The Sunflower, the story of Simon Wiesenthal, a Polish Jew

22 04 2012

I’ve been reading a book titled The Sunflower. My friend, Diet Eman loaned it to me on our last visit, telling me it was an excellent book. Little did she know that the moral and ethical questions posed inside its pages would come to me at a time of tumult and uncertainty in my broader community.

In the first pages of The Sunflower I became acquainted with Simon Wiesenthal, a Polish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. His story mirrors that of so many other survivors of the holocaust–deprivation, starvation, beatings, psychological torture, forced labor, and fear that multiplies and overtakes the lives of those in the camp. Most prisoners die. Those who live begin to wish for death. It is an unimaginable existence.

On the way to the work camp to which Simon is assigned, there is a cemetery for the German soldiers. On each grave there is a sunflower, its bright face lifted to the sun. Simon writes:
“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.” (pp. 14-15, The Sunflower)

Simon is on work detail one day when he is taken aside by a nurse. She insists he accompany her to the bedside of a dying man. The man is covered in bandages and obviously near death, but has a story to tell, and then a question to ask. He says he cannot die in peace until he has talked to Simon.

The patient is a member of the deadly SS. He is haunted by the crimes he has committed and wants to confess to, and be given absolution by, a Jew. The problem lies in the ethics of the request. Can Simon represent an entire people, and can he answer for them all?

Simon listens, horrified, angry, unable to speak. He can’t forgive–the words simply don’t come. He has to choose between compassion and justice, silence and truth, and he finds no words. The soldier dies without the forgiveness spoken, and Simon is haunted by his lack of action. Was he wrong not to forgive? What should he have said or done? Or was he right in saying nothing? Could he (or anyone) speak for the dead or their families?

Only the first 98 pages are dedicated to this story. The remainder of the book has fifty-three responses to Wiesenthal’s questions by both men and women. They include theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Holocaust survivors, and victims of attempted genocide in Bosnia, Cambodia, China, and Tibet.

It seems such a simple question: do I forgive? Turns out, this is one of the most complex questions I’ve encountered. Pick up the book and read for yourselves. The answer you had ready in your mind before you began may be very different when you’ve finished. I know mine was. I’d love to hear your input.

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