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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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I recently stumbled upon Daniel Gordisarticle on the purpose of the state of Israel.

It’s an excellent piece and I highly recommend that you read it. Dr. Gordis hits the nail smack on the head. He contrasts two different pictures of Jews. In one there is the little boy, hands held high in the air in surrender, completely vulnerable while a Nazi points a gun in his surrender. We know what his fate is — the fate of Jews for centuries past — death. In the second we have a different photo of a Jew. One where the Jew determines his own destiny, his own fate. A picture where the iconic image of the Jew as defenseless and a victim is transformed into an image where the Jew is now the soldier — strong, at home in Jerusalem not in Europe — able to defend himself and his loved ones.

Warsaw Ghetto - WWII

Warsaw Ghetto - WWII

Six Day War soldiers at the Temple Wall

Six Day War soldiers at the Temple Wall

These two pictures provide a dramatic contrast — in one the fate of the Jew lies in the hands of others while in the second the fate of the Jew lies in his own hands. As I read Dr. Gordis’ article I find myself agreeing with him that the world has changed seems to regret it’s decision of November 29th 1947 to partition the Palestine Mandate into a Jewish and Arab state. The world seems to regret having created the state of Israel and restoring the land to it’s rightful heirs — the Jews. Why?

Perhaps it’s because the rest of the world wishes to return all Jews to the ghetto where they can be periodically harassed and murdered without consequence. Or perhaps because the rest of the world needs a victim and a scapegoat on which it can blame all the ills of their society on — which in turn leads harassment and murder of Jews. Or perhaps it’s because the rest of the world knows that we are God’s chosen people and they hate us for that simple fact. No matter. We will not accommodate them. We wish for peace with our neighbors and with the rest of the world but we will not do so at the expense of our lives. As Dr. Gordis put it at the end of his article

[O]ne fact must remain clear: we [Israel] will not end the conflict at all costs. That is what the international community must demonstrate it understands. For on this Erev Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, as on all the others, we, at least, know well what is at stake. Given the choice between sending our children off to fight yet again, or of returning to the world of that first photograph in which someone else will decide if we live and for how long, almost all of us will choose the former.

(Gordis, Daniel, “Erev Yom Ha-Atzma’ut – A Brief Reminder About Purpose”, danielgordis.org, April 28, 2009)

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