Simon Wiesenthal while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp was one day taken to the bedside of a dying German soldier to listen to his deathbed confessions. The soldier was haunted with the inhuman atrocities and crimes he had committed on the Jews. In view of Wiesenthal being a Jew, the dying man begged for his forgiveness, but Wiesenthal, after hearing all that the soldier had to say, kept quiet and walked out of the room after the soldier passed away. However since that day Wiesenthal is haunted by his decision in not forgiving the soldier although he never said that in doing so he did something wrong, but it weighed heavily on his mind for many years even after the war ended. In his quest to find an answer to this ethical dilemma, Wiesenthal posed the question to leading theologians and intellectuals of different thinking and faiths. The responses in this regard, of fifty three distinguished personalities are published in the book, The Sunflower. These distinguished people are from all walks of life and are writers, theologians, jurists, human rights activists, political leaders, Holocaust survivors and psychiatrists. There are also responses from victims of genocides in Cambodia, China, Tibet and Bosnia. The personalities who responded include Matthew Fox, The Dalai Lama, Mary Gordon, Yossi Klein Halevil, Cynthia Ozick, Desmond Tutu and Abraham Joshua Heschel. The responses of these people of eminence clearly indicate that the question posed by Wiesenthal cannot be taken as representing only the past but have a strong bearing on the human psyche in considering the power of forgiveness as forming an important and challenging part of life. This iconic book provoked dialogues in the international arena and brought together people of different faith and backgrounds to discuss and debate on this disturbing but profound moral question. The thought provoking book that The Sunflower throws open is the question to define one’s belief about human responsibility, compassion and justice.
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The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal literally puts us in the position of a prisoner suffering in a concentration camp and confronted with a dying Nazi soldier who asks from us forgiveness for the inhuman misdeeds and torture inflicted at the hands of his clan of soldiers on millions of our compatriots. The thought process takes us to the feeling of disgust for these people who had no consideration in meting out torture and inhuman treatment to innocents whose only fault appeared to being of Jewish origin. The German soldier wanted to receive absolution from Wiesenthal on account of his being a Jew, but he left the room in silence and was rather confused about his action in not forgiving him. The question significantly raised the issue whether Wiesenthal could forgive a man for atrocities the soldier had committed against others. In his book Wiesenthal writes “in his confession there was true repentance” (p 53), but all the respondents in his book do not agree with him. They rather think that the soldier was seeking his forgiveness because he found himself facing death. Another respondent Tzvetan Todorov (p. 251), felt that the soldier’s expression of remorse made him exceptional and thus deserved the forgiveness that he sought.
The ultimate question imposed in the book is regarding the core moral issue under consideration of whether it is in the right spirit to forgive a person who is guilty of such an atrocious crime as genocide. True, this is a very difficult question and it is in keeping with the expectation from the book that we must consider to answer this question. Although Wiesenthal had experienced the torture and inhuman treatment in the concentration camps, his action of having silently walked away without forgiving the soldier, is in itself speaking of high morality on his part in view of his composure in not having hatred against him at that moment. Forgiveness is the ultimate divine action that one can take for humanity, but having been put in Wiesenthal’s place it is difficult to imagine if we too would forgive the soldier for crimes committed by him against others for which we may not have the moral responsibility to do so. But all of us have our own sets of opinions and beliefs. Moreover it is impossible to predict what we would do under particular circumstances unless we actually face and experience them. It is divine to forgive, but for one’s own personal sufferings at the hands of others. We have no moral justification to forgive a tyrant for the suffering that he has caused to others. It is being humble in believing in love, compassion and forgiveness, but it has to be for one’s own experiences and not grant forgiveness for what others have suffered.
Bill Long, The Sunflower On Forgiveness, 2005. Web.
Kelly Sawyer, Forgiveness, 2008. Web.
JoAnn G. Magnuson A Review The Sunflower, 2008. Web.
Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.