Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Sunflower and Forgiveness

( SPOILER WARNING: Read Simon Wiesenthal's "The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness" before reading this post )
It is believed that there is no truly perfect person without some sort of blemish requiring forgiveness in one way or another. Most religions teach us that forgiveness of other people is key to either providing a healthier life or a rewarding afterlife. In Buddhism, forgiveness is a practice for removing unhealthy emotions that would otherwise cause harm to one’s mental well being. According to the Bible, people should bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances they may have against one another while forgiving “as the Lord forgave them” (Col 3:13). However, not everyone believes that forgiveness is necessary. Some think that forgiveness should be earned through remorse or through punishment. Others believe that forgiveness should be left up to God because it is too much of a burden for one person to bear. Regardless of what one’s opinion may be, while opening The Sunflower for the first time, one can’t help to ponder on the possibility of forgiveness. However, it is only after reading the book in its entirety and allowing Simon Wiesenthal to provide a vivid landscape of the circumstance in which he faces and shows what it’s like to be a prisoner, what it’s like to be a soldier, how much human nature and remorse exist in the dying soldier, and how other people react to the story, one might to start doubt or question their view of forgiveness and wonder if it really would be possible or not.
During the first few pages of the book, Simon paints the picture of what each prisoner must endure. In describing how the SS tortured the prisoners, he said the following: “They usually hid behind the huts and whenever they felt like it they swooped like birds of prey on the helpless prisoners. Every day some were injured; it was part of the ‘program’” (3). The “program” was what all prisoners faced from day to day. At night, they were so exhausted that some didn’t even bother taking off their boots and they often slept in their sweaty clothes. As they slept, they barely had enough air to provide oxygen for the hundred and fifty men who lay penned together on the tiers of bunks (5). With the debate of Author and Josek over whether God could’ve created both the Nazi and the Jewish race from the same “clod of earth” (6) and the story of the old woman who said that she “thought that God was on leave” (8), Simon shows that the conditions for the prisoners were so bad that even their deepest religious faiths had been shaken. But, in presenting the uncertainty that each day would bring by talking about “registrations”, one can really start to understand what terrors the prisoners faced.
These registrations involved new dangers that were quite unimaginable in normal life. The oftener they registered us, the fewer we became. In SS language, registering was not a mere stocktaking. It meant much more: the redistribution of labor, culling the men who were no longer essential workers and throwing them out—usually into the death chamber. From bitter personal experience we mistrusted words whose natural meaning seemed harmless. (9)
To be a prisoner during the Holocaust meant to be underfed, tortured, and kept barely alive. Prisoners were robbed of any self-worth and the sicker they became, the more likely that they would be removed from their group and gassed or even shot in the head without a moment’s notice.
Soldiers, on the other hand, were treated quite well.  It was evident when Simon was walking past the cemetery and noticed a sunflower planted at each grave. In comparing the prisoners to the soldiers, he writes the following:
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. (14)
Even in death, soldiers were treated with more respect. Each soldier’s grave was adorned with a sunflower to serve as an eternal connection to the outside world and an excuse for butterflies to visit the tomb regularly. The Jewish prisoners, however, only had the possibility of being buried in a mass grave to eagerly anticipate. Simon is jealous because his life is so awful, even in comparison to the dead Nazis.
            But when Simon is taken to the bedside of the dying soldier, Karl, one can start to see the human nature and remorse of the soldier. He talks about his Catholic upbringing and how he was actually a server in the church and a special favorite of their priest. (30) The priest had hoped that Karl would study theology one day. (30) Seeing how Karl once had a mother and father that cared for him very much and didn’t want to see him join the SS also made the German soldier appear more human. (32) Karl said of his mother, “In my mother’s memory I am still a happy boy without a care in the world… full of high spirits. Oh, the jokes we used to play…” (34). After Karl said this, Simon thought of his own youth and the jokes that he used to play.  As Karl explains his first contact with the enemy, one might start to develop and understanding of what pressures the soldier was facing and how helping the enemy or turning back might not be an option:
“The fighting was inhuman. Many of us could hardly stand it. When our major saw this he shouted at us: ‘Believe you me, do you think the Russians act differently toward our men? You need only see how they treat their own people. The prisons we come across are full of murdered men. They simply mow down their prisoners when they cannot take them away. He who has been selected to make history cannot be bothered with such trifles.’” (38)
The remorse of the dying soldier became evident when Karl started telling the story about the Jews being killed in the house:
“When we were told that everything was ready, we went back a few yards, and then received the command to remove safety pins from hand grenades and throw them through the windows of the house. Detonations followed one after another… My God!” (43)
But the particular family that the dying man saw was the most disturbing and was the object of the most remorse, “’I can see the child and his father and his mother’” (47). It was apparent that the family made a lasting impression on Karl. And Karl was not the only soldier that the memory had haunted. It is the one thing that his comrade, Peter, mentions as he takes his last breath after having been wounded on the battlefield. His friend had suffered greatly by taking the memory of the house full of Jews to his grave. Karl, on the other hand, wanted to rid himself of the memories and was willing to confess to Simon in hopes that it would help.
            According to Karl, it appeared that the whole reason for his being in the hospital was that he could not stop thinking about the family of Jews. In recalling the injury, he says, “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 them a second time.’ The thought flashed through my mind… And then a shell exploded by my side. I lost consciousness” (51). He was obviously showing remorse in that instance. Simon specifically addresses it when he sums up the confession:
Here is a dying man – a murderer who did not want to be a murderer but who 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. (53)
So, when the act is considered by itself, it may seem clear that the SS should not receive any forgiveness at all. However, when one mixes into the act a son of a loving mother who never really wanted to be a murderer of innocent Jews, someone who really never would’ve considered committing the murder if not for the command he was under, and someone who could not bear to live another moment with the thoughts of the dead Jews, one has to take a step back. What was not so forgivable before now seems to be a little more complicated.
            The possibility of forgiveness, however, gets more difficult when one examines Arthur Hertzberg’s reaction to The Sunflower. Arthur was a rabbi who practiced conserving the Jewish traditions. In his reaction, he says that Simon must not have remembered “the teachings of the Talmud in that no one has the right to commit murder even if he is sure that he himself will be killed for not complying with such an order” (166). If he had remembered, he would not have even struggled with the question. To Arthur, forgiveness was not a possibility. He makes this point clear when he says,  “Wiesenthal said nothing, and he was right. The crimes in which this SS man had taken part are beyond forgiveness by man, and even by God, for God Himself is among the accused.” How could Arthur’s reaction be so absolute? One has to wonder if he would have made the same choice if he were put in the same situation as Simon; or better yet, what choices he would’ve made had he been born a German soldier. Would he have chosen to disobey the commanding officer if given the chance? Can the dying soldier be condemned for the misfortune of not knowing the teachings of the Talmud?
            There is also the reaction of Mathew Fox to consider. His reaction is like that of many others. “There are sins that God and no humans must forgive” (146). Mathew’s reaction is unique in the sense that, to him, Simon’s silence was more of a penance. Mathew writes the following:
He gave Karl the only penance available to him to bestow: Silence. The penance of Karl’s having to be alone with his conscience before he died.  Simon did not offer him forgiveness as a Jew – how could he forgive in the name of even one in the home of hundreds who were torched or the millions in camps of death? But Simon, summoned as a priest-confessor, let the man speak his heart. Some sins are too big for forgiveness, even for priests. (144)
Mathew thinks that Simon gave to the dying soldier all that he had to give: compassion (145). By listening to the dying man and by holding his hand even though the thought repulsed him as more of the story was revealed, Simon showed he was being present and human (145). Mathew also attributes his life’s vocation after the Holocaust to the deathbed confession when he says, “Simon does not condemn the criminals he uncovers; he leaves that up to the judge of the courts. He only provides the witnesses, the testimony, the evidence. They convict themselves. As did Karl” (146). But then, Mathew relates the story to present time. He says that the story may disturb us so deeply is because it is a true morality story and that it applies today as much as to yesterday (147). The fact that so many people allowed the sins to be committed makes them equally guilty. Mathew points out the fact that Simon held Karl’s mother in the same category of guilt as Karl, “Simon treated mother and son the same – he listened to both and left both in silence” (147). But Mathew goes on to take the position that forgiveness should occur for the good of oneself. According to Mathew, one should forgive, but never forget (148).
            It is only after the careful consideration of the circumstances that one can begin to comprehend the dilemma Simon had faced in being asked for forgiveness. When we read about what a Holocaust prisoner endured from day to day through the eyes of Simon Wiesenthal, we start to understand the silence that Simon gave the dying SS soldier. When we learn that prisoners are underfed, tortured, and tormented with the thought of death at a moment’s notice, we realize that forgiveness is not quite as easy as we thought despite the fact that some religions say we must forgive if we are to be forgiven. One cannot help but to feel even more animosity toward the German soldiers as we learn that each soldier’s grave has a sunflower growing out of it which, even in death, allows an eternal connection to the living world. For Arthur Hertzberg, it would be an absolute choice of no forgiveness – not even from God himself.  This decision was made from someone who was not involved in the Holocaust at all and was, instead, moved to the United States before it occurred. Most others are not so quick to discount forgiveness all together. Mathew Fox feels that forgiveness should be given – if only for the healing of the forgiver. To Mathew, it’s fine to forgive, but we must never forget. Forgiveness may also become more possible when we farther consider the soldier’s human nature and remorse he shows in telling his story. Simon and Karl are brought together as victims of other leader’s rules. Both are suffering in different ways. Whether someone should forgive or not can forever be debated and is still a matter of personal opinion. The fact that Simon has helped us to look deep into our hearts to consider forgiveness is not debatable. When people truly try to consider the circumstances given in the book, they sometimes find themselves conflicted with what they initially thought would do. In The Sunflower, Simon gets us as close to considering both sides of the story as possible and helps us to realize that things are not simply black and white.


  1. As I am quiet new in Jewish, looking around for some Jewish information> Got something important here. Nice to get it.
    Have you seen this video ? It helped me get over my internal anger.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Very good video.