Book Review: The Sunflower

The Sunflower:  On The Possibilities And Limits Of Forgiveness, by Simon Wiesenthal

This book hit home in a more than usual way.  In this roughly 300 page book, the first third is taken up with a narrative by famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal where as a doomed prisoner in a German concentration camp he was induced by a mortally wounded German SS member to listen to a confession where the dying young man from a “good” German background [1] wished to repent and atone for an atrocity committed against a Jewish family as part of his duties.  The author responded to this in silence but showed graciousness to the dying man and was troubled by his refusal, and also refused any of the belongings of the man after he had died.  Later on, after surviving the “final solution,” Wiesenthal recounts visiting the dead man’s mother and responding in silence to her mistaken belief that her son was “a good boy.”  The second two thirds of the book consist of a variety of Christian and Jewish, and at least a couple Buddhist, responses to Wiesenthal’s pointed and poignant question of what we would have done if we would have been in his place.  Some of the authors were fellow survivors of the Shoah and others have survived violence like the siege of Sarajevo.  The end result is a powerful book that has been profitably used in classes on the Holocaust and that has served as a thought experiment that many people have engaged in.

For me the question is of more than mere theoretical significance, and my response to his questions bears some comparison with a personal thought experiment that I have run over in my own haunted and tormented mind.  In my judgment, Wiesenthal was right both to respond to the self-comforting thoughts of the mother and the troubled attempts at atonement by the dying soldier with considerate silence.  As he had not suffered the wrongs committed by the soldier, he could not forgive the dying man on behalf of others, since someone cannot vicariously forgive wrongs for someone else.  Likewise, it would have been cruel to torment a widow with the truth about a son who had deliberately and fatefully chosen evil and died tormented by his sins.  I have often reflected on what my response would have been had my father decided to come clean and seek forgiveness from me during those six weeks between his stroke in late December of 2005 and his death in early February 2006 from a heart attack either through reaching out to communicate by phone or by a letter dictated to someone, and it is my belief that I would have acknowledged the debt of honor he was paying and granted him the forgiveness he sought, not because he would have deserved it, but rather because it would have considerably eased my own suffering and my own struggles with being the sort of person who few people seem to seek forgiveness from or apologize to for reasons unknown.

Part of the immense worth of this book consists not only in the reflections of Wiesenthal or of those who answered his query with their own extensive commentary, but in the way that the various readers untangle the different threads of what the soldier was asking for and what it was just to expect from the author or others in his position.  Some readers showed a great deal of concern for collective guilt and the way that the dying young German appeared not to give truly repented of his guilt in viewing the Jews as a member of a class with a collective identity rather than as people each with their own relationship with God and their own individual worth.  Others pointed out the issue of cheap grace and the question of God’s silence or absence in the face of the horrors of Hitler’s genocide, and there seemed to be a marked divide between the responses of the Jews as well as the Christians.  Perhaps of some importance, my own thoughts mirrored that of the more thoughtful Jewish respondents rather than that of the professed Christians, for what it’s worth.  Regardless of one’s perspective, though, this is an important book, especially as it encourages all of us to wrestle with the issue of forgiveness in our own lives.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to Book Review: The Sunflower

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