The Sunflower


In The Sunflower Simon Wiesenthal describes an incidence from his time as a prisoner in a Lvov work squad: he is summoned to the bedside of a dying SS man, who wants him, the Jew, to grant him absolution for his participation in the extermination of Jews. After listening to the young man’s lengthy confession, Wiesenthal leaves the room without saying a word. In the story he explains why he could not grant the man his last wish and forgive him for what he had done: he felt he had no right to forgive on behalf of others, in this case the people murdered by the man. The question of guilt and forgiveness, however, and all of the subtle issues connected with it would not let him rest – and so he writes in his story:

Today, I sometimes think of the young SS man. Every time I enter a hospital, every time I see a nurse, or a man with his head bandaged, I recall him. Or when I see a sunflower….
I have often tried to imagine how that young SS man would have behaved if he had been put on trial twenty-five years later….
When I recall the insolent replies and the mocking grins of many of these accused, it is difficult for me to believe that my repentant SS man would also have behaved in that way…. Yet ought I to have forgiven him? Today the world demands that we forgive and forget the heinous crimes committed against us. It urges that we draw a line, and close the account as if nothing had ever happened.
We who suffered in those dreadful days, we who cannot obliterate the hell we endured, are forever being advised to keep silent….
There are many kinds of silence. Indeed it can be more eloquent than words, and it can be interpreted in many ways.
Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This is a profound moral question that challenges the conscience of the reader of this episode, just as much as it once challenged my heart and my mind.

(Simon Wiesenthal. The Sunflower. On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. New York: Schocken Books, 1997. pp. 95-97.)


Originally written in German, The Sunflower has been translated into numerous
languages, and for each new edition prominent individuals (writers, philosophers, theologians, educators, human rights activists, political leaders, Holocaust survivors, and others) were asked to write responses to the question concerning forgiveness, responsibility, and justice as posed by Simon Wiesenthal.


The following are excerpts from six of the 46 responses published in the Symposium of the 1997 revised U.S. edition:


Sven Alkalaj (Bosnian Ambassador to the U.S.A.)

"I explicitly and emphatically reject the idea of collective guilt, but I do believe that there is such a thing as national or state responsibility for genocide, for mass murder, and for drumming up an artificial hatred among the ordinary people, by various means, to make that genocide easier to carry out. It cannot be stressed enough that the punishment of the guilty and some measure of justice are absolutely necessary for forgiveness or reconciliation even to be considered. If genocide goes unpunished, it will set a precedent for tomorrow’s genocide. Without justice, there can never be reconciliation and real peace…. After knowing what we knew about the Holocaust, the genocide of Bosnia and Herzegovina should shame us all. Of course that shame would not bring back life to the dead of Auschwitz or Treblinka, Sarajevo or Srebrenica, but that shame does make it incumbent upon us to hold accountable those who arrogantly and immorally valued their lives so much more over those of their fellow men and women."


The Dalai Lama

"I believe one should forgive the person or persons who have committed atrocities against oneself and mankind. But this does not necessarily mean one should forget about the atrocities committed. In fact, one should be aware and remember these experiences so that efforts can be made to check the reoccurrence of such atrocities in the future.
I find such an attitude especially helpful in dealing with the Chinese government’s stand on the Tibetan people’s struggle to regain freedom. Since China’s invasion of Tibet in 1949-50, more than 1.2 million Tibetans, one-fifth of the country’s population, have lost their lives due to massacre, execution, starvation, and suicide. Yet for more than four decades we have struggled to keep our cause alive and preserve our Buddhist culture of non-violence and compassion.
It would be easy to become angry at these tragic events and atrocities. Labelling the Chinese as our enemies, we could self-righteously condemn them for their brutality and dismiss them as unworthy of further thought or consideration. But that is not the Buddhist way."


Eva Fleischner (Professor Emerita of Religion at Montclair State University)

"I am struck not only by the agony of the dying man, but by his obliviousness to the suffering, the inhuman condition, of Simon and his fellow Jews. The mere fact of having summoned Simon to his room exposes the Jew to punishment, if not death. Yet Karl insists on seeing “a Jew” – any Jew – in the hope of being able to die in peace. His own suffering completely blinds him to the suffering of the Jews – not of the Jews in whose murder he participated and who continue to haunt him – but of those still alive in the camps and ghettos, also of Simon.
While this is understandable, humanly, given his deathbed agony, I am left with the question: Could Karl have done something to ameliorate their fate, or the fate of at least a few Jews, by speaking to his fellow SS instead of summoning a poor, helpless, doomed Jew to his bedside? Would such an act perhaps have constituted atonement?"


Harold S. Kushner (Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts)

"If we feel that our past behavior was wrong, being forgiven means erasing that message, liberating ourselves from the idea that we are still who we used to be, and freeing ourselves to become a new person.
To be forgiven is a miracle. It comes from God, and it comes when God chooses to grant it, not when we order it up.... God’s forgiveness is something that happens inside us, not inside God, freeing us from the shame of the past so that we can be different people, choosing and acting differently in the future.
That was the mistake of the Nazi soldier in The Sunflower. His plea for forgiveness was addressed to someone who lacked the power (let alone the right) to grant it. If he wanted to die feeling forgiven, he should have said to himself: “What I did was terribly wrong and I am ashamed of myself for having done it. I reject that part of myself that could have done such a thing. I don’t want to be a person who would do such a thing, I am still alive, though I don’t know for how much longer, but the Nazi who killed that child is dead. He no longer lives inside me. I renounce him.” And if God chose to grant him the miracle of forgiveness, he would feel that he had expelled the Nazi within him as our body expels a foreign object, something that is not us, and he would die a different person than he had lived."


Lawrence L. Langer (Professor Emeritus of English at Simmons College in Boston)

"The mass murder of European Jewry is an unforgivable crime. By his own description, the SS man provides the details: Jewish men, women, and children are herded into a building, hand grenades are thrown in, setting it on fire; the SS men then shoot Jews – including little children – trying to escape the flames through exits or by jumping from windows. Can one repent such a monstrous deed? I do not see how. The real test of the SS man’s spiritual integrity came at the moment he received the order to shoot. At that instant he was still a morally free man (assuming he had not taken part in earlier crimes). By agreeing to shoot instead of deferring to a higher authority and disobeying the order, he failed the test and permanently cut himself off from the possibility of forgiveness. This may not be true for other crimes – but the mass murder of European Jewry is not an ordinary crime….
Words like “wrong” and “misdeed” grew up in a universe of discourse oblivious to places like Auschwitz and Majdanek, where gas chambers and crematoria flourished. The long list of exonerating terms that appear in The Sunflower – atonement and expiation, repentance and absolution, guilt and forgiveness – to me reflects a valiant but misguided and ultimately doomed effort to reclaim for a familiar vocabulary an event that has burst the frame of conventional judgmental language….
The vital question to ask about this text is not whether Wiesenthal should have forgiven the SS man. It is rather why the SS man, as a young boy, against his father’s wishes, joined enthusiastically in the activities of the Hitler Youth; why, again presumably against his father’s wishes, he volunteered for the SS (as free a choice as a man could make at the time); why he then pursued a career in that murderous league of killers without protest, including the episode he tells of on his deathbed; and most important of all, why he had to wait until he was dying to feel the time had come for repentance and forgiveness. On these issues, the SS man is deftly silent."


Manès Sperber (Austrian-French novelist, essayist, and psychologist)

"If the young SS man was guilty, yet he differed from the organizers of the extermination camps and the accomplices of genocide. By his obedience to his criminal leaders he augmented the guilt which he had incurred by putting himself politically and unconditionally at their disposal. There is no question of that, but it is none less true that in the end he brought the accusation against himself. As an accused person he is condemned in our eyes and rejected, but as accuser he placed himself among the victims.
Nevertheless Simon Wiesenthal was quite right in refusing to pardon him, at any rate not in the name of the martyrs, who neither then nor now had entrusted anybody with such a mission. But if that young man had lived and remained true to the convictions which tortured the last hours of his life, and maybe even transfigured him – if he were still among us would Wiesenthal condemn him? I think not. And I feel that I too could not condemn that SS man today."


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