The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of ForgivenessThe Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*FYI – Spoilers ahead*
This was quite an amazing book. I read it not really knowing what to expect but now that I have finished it I am rather surprised by the responses some of the individuals who were asked to write a response to Wiesenthal’s question of “What would you do?” if you were faced with a similar situation.

First a little background. The first part of the book is a retelling of Wiesenthal’s experience in a concentration camp where the prisoners are made to work endlessly and relentlessly by their German and German-allied captors (apparently in this case these were Ukrainians who tended to be more brutal to the Jews than even the Germans). The story revolves around the situation where Wiesenthal and other prisoners are brought to a German military hospital (which, it so happens, is situated in Wiesenthal’s former technical school where he was harassed by the other Polish students because he was Jewish) to work and clean up the medical waste. While there a nurse gets him and brings him to an isolated room where a patient is lying completely bandaged from head to toe.

As it turns out the patient was an SS officer who was dying from his wounds. He had asked the nurse to bring him “a Jew” so that he could speak with him and ask him for his forgiveness for the crimes that he had committed against the Jewish people. The SS officer, whose name is Karl, was raised as a Catholic by his parents but joined the Hitler Youth (against the wishes of his parents) and when the work broke out volunteered for the SS which resulted in his estrangement from his father. During his time in the war in the East Karl had witnessed and partook in atrocities against the Jews population. However one particular incident seems to have broken him. This incident occurred when in the city of Dnepropetrovsk in Russia the SS rounded up the Jews, put them all in a building and then set the building on fire. If the Jews tried to get out they were shot. But it was the father who threw his young son out of a second (or perhaps third) story window in order to save him from being burned alive and perhaps with the hope that he would survive the fall and somehow escape (in the end the fall killed the child) which sticks in Karl’s mind and won’t give him peace. Now, however, that he is close to dying the SS officer wishes to make his peace. So, he asked the nurse to bring him “a Jew” to whom he could confess and ask for forgiveness with the expectation that whomever she brought would give him the solace he seeks and which would allow him to die in peace.

However Wiesenthal listens to the officer’s story and is repulsed by the man. Instead of saying he forgives him, Wiesenthal stays silent. In the end the SS officer dies and bequeaths to Simon Wiesenthal whatever belongings he had left (which Wiesenthal rightly rejects).

After the war Wiesenthal goes out and searches for Karl’s mother. He wants to meet her (and possibly his father) to find out what kind of parents could have raised him and why they didn’t manage to prevent him from doing what he did. In the end he finds Karl’s mother and presents himself as someone who knew Karl before his death. He speaks with her (Karl’s father having died during the war) and discovers she has no knowledge of the things Karl did and the crimes he committed during the course of the war. In the end he does not tell her about what Karl told him – about the crimes he committed or the atrocities he witnessed and remains silent about those facts and allows her to continue to believe that Karl was good.

At the end of the story – Wiesenthal asks the reader: “What would you have done?” Would you have remained silent or spoken up (both with Karl and with the mother – although I felt the question was more towards the situation with Karl).

The second half of the book revolves around responses by various thinkers and intellectuals around the world as to how they would have responded to Karl’s desire for forgiveness and whether Wiesenthal should have forgiven him. The responses are varied but generally fall into two camps:

Those who argue not to forgive and
Those who argue to forgive

What’s most interesting about the responses is that the fault line in the responses falls pretty much where you would expect it to: along religious lines. Jews tend to fall in the unforgiving camp – but the reasoning is somewhat varied. In general everyone who falls into this camp argue that in order to attain forgiveness one must ask for forgiveness from those who were wronged. The problem for Karl is that those who could forgive are all dead. In Judaism there are sins between man and his fellow man and sins between man and God. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement provides for forgiveness for sins between man and God. But for sins between man and his fellow man this must be done by reaching out to the victim and asking for their forgiveness. Karl, whether in his arrogance or due to the inculcation of Nazi ideology, seemed to believe that if he just got “a Jew” – any Jew – then he could ask for forgiveness for the crimes and atrocities he committed against Jews through his actions while in the SS. He sees Jews as some amorphous “blob” – one is no different than the other. So, for him it doesn’t matter which Jew gives him forgiveness – any Jew can.

But that is where he is mistaken. He must ask for forgiveness for those whom he has wronged and murdered. But he can’t – because they are dead. Also, in Judaism, true repentance comes to an individual after making a sincere effort to change one’s ways. Karl seems to honestly regret his actions but, given that he’s near death, he has no way of showing that he is truly sincere in this repentance because he will never have a chance to prove it. The only way that could happen would be if he were to be put into a similar position in the future and turns away from that action. So, we have no way of truly knowing is he is truly repentant of his evil actions.

The other camp – which is espoused predominantly by Christian and Buddhist writers – holds that Wiesenthal should have forgiven him as it would have shown Wiesenthal to be the better man and that it would ease Karl’s conscience at the time of his death. The problem I have with this is that it presents a concept of “cheap grace” where someone can commit any atrocity and manner of crime and yet so long as he truly repents at the end and admits his faults he can achieve forgiveness. Some crimes are simply unforgivable – and the crimes which Karl committed were beyond the pale of tolerance by man or God.

The book really makes the reader ponder – what would you do if placed in a similar position. Would you forgive the Nazi?

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