Introduction A profoundly poignant account portraying the internal conflict Simon Wiesenthal experiences when a dying Nazi soldier earnestly seeks his forgiveness, The Sunflower provokes introspective discussion about forgiveness, justice, mercy, and human responsibility. While metaphorically gazing upon the sunflowers displayed on the graves of soldiers, Simon is forced to mechanically march towards the Technical High School he once attended.
The familiar surroundings evoke memories of the hatred and contempt he encountered while he was a student, particularly on the examination days that had been entitled “a day without Jews” by his Polish classmates (Wiesenthal 20). When he arrives at the Technical High School (now a military hospital), Simon and the other prisoners are instructed “to carry cartons filled with rubbish out of the building” (Wiesenthal 22). After confirming that he is Jewish, a nurse escorts Simon to the bedside of a dying Nazi solider named Karl.
With his yellow-stained bandaged head appearing through the semidarkness of the hospital room, Karl hauntingly recounts his involvement in the horrifying death of a father, a mother, and a dark-eyed child who are brutally shot down after jumping out of a burning building (Wiesenthal 42-43). Simon becomes extremely distressed with the imagery evoked by the untimely demise of the dark-eyed child, especially when he theoretically identifies the child with a six-year old named Eli (Wiesenthal 46).
Indeed, while recalling the heart-wrenching scenes of the kindergarten extermination, Simon fights the urge to leave the hospital room as the dying soldier continues to recount the rest of his confession. With sincere remorse in his voice, Karl begs for the forgiveness of a Jew. The irony of this dying soldier’s confession arises from the fact that “a murderer who did not want to be a murderer but who had been made into a murderer by his murderous ideology” was confessing his crime to a man that may die by the hands of these same murderers at any time (Wiesenthal 53).
Struggling with this ironic dilemma and having an imagery of the child with piercing eyes that questioned the hatred of the world surrounding him, Simon leaves the soldier in complete silence. Back at the concentration camp, Simon confides with his closest companions about the dying soldier’s confession which profoundly disturbed him (Wiesenthal 63-68). During such discussion, Simon seeks and challenges the opinions of his contemporaries about the beliefs on justice, mercy, human responsibility, and forgiveness. His sleep is disturbed that night by visions of a pale-faced Eli submersed in a bloody mess (Wiesenthal 68).
Simon is awakened from his night terror by Arthur, who anxiously warns him that the last man who experienced such sleep disturbances was immediately killed. Once more, Simon is reminded that death is a “constant companion” in the concentration camps (Wiesenthal 69). The next day, Simon is overwhelmed with the fear that the dying soldier will “renew his plea for forgiveness” (Wiesenthal 73). Instead, the nurse informs Simon that the soldier died during the night. In compliance with Karl’s request, the nurse attempts to give Simon a portion of the soldier’s possessions.
Simon kindly refuses the package and insists that the nurse send it to his mother instead (Wiesenthal 73-74). Upon returning to the camp, Arthur once again confronts Simon about his sleep disturbances. Such confrontation leads to this statement made by Arthur that epitomizes the adversity faced by the Jews during World War II (1939-1945): “If we survive this camp -and I don’t think we will- and if the world comes to its senses again, inhabited by people who look on each other as human beings, then there will be plenty of time to discuss the question of forgiveness…
nobody who has not had our experiences will be able to understand fully. When we here argue about the problem [of forgiveness], we are indulging in a luxury which we in our position simply cannot afford” (Wiesenthal 75). Apparently, the anti-Semitism and lust for power that pervaded the German culture during this time fermented the hopelessness and helplessness that permeated throughout the Jewish culture. Two years later, Simon is still haunted by the confession of the Nazi soldier despite the fact that “hunger dulls the thinking processes” (Wiesenthal 78).
He even envisions that there is an “angry expression” in the eyes that were completely hidden by the yellow-tinted bandage encompassing his face (Wiesenthal 78). When confiding in his only surviving comrade (a Polish priest-in-training that continued to pray despite the environment of the camp and the mockery of others), Simon discovers that his “subconscious is not completely satisfied” with the actions he underwent during his encounter with the soldier (Wiesenthal 81).
Simon questions if he had the power to forgive the soldier in the name of the Jewish community and if repentance is truly the most important element when seeking forgiveness (Wiesenthal 83). Plagued with profound questions about the limits and possibilities of humanity and wrestling with the uncertainty of his reaction to the soldier’s repentance, Simon decides to visit Karl’s mother.
During this visit, he keeps silent about the atrocities her son committed in order to preserve her last possession-“faith in the goodness of her son” (Wiesenthal 94). While depicting silence as a phenomenon “more eloquent than words” that can be “interpreted in many ways,” Simon ponders the morality of his silence (Wiesenthal 97). He then concludes his “sad and tragic episode” of life by prompting you to mentally construct his perspective when asking yourself the decisive question, “What would I have done? ” (Wiesenthal 98). Simon Wiesenthal
Simon Wiesenthal metaphorically perceived death, personalized the soldier’s account by theoretically identifying the dark-eyed child with Eli, perceived the soldier’s confession as sincere repentance, left the soldier in silence after his imploration of forgiveness, sought and challenged the opinions of well-respected contemporaries, declined acceptance of the soldier’s possessions, visited the soldier’s mother, concealed the atrocities committed by the soldier from the mother, and dedicated his life to identifying Nazi war criminals.
However, despite the soldier’s heartfelt confession that profoundly disturbed him for years, Simon failed to truly forgive and forget the atrocities committed by the Nazi soldier. While envying the sunflowers growing atop the graves of Nazi soldiers and acknowledging the connection to life that each sunflower signifies, Simon metaphorically explores the perception of death.
Resentful of the reality that his corpse will be buried in a mass grave where “no sunflower would ever bring light into [his] darkness, and no butterflies would dance above [his] dreadful tomb” and that the graves of Nazi soldiers would each have a sunflower to connect them with the living world, Simon interprets the sunflowers as a symbol for Nazi superiority even in death (Wiesenthal 14-15). This symbolical insight guides his emotions and thoughts while listening to the dissertation of the dying soldier: “I didn’t know what he wanted to confess, but I knew that after his death a sunflower
would grow on his grave… it would accompany him to the cemetery, stand on his grave, and sustain his connection with life. And this I envied him” (Wiesenthal 30). Focusing on the sunflower as a connection to life reinforces the Nazi conception that Jews are an inferior race. Simon’s preoccupation with sunflowers as a connection to life may actually allude to him being “infected by the Nazis” in such a way that he is “beginning to think that the Germans are in some way superior” (Wiesenthal 62).
However, in contrast to Simon’s metaphoric thinking, Arthur dispels the notion of German superiority when he states that “the sunflowers will rot away like” the Germans (Wiesenthal 63). Evidently, continuous oppression may subconsciously induce not only feelings of hopelessness but also feelings of unworthiness and inferiority- feelings that can be expressed even while thinking metaphorically.
Metaphoric thinking was dominate throughout this time period because “Everything was unreal and insubstantial: the earth was peopled with mystical shapes; God was on leave, and in His absence others had taken over, to give us signs and hints” (Wiesenthal 36). A belief in mysticism and superstition could more readily explain why such atrocities were being performed without casting doubt on the existence of God as an omnipotent, omnipresent, or benevolent deity.
The Jews were also more apt to cling to “completely nonsensical interpretations” as a way to obtain hope, for the “eternal optimism of the Jew surpassed all reason” (Wiesenthal 36). Metaphoric thinking was a means of escaping the appalling reality of the Jewish existence that daily included sickness, suffering, and death. Developing a metaphor for the perception of death that would involve sunflowers is indeed a reflection of the cultural attitude that persisted during the Holocaust.
Identifying the dark-eyed child with six-year-old Eli, the last Jewish child he had encountered, allowed Simon to internalize the horrifying story evocatively communicated by the Nazi soldier. This internalization of narrative formed a more intimate glance into the atrocity of the crime, thereby making it difficult for Simon to respond to the tragic account with indifference. Indeed, theoretically identifying the child as Eli ensured that the apathy which compelled the Jews to “work in a trance” did not apply to the soldier’s dreadful crime.
Simon perceived the soldier’s confession as sincere repentance because of the way in which the soldier spoke and the fact that he went out of his way to speak to a Jew. Unlike so many of the other soldiers, Karl had “a warm undertone in his voice as he spoke about the Jews” (Wiesenthal 40). The tone of his voice, the clutch of his hand, and the atmosphere of despair surrounding the dying soldier were idioms of distress culturally sanctioned by the Jewish culture regarding earnest repentance. Such nonverbal gestures led Simon to accept the soldier’s confession as being repentance.
Leaving the soldier in silence following his imploration of forgiveness was the emotional reaction of Simon. He was too disturbed by the imagery of the lifeless child in the arms of his father to sympathize with the dying Nazi soldier. Not wanting to condemn the dying man (only God may pass such judgment according to the Jewish faith), Simon most likely felt that silence was the best expression of his sentiment at the time. Indeed, he later conveys that silence is a phenomenon “more eloquent than words” that can be “interpreted in many ways” (Wiesenthal 97).
Although silence allows for freedom of interpretation, it does not provide a sense of closure. Simon was thus profoundly disturbed by his encounter with the Nazi soldier for an awfully long time. Years after the death of the Nazi soldier, Simon visited his mother in order to gain a better understanding of the personality for this unusual soldier. He also secretly hoped that he would find something that contradicted with the soldier’s narrative so that “the feelings of sympathy which [he] could not reject would then perhaps disappear” (Wiesenthal 87).
Such a hope for contradiction derives from the cultural sanction that liars are malicious scoundrels unworthy of sympathy. Although he did not find such contradiction, Simon encountered the issue of whether or not he should reveal the atrocities Karl committed to his mother. Again, Simon chose to depart in silence. He did not want to take away her last possession- faith in the integrity of her son. Taking away this notion of goodness that she so fervently clung to would be considered larceny in the Jewish culture, a crime which Simon could not compel himself to do (Wiesenthal 95).
The notion that taking from Karl’s mother is theft may have also compelled Simon to decline the request of the soldier and insist that all possessions be sent to the mother instead. Of course, Simon may have also refused the possessions so that he had no physical reminder of the Nazi soldier. When questioning the morality of his actions, Simon sought and challenged the opinions of well-respected contemporaries. Such counsel and discussion fostered “a better understanding of the other’s views” (Wiesenthal 83). In truth, humanity is motivated by the need to be understood- a notion that crosses all cultural boundaries.
Among the beliefs discussed with contemporaries, justice and forgiveness were the most prevalent. Simon believes that the “years of suffering… inflicted deep wounds on [his] faith that justice existed in the world” (Wiesenthal 83). He is especially vexed that “since [the Nazis] did not believe in God they were not afraid of Divine Judgment. It was only earthly justice that they feared” (Wiesenthal 85). Such vexation compelled Simon to serve on the “commission for the investigation of Nazi crimes” (Wiesenthal 83).
Despite his devotion to identifying Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice, Simon Wiesenthal cannot truly say that he has forgiven the Nazi criminals for their atrocities and murderous theology. He is still plagued by questions regarding the morality of his silence and the limits of forgiveness. Despite such questioning, Simon still manages to defend his actions of unforgiveness by asserting that “there are those who can appreciate my dilemma, and so endorse my attitude, and there are those who will be ready to condemn me for refusing to ease the last moment of a repentant murderer” but “the crux of the matter is…
forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision” (Wiesenthal 98). Such a defense is culturally sanctioned by the Jewish community which emphasizes that “nobody who has not had our experiences will be able to understand fully” (Wiesenthal 75). Sven Alkalaj In reaction to Wiesenthal’s query proposed in his concluding paragraph of The Sunflower, Sven Alkalaj personally argues that forgiveness is possible when “there is a genuine recognition of guilt” but that “forgetting is unthinkable” (Wiesenthal 105).
According to Alkalaj, forgetting the crimes would be much worse that forgiving the criminal who seeks forgiveness since “forgetting the crimes devalues the humanity that perished in these atrocities” (Wiesenthal 102). Not only would the cruelty be forgotten, but the memory of those who suffered and died would also be forgotten. In a sense, the death and suffering of loved ones would be in vain without the memory of the strength, faith, courage, and love expressed during such calamity. Justice must be expressed as a measure that is absolutely necessary for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Without the enforcement of justice, genocide goes unpunished and there are no boundaries set up to prevent genocide. Having witnessed the dismantling of families as even children are deliberately killed, tortured, and raped, this Bosnian Jew understands all too well the desperate need for preventing the atrocities and shame associated with genocide. Such experience sustains the belief that there is a national or state responsibility for genocide, for mass murder, and for an artificial hatred among society (a hatred that disregards the value of a human life).
Indeed, genocide is not just a crime against one person or society, but rather it is a crime against humanity. Upholding the cultural sanction that genocide is a crime against humanity and employing reconciliation and justice as the mode for preventing these future crimes will return the world to an “inherent beauty of living” (Wiesenthal 105). Rodger Kamenetz In reaction to Wiesenthal’s query proposed in his concluding paragraph of The Sunflower, Rodger Kamenetz supports the notion that silence was the best response when considering the circumstances.
Although the confession of the Nazi soldier was passionately earnest, he failed to reverently address Simon as an individual person whose identity is composed of more than just being Jewish. He merely referred to Simon as Jew- not a Jew or a Jewish person. The Nazi soldier never inquired about Simon’s history, life, opinion, or name. He could confess his guilt from the suffering he inflicted, yet his perception was still tainted by the prejudice, hatred, and contempt embedded in Nazi ideals. He could not see Simon as human; instead, Simon was just another Jew, a subhuman whose only purpose was to satisfy his dying request.
Had the cultural sanction of respect been upheld, then forgiveness could have been discussed and possibly obtained (Wiesenthal 181). Tiffany Whigham In reaction to Wiesenthal’s query proposed in his concluding paragraph of The Sunflower, I believe that I would have also been deeply disturbed by the imagery of the large, piercing eyes of the child gazing upon you as if to innocently ask why there is so much calamity encompassing our people. The depiction of the child would most certainly evoke powerful emotions of despair, shame, and anger. Such powerful emotions would most likely compel me to remain silent.
To me, remaining silent is much better than condemning another. Judgment and condemnation are God’s responsibilities. As time passed, I am certain that I would begin to feel guilty for being silent. Shame would come upon me as I would recount the missed opportunity that I had to rise above my “subhuman” existence. Unlike Simon and Arthur, I would not believe that “a superman has asked a subhuman to do something which is superhuman” (Wiesenthal 66). My personal faith in God influences this belief. Jesus Christ expounded upon the limits of forgiveness when he died on the cross for the atonement of the entire world’s sin.
There is no limit to forgiveness and the possibilities are endless, you just have to be willing to put aside selfish desires so that the Holy Spirit can fill your heart with unconditional love. To love is to forgive, and to forgive is to experience existential freedom. Simon was not able to experience this existential freedom. Instead, I fear that his life was consumed by resentment and bitterness. Not only did he devote his entire life to bringing Nazi criminals to justice, but he was tortured by the imagery of the dying soldier for years.
Simon’s resentment is even projected onto the memory of the Nazi soldier, who he envisions having an “angry expression” in the eyes that were completely hidden by the yellow-tinted bandage surrounding his face (Wiesenthal 78). My query for Simon would therefore be “Why continue to bind oneself to the entrapments associated with unforgiveness? “. In reaction to the response given by Sven Alkalaj, I whole-heartedly agree that one should forgive but never forget. Erasing painful memories inhibits growth.
However, no one should dwell on those painful memories or else he/she may fall victim to an overwhelming sense of bitterness and resentment. The cultural sanction that maturity involves learning from your mistakes (which you cannot learn from without some form of memory) and that too much focus on one event/memory causes an emotional imbalance (or psychosis) influences this belief. Upholding the American ideal that the purpose of government is to indiscriminately protect the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of its citizens, I also support Alkalaj’s notion that there is a national or state responsibility for genocide.
In reaction to the response given by Rodger Kamenetz, I disagree that Simon could not forgive the dying man. Despite the fact that he never attempted to connect with Simon on a more intimate level, the dying soldier’s heartfelt confession was a sincere repentance that should not be rejected. I agree that disregarding the personal attributes (name, opinion, values, etc. ) of someone is a sign of disrespect. However, that disrespect should not inhibit one from forgiveness. This notion that one should forgive whether or not he or she deserves forgiveness is reflected by my personal faith.
Jesus was condemned by his own people, yet he still made the choice to excruciatingly die on the cross for our sins (even though He was fully aware of his impending death). Inspired by this ultimate account of forgiveness, I earnestly believe that no one (no matter how undeserving) should be rejected after sincere repentance. Although I feel I too would have remained silent that day when the soldier begged for forgiveness, I would not have let unforgiveness consume me for years thereafter. Instead, I would have restored inherent beauty to the world by embracing the power of forgiveness.