Michael's Reviews > The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal
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Nov 09, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: religion
Read from November 09 to 15, 2010

While the premise may sound made up, it is not: the author of this book was a young man caught up on the wrong side of World War II, and--as a Jew living in Poland--was forced into slave labor in various concentration camps. During one stint at a hospital, a nurse called the author to the beside of a dying Nazi soldier who confessed his horrific crimes and asked for forgiveness.

The question in The Sunflower is, should Mr. Wiesenthal--who went on to become a very successful Nazi hunter in the years after the war--have forgiven the Nazi? Most of the book is taken up by essays written by people who feel one way or another about the issue. Many of the Jews interviewed, for example, said no, you cannot forgive a man for crimes that are not committed against you, and besides, what the Nazis did was unforgivable. Conversely, many of the Christian essayists argued that if the man was truly contrite (and the author believed that he was) then Wiesenthal should have forgiven him, or at least given him some sense that his apology was understood as being heartfelt, even if the author could not, or would not, accept it.

What I found most powerful in the story was when the author managed to find the Nazi's mother after the war. She explained to him how her son had, as a teenager, gotten caught up in the Nazi madness, and how she and her husband (who was also killed in the war) had tried to raise him as a Catholic, and how they tried to stop him from entering the SS. Wiesenthal shows tremendous compassion by not telling the distraught mother about the horrific acts that her son had confessed to him on his deathbed. I thought this was a tremendous act of kindness and humanity on the part of a man whose entire extended family was killed by Germans just like the one who had begged him for forgiveness.

The Sunflower has no easy answers for questions about forgiveness and repentance. I found many (not all) of the essays thought-provoking, especially the one by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man who helped foster healing and forgiveness in post-Apartheid South Africa with "Truth and Reconciliation" boards.

For myself, I would not have forgiven the Nazi bastard and told him to enjoy the Hell he had so richly earned. I understand that, as Christians, Jesus tells us to forgive those who hurt us, and maybe--on a personal level--that makes sense. But when millions of innocent human beings are murdered by otherwise sane, rational people like the Germans, their forgiveness is out of the hands of mere mortals like us. Perhaps God can forgive the Nazis for what they did. I, for one, cannot. Nor do I especially want to.

This was a powerful, thought-provoking book.
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