Book Summary: The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness / Simon Wiesenthal

In The Sunflower Simon Wiesenthal narrates his story that occurred during his time as a concentration camp inmate during the reign of the Nazis; a time in which many, such as his friends, had lost hope and started questioning God: “It is impossible to believe anything in a world that has ceased to regard man as man, which repeatedly ‘proves’ that one is no longer a man. So one begins to doubt, one begins to cease to believe in a world order in which God has a definite place. One really begins to think that God is on leave” (p.9), and thus leading to other existential doubts that concerned the Other and the self, “I am prepared to believe that God created a Jew out of this tear-soaked clod of earth, but do you expect me to believe He also made our camp commandment, Wilhaus, one of the same material?” (p.6). In the midst of all forms of suffering and the awaiting of death that keeps knocking his door, Simon, one day, was ordered to clean medical waste at a army hospital for wounded German soldiers. On his way, “I could see nothing that might be holding us up but I noticed on the left of the street there was a military cemetery. […] you could see the graves aligned in stiff rows. And on each grave there was planted a sunflower […] I stared spellbound. The flower heads seemed to absorb all the sun’s rays like mirrors and draw them down into the darkness of the ground as my gaze wandered from the sunflower to the grave. […] the dead were receiving light and messages. Suddenly I envied the dead soldiers. Each had a sunflower to connect him with the living world, and butterflies to visit his grave. For me there would be no sunflower. I would be buried in a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me. No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb.” (p.14-15).

As Simon and his group was working, a nurse asked Simon “Are you a Jew”. With the answer of “Yes” she picked him up without saying anything and hastily brought him to a hospital bed in which a Nazi soldier named Karl, a 22-year old, was lying, covered with bandages from head to toe, and was on the verge of his death. Karl requested Simon to come closer as he could not speak loudly. At this moment, Simon was bewildered and was not sure whether it was actuality or dream. Suddenly Karl started telling his story to Simon, “I shall die; there is nobody in the world to help me and nobody to mourn my death […] Death is everywhere. It is neither infrequent nor extraordinary. I am resigned to dying soon, but before that I want to talk an experience which is torturing me. Otherwise I cannot die in peace.” (p.27). Being in a complete state of shock, Simon reacted by helping pick up a letter that Karl dropped and shooing the flies that circled on top of Karl’s body. Karl went on… “I joined the SS as a volunteer […] I must tell you something dreadful… Something inhuman. It happened a year ago […] a year since the crimed I committed. I have to talk to someone about it, perhaps that will help. […] I must tell you of this horrible deed–tell you because… you are a Jew.” (p.29-30). At this point, Karl starts grasping Simon’s fingers, “as though he sensed I was trying unconsciously to withdraw my hand when I heard the word ‘crime'” (p.30). “I didn’t know what he had to confess, but I knew for sure that after his death a sunflower would grow on his grave” (p.30). The Nazi soldier continues, “I was not born a murderer… […] I was actually a server in the church and a special favorite of the priest who hoped I would one day study theology. But it turned out differently; I joined the Hitler Youth […] When the war broke out, I volunteered, naturally in the SS” (p31-32). Then Karl proceeds to build up his story on an incident he wished to confess, “I was always merry and happy–at least until that day came and it happened […] My mother must never know what I did. She must not lose her image of a good son” (p.34). Simon, with utter uneasiness felt, narrates his flow of thoughts, “I began to ask myself why a Jew must listen to the confession of a dying Nazi soldier. If he had really rediscovered his faith in Christianity, then a priest should have been sent. […] All my instincts were against continuing to listen to this deathbed disavowal. I wanted to get away” (p.35). Yet, Karl groped Simon’s arm and kept talking, “at the end of June we joined a unit of storm troops and were taken to the front in trucks […] one hot summer day we came to Dnepropetrovsk […] In a large square we got out and looked around us. On the other side of the square there was a group of people under close guard. […] And then the word ran through our group like wildfire: ‘They’re Jews’ […] an order was given and we marched toward the huddled mass of Jews. […] There were infants in their mothers’ arm, but hardly any young men; mostly women and graybeards. […] We heard screams and saw the flames eat their way from floor to floor… we had our rifles ready to shoot down anyone who tried to escape from that blazing hell […]” (p.39-43). Karl got exhausted trying to narrate his story while for Simon, “up to his moment my feelings toward the dying man had tended toward sympathy: now all that was past. The touch of his hand caused me almost physical pain and I drew away” (p.47). Yet Karl, with long pauses and intense difficulties, attempted to continue his story sighing and whispering “My God, My God”. Simon, however, was in complete disturbance, “For this dying man, however, and for his like there could be no God. The Führer had taken His place […] But now this man, who was dying here in his bed, was asking for God!” (p.51). Karl started to speak again, “We were approaching Taganrog, which was strongly held by Russians […] In that moment I saw the burning family, the father with the child and behind them the mother–and they came to meet me. ‘No I cannot shoot at them a second time.’ The thought flashed through my mind… and then a shell exploded by my side. I lost consciousness. When I woke in hospital […] my face and the upper part of my body were torn to ribbons […] The pains in my body are terrible, but worse still is my conscience. It never ceases to remind me of the burning house and the family that jumped from the window. […] I cannot die… without coming clean. This must be my confession” (p.51-53). Simon asked to himself, “But what could I say? Here was a dying man–a murderer who did not want to be a murderer but had been made into a murderer by a murderous ideology. He was confessing his crime to a man who perhaps tomorrow must die at the hands of these same murderers. In his confession there was true repentance, even though he did not admit it in so many words. Nor was it necessary, for the way he spoke and the fact that he spoke to me was a proof of his repentance” (p.53). Karl then spoke, “I am left here with my guilt. In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are, I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough […] I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left…” (p.54). At this point, the room was filled with silence and one asked the other for help but the other was himself helpless and able to do nothing for him. Then Simon stood up, looked in Karl’s direction, and left the room without a word.

Being in a state of confusion, when Simon narrated this incident to his group, a friend named Josek replied, “When you were telling us about your meeting with the SS man, I feared at first, that you had really forgiven him. You would have had no right to do this in the name of people who had not authorized you to do so. What people have done to you yourself, you can, if you like, forgive and forget. That is your own affair. But it would have been a terrible sin to burden your conscience with other people’s sufferings” (p.65). Yet, Simon was not yet satisfied as he did not think that it was that simple when he could see a deep and genuine repentance. And another friend named Arthur sided with Josek and added, “A superhuman has asked a subhuman to do something which is superhuman. If you had forgiven him, you would never have forgiven yourself all your life” (p.66).

One day, the same nurse found Simon to tell him that the soldier had died yet wanted to give his belongings to Simon. Simon refused and requested them to be sent to his mother instead.

After over two years, with all his friends passing away, Simon miraculously made it alive in the camp, despite the years filled with suffering and constant specter of death. Yet he could never get the SS man from his head, who never left Simon’s dreams. After the liberation, Simon joined a commission for the investigation of Nazi crimes. “Years of suffering had inflicted deep wounds on my faith that justice existed in the world. […] I thought the work of the commission might help me regain my faith in humanity” (p.83-84). Constantly recalling his strange encounter and the Nazi soldier’s narration of his mother, Simon, with no reason that he was aware of, decided to meet Karl’s mother. Having found her home, and seeing her preserved “good image” of her son, Simon did not speak of his encounter and left the old lady who was in much pain having lost her beloved son. “I knew all about his childhood and I knew all about the crime he had committed. And was pleased with myself for not having told his mother of his wicked deed. I convinced myself that I had acted rightly. In her present circumstances, to take from her last possession would probably have also been a crime” (p.95). “Well, I kept silent when a young Nazi, on his deathbed begged me to be his confessor. And later when I met his mother I again kept silent rather than shatter her illusions about her dead son’s inherent goodness. And how many bystanders kept silent as they watched Jewish men, women, and children being led to the slaughterhouses of Europe?” (p.97). Yet, Simon still couldn’t find an answer whether his silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong.

The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision. You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, ‘What would I have done?’” (p.98).

A writing on the panel of responses in the latter half of the book can be found here.

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