Hertzberg opens by stating that Karl’s personal history makes him more guilty, not less. He had been raised by a pious Catholic mother and a father who ardently opposed Hitler and his followers. Yet he still joined the Hitler Youth and then volunteered for the SS as a young person.
Hertzberg argues that the fact that Karl deliberately turned away from a religious upbringing and toward a murderous regime makes him undeserving of forgiveness for the crimes he committed while a part of that regime. This is similar to the argument that Cynthia Ozick makes later.
Hertzberg notes that in the Talmud, no one has the right to commit murder, even if one is sure that one will be killed for not complying with an order to kill. Thus, Karl should have risked losing his life rather than murdering, and Simon was right not to forgive him.
Hertzberg is yet another example of Jewish respondents who understand and agree with Simon’s decision not to forgive mentioning Jewish religious law in their arguments.
Hertzberg argues that even God is not in a position to forgive, because He allowed the crimes to take place. Hertzberg cites the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, when God wanted to destroy cities because most of the people in them were wicked. God told Abraham that if he could find ten righteous people in the cities, He would spare them from destruction, implying that God must also act justly.
Hertzberg’s example is a classic form of rabbinical teaching (which makes sense, as Hertzberg is a rabbi), in which the implications of Biblical stories are extended in order to make philosophical arguments about present-day situations.
Hertzberg cannot understand how God could allow the near total murder of an innocent people, and argues that no one can forgive the Nazis in the name of a silent God. The God who allowed the Holocaust, he believes, does not have the standing to forgive the Nazis.
Here Hertzberg also seems to allude to his own crisis of faith over the events of the Holocaust, but unlike Simon, Hertzberg’s questions make him more certain about what Simon should have done.
But Hertzberg also agrees that Simon should not have told Karl’s mother about her son, because each person should die for their own sins, and not for the sins of others.
Hertzberg makes an argument that others have made more implicitly. This logic can be seen as an extension of the argument that one can only forgive crimes against oneself: likewise, one can only die for one’s own crimes.
Hertzberg, who was born in Poland in 1921 and moved to the United States in 1926, is pained by people’s attempts to “explain” the Holocaust; after having lost so many relatives himself, he simply doesn’t believe there is any way to rationalize the murder of so many innocents. The historical insights, he believes, merely obscure an unanswerable question of how God and man could have failed so horribly.
Behind a clear answer on the question of forgiveness, Hertzberg reveals a more personal pain about how to live in a universe where God allows so many innocent people to be senselessly murdered.