Guilt and forgiveness in The Sunflower
Simon Wiesenthal, renowned the world over as the most effective of Nazi hunters through his work in the Jewish Historical Documentation Center, documents his time in the Nazi concentration camps in the short story "The Sunflowers." The universally perplexing questions of guilt and forgiveness are at the centre of the story and to questions such as these which can have no clearly identifiable right and wrong markers, the new edition is embellished with the answers to Simon's question "You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness. What would you do?"
The question of forgiveness for the Nazi crimes against the Jewish people forced its way into Wiesenthal's consciousness when he was approached by a dying Nazi soldier who wanted to talk about the atrocities committed by himself "to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him." (pg 54) Wiesenthal listened to the dying soldier's story in silence and felt that "in his confession was true repentance" (pg 53) but he was unable to bring himself to forgive the man for the horrific crimes, especially the one of shooting down a burning man and his child as they jumped from a building. Wiesenthal's fellow inmates are emphatic that he had done the right thing by walking away without a reply or as one of them says "what right have you to forgive our murderer?"
It is this question of individual responsibility and individual forgiveness versus collective responsibility and collective forgiveness that may be seen to be at the heart of the text. The murderous acts of the soldier were not propelled by personal grievances or grudges but were in fact a small part of a bigger whole. The repentant soldier was but one cog in the wheel of the Nazi killing machine, and a very unimportant one at that, because he could have easily been replaced by another. In much the same way the killing of the Jews in the Holocaust is always remembered as a collective event where the parts formed the whole.
The horror of the Holocaust is almost infinite because of the sheer numbers of people killed. A few Jews murdered at random would have had little impact on world affairs and morality. Just as the Nazis are collectively held responsible for the genocide Wiesenthal, being a Jew incarcerated in the concentration camps according to Christopher Hollis " was as much a victim.... and being the sufferer, had therefore the right to forgive."(pg 169) According to Hollis, by making a simple statement of recognizing the crime of the dying soldier, Wiesenthal could have helped the dying man to engage in the act of repentance, thus covertly allowing him to expiate for his sins.
Though he had walked away without answering the dying soldier, Wiesenthal's conscience was eating at him and he describes this episode as "one of the most unpleasant experiences in his life."(pg 85) Wiesenthal could never reconcile himself to his deliberate silence at the dying soldier's bedside but he did find the moment of expiation for his own sin in his meeting with the dead soldier's mother.
Simon Wiesenthal, by making the appointment with the dead man's mother and remaining silent during the mother's eulogization of her deceased son, hints at a sort of delayed forgiveness, an act which allows him to reconcile with his own feelings of guilt. But even in this moment of remaining silent, as an attempt at forgiveness, Wiesenthal may not have been completely purged of his guilt of not forgiving, because he had never got over the crimes of the Nazis and as Israeli Supreme Court Justice Moshe Bejski says "without forgetting there can be no forgiving" (p. 116) and so even though Wiesenthal may seem to take the high moral ground, his forgiveness is not absolute.
On the question of forgiveness, especially in relation to Holocaust survivors, there have been many dissenting voices and there are those who agree that it is only the individual who has been the victim is the one who can grant forgiveness. Karl, emblematic of the Nazi tyranny cannot be held responsible for the collective massacre of the Jews, and so in the same way there is a consonance with Eugene J. Fisher when he says that ""we have no right to put Jewish survivors in the impossible moral position of offering forgiveness, implicitly, in the name of the six million. Placing a Jew in this anguished position further victimizes him or her. This, in my reading, was the final sin of the dying Nazi." (pp. 132-33) In this context Karl's articulation of his sins was yet another attempt at victimization of a Jew and so by delaying the forgiveness, Simon Wiesenthal overcame his feelings of guilt while at the same time showed the generosity of his spirit.
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