakery and kill the baker.”

Most things in our life are not as horrific as what happened during the Holocaust. Still, there are things we feel we should not forgive. When that happens, we can do what Elisabeth Mann did: give the situation to God. Although young, alone, and terribly vulnerable, she recognized it was God’s place to judge, if that was His will. In other cases we truly want to forgive, but just can’t bring ourselves to do it. Then it is good to ask for help: “God, I would like to forgive but I can’t. Please help me.”

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