The astonishing account of Maïti Girtanner and the tender pardon she bestowed on the man who tortured her
A young girl at the time of the war, Maïti Girtanner was arrested for her collaboration with the French Resistance. She had endeared herself to the occupying German soldiers, partly because she spoke German, partly because she was a talented pianist who played music for them, and partly because she gave the impression that she could not be bothered with the war. She used the freedom won by these affections to carry messages for the resistance through restricted areas.
In 1943, Maïti was arrested in Paris and imprisoned. During her incarceration, the Gestapo brutally tortured Maïti. One particular doctor inflicted torments and abuse which left her unable to play the piano.
The injuries dealt to her spinal cord left her with permanent damage to her nervous system and constant pain. Her physical suffering was so great that she was unable to become a mother; this was a deep sadness as she had always dreamt of having children. Years after her release in 1944 she spent hours lying down at a time because the physical pain was so great to bear.
One day in 1984—forty years after her release from prison—Maïti received a phone call. It was her former torturer, Leo. He was in Paris and he wanted to speak to her. Having received a diagnosis of a terminal illness, and thinking about how he was going to spend his last months, he thought of Maïti’s words in prison: He recalled her speaking about God and death to her fellow inmates.
For her part, she had spent forty years desiring to forgive him. She describes this urge as a “mad desire.” It was an almost obsessive thing. For forty years she had prayed for the power to forgive Leo, and then he appeared, sitting in front of her.
Maïti recalls, “He crossed his arms, lowered his head, and with great humility—like a child—said, ‘What am I to do?’” For Maïti, that was what she needed. It was a moment of grace. He eventually asked her directly: “Forgiveness. I ask for your forgiveness.” Maïti held his head in her hands, kissed the top of his head, and in that moment she knew she had forgiven him.
It is our solemn and sacred duty to prepare our hearts, as best we are able, to worship Almighty God. Matthew tells us, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift ” (Mt. 5:23-24). We cannot let any other relationship impede our friendship with Christ.
What helps then are we given to forgive? How does one undertake this work of forgiveness?
The first great help to undertake forgiveness is to accept true humility before God. St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us:
There have been some, indeed, so presumptuous as to say that man could live in this world and by his own unaided strength avoid sin. But this condition has been given to no one except Christ, who had the Spirit beyond all measure, and to the Blessed Virgin, who was full of grace and in whom there was no sin.
Recognizing first our own shortcomings provides the frame through which we must view forgiveness.
One of Catherine of Siena’s “major breakthroughs” in the spiritual life was when she learned that when we notice a person’s faults, we should say to ourselves, “Today it is your turn; tomorrow it will be mine, unless divine grace holds me up.” This is the disposition we aim for when we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” After all, truly none are worthy to cast the first stone. We are sinners. We ought to humble ourselves before the Lord and before others.
In Maïti’s case, she had done this by longing for years to be able to forgive her torturer. Humility grows as we pray first for the desire to want to forgive. Commenting on the need for humility to begin to forgive, Pope Francis says,
We have seen that it is actually human to be debtors before God: we have received everything from him, in terms of nature and grace. Our life has not only been wanted, but has been loved by God. Truly, there is no room for presumption when we fold our hands to pray.
Again, forgiveness begins by first asking the Lord for desire to be able to forgive. We must recognize that we cannot undertake this work alone: it belongs to God and his grace poured out over us.
The second great help to forgive is nourishing hope. The greatest obstacle to forgiveness is despairing that forgiving is possible. Maïti has asserted, “My Christian faith asked of me to view each human being not with the eye of others but from God’s point of view. That was not always easy…but it is always what is demanded.”
To surrender our point of view to God’s perspective; to consider this or that moment in our life from a different vantage point…this is what it means to have hope. I must be willing to immolate my vanity and narcissism on the altar of Divine Mercy.
Jesus once consoled the frustrated St. Faustina saying,
The cause of your falls is that you rely too much upon yourself and too little on Me. But let this not sadden you so much. You are dealing with the God of mercy, which your misery cannot exhaust.
To declare over and over again confidence in God’s power in the face of weakness is to nourish hope. In the end, in this hope alone can a Christian live or die.
Summarizing her life, Maïti’s says simply, “My story is…that of a young girl wanting to be of service to those around her.” In the humility of her own state and experience of life, the desire to forgive Leo grew and grew.
She continues, “The rest, what followed, that is to say, the taking on of this personal story in History itself, the strength to go from service to testimony, is nothing more than the chain of circumstances, the work of that Providence which uses fragile intermediaries in order to act.”
This is a declaration of hope in God; a proclamation that His wisdom indeed orders all things sweetly.