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Forgiving and forgetting


It is a long time since I was in a place where I knew nothing of the language and customs, but such was the case recently: I am just back from Warsaw, where my second son and his family are currently living, studying, and working. Not to mention adjusting to a place that is so very different from their Greek homeland.

When in foreign parts, I like to read up on history; I also like to visit churches. I knew that the history of Warsaw was deeply sad, but visiting various museums and dipping into a selection of books made me realise the depth of the sadness, and the magnitude of horror that one part of humanity can inflict on another. Yet we also have to acknowledge the miracle that the human spirit can accomplish, for the Warsaw that was a flattened ruin in 1944 has risen again into a beautifully restored city, one that is safe and comfortably negotiable via an efficient system of public transport, one with wide streets and many green spaces. Then there are the lovely buildings of the Old Town, and its views of the Vistula.

The Poles defended their capital city as best they could in the face of the 1939 invasion. On the first morning of my stay, I was taken to a large graveyard where the defenders of Warsaw lie. It is an austere and touching sight, with many of the dead being known only to God. Close by is the Sanctuary Church of St Andrew Bobola, this saint’s major shrine. Greek churches are unchanging in design, but this one is modern, with some of the most beautiful stained glass I have ever seen.

There is nothing like being in a foreign country to show up one’s ignorance: I knew nothing of this particular St Andrew. But, as my father once remarked, I am a perennial student, and so started to fill the yawning gaps. St Andrew Bobola, a Jesuit, is the patron saint of Poland, and is also known as the Apostle of Lithuania, and as a ‘Hunter of Souls.’ He lived from 1591 until 1657, when he was horribly tortured and eventually killed by marauding Cossacks. He was canonised in 1938.

I think the main point to learn about St Andrew Bobola is his capacity for forgiveness. Even while he was being tormented, and he was until the end, he continued to express his forgiveness of his persecutors.

While in Warsaw, I read the memoir The Twins of Auschwitz, which was written by Eva Mozes Kor, a Romanian Jew. Eva was ten years old when her family was forced to leave Romania for Auschwitz. She and her twin sister Miriam survived the ordeal of the camp, and the dreadful experiments of the infamous Dr Mengele, who regarded identical twins as his special area of study. But after arriving at Auschwitz, the girls never saw their parents or their two older sisters again.


'We must be able to forgive, and we must also ensure that we remember.'


The girls were liberated by the Russians in January 1945, and eventually settled in Israel, and later the USA. Eva eventually began to try to contact other sets of survivor twins, formed an organisation with this aim in mind, and in time succeeded in tracking down more than a hundred people. She and Miriam also began revisiting Auschwitz with the notion of remembrance and reconciliation in mind.

At one stage Eva met a Nazi doctor, and was subsequently moved to forgive him. Later, she said she had forgiven all Nazis, and also her parents, whom she had hitherto hated for what she saw as their lack of protection in not taking the family away from Romania while they had the chance. Her forgiveness of the Nazis caused controversy, but she was careful to emphasise that her forgiveness was an individual, personal decision, and not one made on behalf of Jewry as a whole.

Eva expressed her ideas about forgiveness, seeing it as helping the individual healing process, in that she considered it as benefiting the victim just as much as the perpetrator. She said she felt a burden of pain had been lifted from her during this act of forgiveness, and that henceforth she had more power over her life as a survivor. Anger and hate, she said, were seeds for war, while forgiveness was a seed for peace.

Yes, we must be able to forgive, and we must also ensure that we remember.





Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Eva Mozes Kor (IMDb)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Forgiveness, Remembrance, Poland, Warsaw, Holocaust



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Existing comments

This is an astonishing story but uplifting too. That EMK found it within herself to forgive - not on behalf of others - but by herself and indeed for herself - exemplary. It took me a good decade+ after the death of my step-father to get beyond my feelings of hate for him. At colleague in Japan told me that hate was simply too strong an emotion - maybe the thought was this clearly had some kind of continuing stranglehold on me - and in fact with the rumination came - if not outright cessation of the negatives I felt - at least a way of looking at the kind of life he had experienced - and in some senses feelings of pity for him that he had become as he was - and had ultimately lived a tiny narrow life. He was evacuated from Kalamata as the German Armed Forces swept down back through the Greek mainland and further on through the Peloponnese. I remembered that his parents clearly loved him. I let the hate dissolve. I was thinking of him back in 2017 at the memorial to that evacuation in Kalamata. It's not necessarily of the same import as the forgiveness of EMK to those Nazis who did so many terrible things to her immediate family and to so many - Jewish, Roma, folk with disabilities, trade unionists, others - across Europe. Even to the mother of my German uncle now living in Hobart - taken by the Gestapo and eventually dying in Auschwitz-Birkenau "of exhaustion" (February 16, 1944) - used up as slave labour - her crime - assisting Jewish Germans to escape Germany in 1937.

Jim KABLE | 23 February 2023  

A touching and perceptive article as always, Gillian. In a time when we hear daily reports of crimes against humanity in a country neighbouring Poland, it’s good to be reminded that buildings can be rebuilt and human beings can forgive and trust again.

Juliet | 23 February 2023  

Forgiveness is not a decision, it is a process. There is a gap between saying to yourself (and the perpetrator) “I forgive you even as I am still feeling pain” and the excruciating process of coming back to yourself after intense hurt. Repentance is tied to forgiveness. If the person who has hurt you does not express repentance then forgiveness can be expressed by the victim but is not fully accomplished. However, we can let go of bitterness and the need for vengeance. That is no small achievement.

Pam | 25 February 2023  

St Andrew Bobola and Eva Mozes Kor are obviously two highly exceptional people and their acts of forgiveness are almost beyond belief. One is a canonized saint and the other should be. I am sure the old hatred between the Latin West and the Orthodox East, which resulted in St Andrew Bobola's death is alive and is still being fanned today by some extremists on both sides in the current massive, destructive war in the Ukraine. However and whenever this war ends, the legacy of hate will live on renewed. EVK's life post WW2 is interesting. It took her a long time to come to forgiveness, which is understandable. The ancient virulent Antisemitism of Christendom, which resulted in the attempted 'Final Solution' is alive and well today. Whenever the tragic situation between Israel and Palestinians makes headlines, there are always those who say 'The Jews are behind it' despite the fact there are many Jewish citizens of Israel who constantly stand up for Palestinian rights. My intuition tells me we are reviving all these ancient hatreds. This is not a good thing.

Edward Fido | 26 February 2023  

A very moving article. The reader really gets to feel what you felt during your time in Poland.

Stathis T | 01 March 2023  

After reading this I'm just very thankful I'm living peacefully in Australia. I am amazed and comforted that EMK could forgive such dreadful acts. It says something about how good human beings are.

Stephen | 16 March 2023  

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