The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness
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Could you forgive your worst enemy? Someone that has hurt you, your friends, family, and everything you hold dear? It’s not an easy question. Now imagine a Nazi soldier asking for the forgiveness of a Jew imprisoned in a concentration camp. This is exactly the situation that Simon Wiesenthal was faced with. He details the story of this encounter in his book, “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness”. The following are facts regarding The Sunflower:
- Author: Simon Wiesenthal
- Published: 1970
- Topic: Holocaust
Wiesenthal begins his book with a description of the daily routine of living in concentration camps – the horrible food, barely tolerable living conditions, and the method in which they got their news. The prisoners would get bits and pieces of information from the people living in the “ghetto” who were only slightly better informed. Wiesenthal and his fellow prisoners waited by the second for any news of their release, or more likely, their slaughter. He describes his relationships with his fellow prisoners, and their ability to hold conversations on theology and maintain upbeat attitudes in even the darkest of times. Then one day an extraordinary event changes Wiesenthal’s life.
Wiesenthal was summoned by a nurse to hear the dying confessions of an SS Nazi soldier. The soldier wanted forgiveness on behalf of all Jewish people for the things he had done to their fellow brothers. He asked for forgiveness as he was dying because he was afraid that his soul would not be able to rest eternally unless he was forgiven. Simon tries continuously to leave the room in fear of his own life, and also because of his learned hatred of Nazis, but he stays and listens to the dying man out of pity and also because the soldier begs him not to leave. The soldier, named Karl, was adamant that he needed Simon to hear his gruesome story, detailing horrible things that he had done, in order to save himself and, more importantly, he needed Simon’s forgiveness to be able to rest peacefully. Simon recognized that Karl was showing true repentance but he could not decide if that alone was enough to forgive him. He also recognized Karl as a member of the group that had taken away the lives of his friends and family. When Karl finished his story and asked forgiveness, Simon became psychologically overwhelmed with everything that had happened. His choice was to not forgive the dying man. Instead he chose simply to walk out of the room in silence.