Forgive and Forget?

Once, a long time ago, I was sitting in a barber’s chair when the hairdresser unexpectedly laid down her comb and scissors and stood gazing at me. Her hands opened and closed. At length she spoke: “There’s something important I need to ask you.”


“ I belong to a Bible study group. We’ve been reading Romans…”


“And I’m ashamed.”

I was taken aback. Through our respective professions the hairdresser and I were well acquainted. I’d treated her and her children, she had cut my hair. In those days I had hair to spare. She was perhaps seven years older than I. She had been born in Germany around the start of the Second World War; she’d have been six when the war ended, the age now of her younger daughter. From the outset we’d had a comfortable relation of trust and openness, but at this moment my patient was not comfortable at all.  

“What about? I mean why are you ashamed?”

“ What we’ve done to you. What we’ve always done, we Christians. Reading Romans, I was shocked. I suddenly thought what it meant, how it all started, how it never stopped…”

“What started? What never stopped?” 

“Jew hatred! It starts with the birth of the Church, we learn it with mother’s milk, we take it in and we pass it on. And then my people… with Hitler, we were the worst of the worst! I’m ashamed. I’m sorry. I need you to know I’m sorry, how sorry I am.”


I had no words.


At length I spoke: “You said you wanted to ask me something.”

“Yes. I want you to forgive us.”



In my work I had touched her, in her work she had touched me. A pair of licensed touchers, touching now too closely. I felt out of my depth.

My supplicant stood before me, unclothed, holding her burden of history like so much unwanted clothing. 

Words came to my lips. I spoke them, grateful to extinguish the crowded silence.  Were my words wise? Were they kind? What would the six million have me say?



My words must have been enough for the moment. My hairdresser completed my haircut and we parted, knowing each other differently, sufficiently. The pain, the shame, the decency of the woman, her courage stayed with me a long time. Eventually our close encounter sank beneath the surface of life’s events and I seldom thought of it. Forty years passed.



Last week I read an article written by a survivor of the Shoah. After the War he’d become a doctor. In the course of his work he was told a dying patient, not in his care, was asking for him most particularly, insisting on talking with him. Puzzled, the doctor made his way to the bed of the dying man. The patient told him he’d been a member of the SS. He said he’d been a guard in one of the camps, he’d killed Jews, many of them. Now he was dying. He needed to confess, to a Jew. And more than that, he wanted the Jew to forgive him. 



The doctor did not know how to respond. He searched himself, he thought of those he’d known in the camp, of those he’d lost. What would they want of him?   



The doctor did not know. Not knowing, he said nothing. The patient died, unshroven. Years later the doctor wrote a letter which he sent to dozens of people, people of moral stature. From memory, he sent his letter to the Dalai Lama, to Martin Luther King Junior, to Abraham Heschel, to others whom he esteemed. In his letter he recounted his encounter with the dying SS officer and he told of his non-answer. He asked his recipients what he should have done. Opinion was divided. Over years the doctor wrote to more and more people, an Ancient Mariner, burdened by his own feeling of self-dissatisfaction, a species, perhaps, of guilt. He published the replies he received.



 Last week this story came to me and stayed with me. I recalled the good woman who cut my hair. I recalled my response. I had said: “It is not for you to apologise to me; it is not for me to forgive; it is for both of us to remember.” Today I feel more dissatisfied with my response than I did forty years ago. I should have added: “It is for all of us to teach.”  How was I to know how the deep ocean of Jew hatred would gather again its force, how it would rise again to the mighty wave we see today?  

5 thoughts on “Forgive and Forget?

  1. Howard, reading about your encounter with the hairdresser and your subsequent thoughts, caused me to reflect on my own recent experiences – my first ever visit to the Holocaust Centre in Elsternwick a month ago (where I spent many hours) and a pilgrimage to Poland, a POW camp, in honour of my Father. For me, the visit to the Holocaust Centre, reinforces the importance of our Remembering…..and yes, to teach, for how else are we to combat this evil we see developing towards our Jewish brothers and sisters?


    • Might add horror upon horror to his experience of war

      I came quickly to understand that no-one- on either side – who spent the war years in Europe had an easy time

      In your very earliest years you must have been without him?

      Or perhaps not , otherwise , you could not have come into existence

      In any event the visit to Poland strikes me as a profound act and a courageous one

      Thank you for the empathy and the love that prompts your comment, pat

      No-one should underestimate the moral power of your expression of care




  2. Hi Howard, what a powerful piece that was!

    Myself and many people of my generation feel like your hairdresser: ashamed that the country of our birth was responsible for one of the worst genocides in history, shocked how much nearly everybody participated through the choices in their daily lives at the time, and enraged that our parents never owned up to the contributions (minor as they may have thought they were) they made. And I am NOT even talking about the criminal perpetrators. As many others, I read the heroic and horrid stories in books, yes, but what I really wanted to know was how it would have felt living ordinary lives in the 30s and after the war ended. And what I found (again in books) is inexcusable, at both ends.

    I don’t believe in forgiveness as a licence to forget (unless it’s minor). In my mind, forgiveness needs to be earned through deeds, through active atonement. I am glad that I do not have to be ashamed for current-day Germany. I hope that is not only because I don’t live there anymore and only see the political-sytematic side.

    These days I am ashamed of what Australia is doing to vulnerable people for similar self-serving reasons that the Hitler-regime did. Yes, we need to remember in order to act and to teach.

    Let’s hope our movements will see some success when the Scomo-regime dares to face democracy again in February.

    I love seeing Rachel’s posts about your family’s milestones on fb. What a lovely family you have, Howard.

    All the best for the New Year,


    ______________________________________ Dr Susanne Dopke Consultant in Bilingualism Speech Pathologist

    Australian Newsletter for Bilingual Families:


    ph: (+61-3) 9439 4148 mobile: 0409 977 037


    • It was a happy day for our family when a pair of bilingual twin preschoolers found their way to Susannah Dopke!

      I find your insights on forgiveness profound, Susannah

      And I share your feelings about people seeking shelter on our shores

      Anger and shame on this issue has now surfaced as a political time bomb for the government

      We Australians want to feel proud of ourselves

      At this season in particular (I mean Christmas) we Aussies know there IS room at the inn

      We want to redeem ourselves and so long as we persecute the underdog we will continue to feel that discomfort and that anger

      I believe the government is trembling

      I hope so

      I am grateful for your thoughtful response, this time and every time, Susannah

      And yes our recent family milestone was enormously enriching



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