IN A court in Lueneburg (northern Germany) last month,
81-year-old Eva Kor gave a chilling account of the horror she and
her twin sister, Miriam, experienced in Auschwitz, where they were
used as objects for experiments by Dr Josef Mengele.
Mrs Kor's evidence and actions have raised challenging questions
around the areas of forgiveness, victimhood, and reconciliation
which do not easily fit with conventional thinking.
She lost 119 members of her family in the Holocaust, and was
giving evidence against a 94-year-old former SS officer, Oskar
Groening, who is on trial for accessory to the murder of 300,000
prisoners at Auschwitz. Looking towards Groening, she told him that
she forgave him any wrongdoing, but added that her forgiveness did
not absolve the perpetrator from taking responsibility for his
What was even more astonishing was the embrace she accepted from
him after giving evidence, and her subsequent comments that former
SS officers should no longer be prosecuted but should come forward
to speak publicly - as Groening has done - about their inhumane
actions. Part of Groening's motivation was to counter neo-Nazi
Holocaust deniers, some of whom were gathered outside the
EVA KOR's comments, which were not favourably received by other
Holocaust survivors, evoked the atmosphere of South Africa's Truth
and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), where survivors and
perpetrators were enabled to tell their stories and liberated to
move forward. The TRC's slogan was "The truth hurts, but silence
Indeed, she speaks of the time, 20 years ago, when she finally
felt that she was no longer a victim of Auschwitz, or a prisoner of
her tragic past; and that she was even free of Mengele. Moving on
from victimhood enabled her to forgive, even though those who
tormented her did not repent and ask for forgiveness.
Yet, as Mrs Kor has commented, society is bent on nurturing
victimhood. Some time ago, I attended a conference in Bethlehem
which focused on social, political, and religious issues be-tween
Israel and Palestine. In the middle of a discussion, a Palestinian
sociologist banged the table and said, "I refuse to be a victim.
Palestinians are not victims."
He recognised that human beings can choose to accept or reject
victimhood: we may be victimised, but that does not mean we have to
accept victimhood. A trauma may render us powerless for a while,
but there will come a time when we can take back the reins of
power, and become the subject of our own story rather than its
CHRISTIANITY has for centuries had an ambivalent relationship with
victimhood. Jesus Christ is often depicted, in art and in hymns, as
a "victim"; for example, the hymn "Alleluya, sing to Jesus"
includes the line, "Thou on earth both Priest and Victim".
But Jesus was not a victim in the way that victimhood is
understood in the 21st century. When Jesus's followers tried to
explain the significance of his life and death to fellow Jews, they
turned to the Old Testament sacrificial system, which their
contemporaries would have understood. They argued that Jesus's
self-offering superseded the offering of animals, and put an end to
any more sacrifices, as Jesus's offering was both superior and
"once for all". This was how the crucifixion could be understood:
Jesus, instead of the animal, was the sacrificial victim.
Here, however, the similarity be-tween Jesus and the animal
ends. Whereas an animal has no choice in being the sacrificial
victim, Jesus did. St John reports Jesus as saying, "No one takes
it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have
power to lay it down and I have power to take it up again" (John
10.18). It is at the very moment when Jesus is dying on the cross
and portrayed as a supreme victim that his task of reconciling God
with humanity is finally achieved. It may be powerlessness in the
world's eyes, but this was the most powerful moment in Jesus's
life. Victimhood traps and imprisons us in the past.
Forgiveness is bound up with moving on from victimhood. Mrs Kor
describes forgiveness as "the best revenge of all". Desmond Tutu
(who chaired the TRC) describes it as "the best form of self
interest", as it releases the grip of past trauma and
Yet forgiveness is tough. Expecting people to forgive before
they are ready to do so increases the trauma. Some may never be
ready to forgive. To have survived horrors such as those of the
Holocaust and apartheid and still be able to forgive shows the
heights to which the human spirit can soar. The social theorist
Hannah Arendt argues that forgiveness, demonstrated in the life of
Jesus Christ, is something that can enrich society as a whole and
need not be regarded as something purely religious. The Christian
understanding of forgiveness is a gift available to all.
FINALLY, Eva Kor is reported as saying that bearing witness to
what he did at Auschwitz may be the best thing Groening has ever
done in his life. Her own rejection of victimhood and embracing of
forgiveness was a form of liberation for her. The TRC process was
at times a form of liberation as people were able to tell their
stories, hear the stories of others and, in this light, see the
world differently. Healing was taking place. People were walking
the path of reconciliation within themselves and, with others,
viewing the past in different ways.
The truth may hurt, but it leads to reconciliation.
The Rt Revd Brian Castle is the Bishop of Tonbridge. His book
Reconciliation: The journey of a lifetime is published by