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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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ISIS: Inside the Army of TerrorISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this to be an excellent book – even though I am very much a novice in this particular field and know little of the details on the topic. The authors were extraordinarily well researched and the writing was clear. The complexity of the tapestry of individuals and groups that are fighting for power and control of Syria, Iraq and the wider Middle East is astounding.

The book does a great job in providing the origins of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (al-Sham is the Arabic word for the Levant and given that its name is actually that it has finally made sense to me why the Obama administration kept calling it ISIL versus Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). The origins pre-date the second Gulf War but really take a massive injection of energy with the existence of one man: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi…a Jordanian low-level thug who turned to religion at the prodding of his mother who hoped it would keep him out of trouble. It was Zarqawi (a name I had heard and knew about since the early days of the second Gulf War when he became the source of agitation against American troops and efforts to rebuild Iraq) who helped drive the effort to start a sectarian civil war among the Iraqi nationals. The catalyst for a lot of this though was the American blundering into Iraq and to a great extent getting rid of the structures that Saddam Hussein had in place to control things. Iraq – according to Weiss and Hasan – was pretty much ruled like a mafia state by Hussein. He gave specific tribes what essentially amounted to monopolies in certain areas and to certain resources and they then pledged allegiance to him. Additionally, he kept the Shias in check – albeit brutally. By eliminating all that and then trying to stand up a democracy – a concept that didn’t fit with the tribal mentality that Hussein leveraged to his advantage we essentially “broke” the Iraqi model.

In so doing we opened a Pandora’s box of issues and suppressed hatreds that continue to plague the region till today. On top of that Iran – seeing an opening – has played the US for fools by encouraging the Iraqi Shia and supplying them with money and armaments.

On the other side – in Syria – the collapse of the al-Assad regime has been just disastrous. When the Arab Spring began to sweep through the Middle East Assad did what he knew he had to do in order to maintain power (how could he not do what he did – he saw the results of what happened in Libya). He also was involved in sending terrorists to Iraq to try and destabilize the American efforts there – all the while claiming that he was fighting terrorism. When things spun out of control and the Free Syrian Army – along with a large number of other rebel groups including the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front – began to take him to town the inevitable intervention of the Russians was the only thing that saved him.

The Russians – as much as they claim to be there to help Assad against ISIS are actually spending the majority of their time bombing Syrian rebel groups and even Syrian civilians and then claiming that ISIS is the one doing it. This is an old tactic that the Soviets used so well in WWII – when they got close to Warsaw towards the end of the war the Free Polish Army rose up against the Germans thinking that the Soviet Army would help them. The Soviet forces stopped short of Warsaw, waited for the Germans to brutally suppress and destroy the Free Polish Army and then rolled in after it was all done. The Russians are pretty much trying to do the same thing here. Given how ISIS and the anti-Assad rebel factions hate each other – the Russians are letting them fight it out (while also attacking the rebels as well) with the idea that once they’ve expended their resources on each other then the Russians and the Syrians will go in and clean up the mess and re-establish Assad’s control over all of Syria.

The book covers so much more than just what I’ve mentioned above – I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’m eagerly waiting to see the next edition of this book (this edition was published in early 2016) as the events are still quickly unfolding over there and the authors definitely have excellent insights into what is happening. I highly recommend this book – even if you’re a neophyte like me on this specific topic – it is an excellent resource and gets you up to speed very quickly on these things.

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June 2019
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