Fr Kevin Hegarty
Last March I wrote in The Mayo News about Erskine Childers, the English civil servant and author who became a fervent Irish nationalist. He rejected the Anglo Irish Treaty of December 1921, believing it fell far short of independence from Britain. He took the Republican side in the Civil War of 1922-23.
During the war he was captured and convicted for the possession of a gun, ironically the weapon given him by Michael Collins, when they were on the same side during the War of Independence. A military court sentenced him to death. On the night before his execution he asked his 16-year-old son, also Erskine and later President of Ireland, to shake hands with the men who signed his death warrant.
On the morning that he faced death he shook hands with each member of the firing squad, advising them gently, “Step forward lads, it will be easier that way.” His words and actions were a chink of light in the dark days of the Civil War. It was a time when, in the words of WB Yeats, ‘We had fed the heart on fantasies / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare / More substance in our enmities / Than in our love’.
Childers, in the final hours of his life, revealed the transformative power of forgiveness. Recently, I read of a similar act in the aftermath of Auschwitz. Last month’s celebration of the 75th anniversary of the concentration camp’s liberation has unleashed a spate of stories of those who experienced the brunt of the evil of the Nazi ideology.
Eva Mozes Kor’s story is lodged in my mind. She was born in Romania in 1934 and died last July. When she was ten, she and her family were sent to Auschwitz. Her father, mother and two older sisters were quickly murdered. She and her twin sister, Miriam, were spared, though not for a benevolent reason. The Nazi doctor Josef Mengele was conducting experiments to create the perfect Aryan race and was especially interested in the genetic composition of twins. Eva explained later:
“Miriam and I were part of a group of children who were kept alive for one reason only, to be used as human guinea pigs. Starved of food and human kindness, it took every ounce of strength just to stay alive.”
After the war, Eva emigrated to the US where she married and settled in California. She was angry with her parents because she believed that they failed to protect her. She harboured her greatest hatred for Dr Mengele.
In 1993 a friend challenged her to forgive him. She wrote later:
“I was adamant that I could never forgive Dr Mengele, but then I realised I had the power to forgive. It was my right to use it. No one could take it away. She forgave him at the gates of Auschwitz where she felt the burden of psychological pain lift from her.
“I was no longer in the grip of hate. Forgiveness was a miracle medicine. It is free, it works and has no side effects.”
She wrote about the process of forgiveness: “I look at forgiveness as the summit of a very tall mountain. One side is dark, dreary and wet, and very difficult to climb. But those who struggle up and reach the summit can see the beauty of the other side of the mountain, which is covered by flowers, white doves, butterflies and sunshine. Standing at the summit we can see both sides of the mountain. How many people would choose to go back down on the dreary side rather that stroll through the sunny, flowered-covered side.”
Eva Mozes Kor’s experience is relevant for our personal lives and for our society as it prepares to mark the contentious events of the foundation of the Irish State.