Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used with permission of Schocken BooksThe Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness
Simon Wiesenthal
New York: Schocken Books, Inc., 1998

Reviewed by:
Bill Younglove

Secondary School Teacher, Retired
California State University Long Beach, California


The revised and expanded edition of The Sunflower has sparked a new round of discussion in academia across the country, aspects of which should be germane to every high school student who completes Holocaust studies. As the book’s subtitle suggests, Wiesenthal’s seemingly surreal encounter with a dying SS man raises speculative questions about post-Holocaust redemption and ways in which perpetrators and victims can coexist in the same world. Students are given a chance to line up morally (and physically as well, if the teacher wishes) in a vengeance-to-forgiveness gradation line, as exemplified by the extremist entries of Cynthia Ozick and The Dalai Lama. The tough question, though, is why you, the reader, choose to stand where you do.

In 1943, Lemberg (Lwow, Austria) Concentration Camp prisoner Simon Wiesenthal is summoned to the bedside of a dying Nazi. This SS man, after confessing to a horrific crime against Jews, seeks Wiesenthal's, "a Jew's," forgiveness. Wiesenthal, deeply troubled by the request, turns the forgiveness request back to his fellow victims, and, ultimately, to the reader. One critical passage: (end of Book One, page 98) "You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, 'What would I have done?'"

For Wiesenthal, the encounter was unexpected and unnerving. Taken from the Lemberg Concentration Camp in a workers’ group to the town’s army hospital in 1943, Wiesenthal was suddenly summoned, as a singled-out Jew, to the bedside of a mortally wounded SS man, Karl Seidl. The man seized Wiesenthal’s hand and confessed to helping destroy, by fire and armaments, a house filled with more than 150 Jews. When Karl Seidl finished his story, he begged the Jewish forced-laborer to forgive him. Wiesenthal, however, rose and walked out. During the next two years, Wiesenthal shared this story with fellow camp mates, ending each time with: “Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong?” The incident and question so troubled Wiesenthal that, in 1946, he visited Karl Seidl’s mother in Stuttgart but left without telling the bereaved woman about her son’s misdeeds.

Wiesenthal, as his 1989 memoirs suggest (Justice Not Vengeance), does not offer his forgiveness to mass murderers; he trades it against appropriate punishment. Yet, the question The Sunflower poses has eventually become a moral survey of some of the leading authorities of our time. This second edition quizzes 53 experts: 39 new responders, 10 retained, one revised, and three from translation. These distinguished men and women include theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Holocaust survivors, and victims of attempted genocide in Bosnia, Cambodia, and Tibet.

If a calculus alone could determine correct responses to moral questions, this writer’s tabulations would run as follows: 12 essayists espouse forgiveness, 16 are against forgiveness, and 25 cannot say. The problem with such statistics is that the latter category would have to include “does not say”; “cannot tell”; “sides with Wiesenthal’s ‘inaction’ “; or “reformulates Wiesenthal’s question.” In other words, every one of the moral pundits interprets the event in an often cultural and personally experiential way.

A number of essayists chose to respond to Wiesenthal’s question thusly: “What would I have done [in Simon Wiesenthal’s place]?” Although Wiesenthal acceded to such a “paraphrase,” this writer agrees with responder Lawrence Langer that such role-playing about Holocaust reality trivializes the serious issues of judgment and forgiveness that The Sunflower raises. Forgiveness is, indeed, the essence of the debate that high schoolers should enter into. Nowhere is the dichotomy regarding the possibility of Wiesenthal’s forgiveness so great as it is between the Jewish and Christian scholars. Students could be exposed to the Christian rationale of, say, John Pawlikowski’s conception of repentance, contrition, acceptance of responsibility, healing, and finally reunion. This should be contrasted with Deborah Lipstadt’s teshuvah (repentance, from “to return”) -- asking forgiveness from the aggrieved, expressing regret verbally to God, choosing not to repeat the sin when in that situation again -- plus kaparah (atonement), bearing punishment. Paired essays (most are two to four pages long.) could also include those most diametrically opposed on the subject of forgiveness. The language and ideas of the essayists are rich in probes that lead directly to a discussion about human responsibility.

Pawlikowski, in his essay, also reflects upon Divine Responsibility when he remembers Simon Wiesenthal’s discussion with his friend Arthur early on in Wiesenthal’s account (which occupies nearly the first 100 pages of the book).

“What do you think of that, Simon?” [Arthur] asked. “God
is on leave.”
“Let me sleep,” I [Simon] replied. “Tell me when He gets back.”

Wiesenthal’s statement brings rare laughter to his friends. Arthur’s statement is merely what Wiesenthal long had felt was true. Fellow survivor, Elie Wiesel, suggests, too, in Ani Maamin, that God’s deliverance comes too late -- six million deaths too late -- and such a God seems powerless to be more than a remorseful deity who can endure but not enable. For some teachers such speculations may seem too far removed from secular school curriculum. Still, the constant Wiesel question of : Where is God in all this? must, ultimately, give way to: What is there left for us to do?

Essayist Robert McAfee Brown seizes upon this latter question, and most of The Sunflower’s symposium writers, if not responding to Wiesenthal’s framed question, speculate about the role of human responsibility during the Holocaust. One, Arthur Waskow, notes that Karl Seidl shattered the Ultimate Unity, the four Worlds of the Kabbalists: Doing, Relating, Knowing, and Being. The physical damage, emotional upset, and spiritual dislocation of the Jews, he says, have irreparably alienated any Holocaust victims and their perpetrators. The World of Knowing, however, contains the lessons that sadism can be technological and mass produced, can poison our ecology, can propagandize for destruction, and can usurp God-like powers. The essence of these lessons gives us and the students much to think about and answer to.

And what of The Sunflower? Wiesenthal acknowledges, as does virtually every essayist, that only the victims can truly forgive their perpetrators, a physical, if not metaphysical, impossibility. Wiesenthal temporarily envies the dead SS, like Karl Seidl, though, for each Nazi grave in the Lemberg Military Cemetery has a sunflower standing on it as straight as a soldier on parade, bringing light into the darkness. The Wiesenthals, who lost 89 family members to the Nazi murderers, seemingly faced only a mass grave, where victims would be stacked anonymously, bereft of even symbolic remembrance. This multi-page, paper Sunflower, however, filled with thought provoking challenges to humanity, helps to give assurance that Wiesenthal’s life and death will indeed be memorialized. 

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