Forgiveness and the Absence of God

(This is the second in a series of reflections on Simon Wiesenthal’s classic The Sunflower: on the possibilities and limits of forgiveness.)

“I read somewhere that it is impossible to break a man’s firm belief.  If ever I thought that were true, life in a concentration camp taught me differently.  It is impossible to believe anything in the world that has ceased to regard man as man, which reportedly “proves” he is no longer a man.  So one begins to doubt.  One begins to cease to believe in a world order in which God has a definite place.  One really begins to think that God is on leave.  Otherwise, the present state of things wouldn’t be possible.  God must be away.  And he has no deputy.” — Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower, p.9

Wiesenthal’s testimony echoes the Psalms: “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?” (13:1);  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning”  (22:1); “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me?” ( 51:11).  Simon’s “Psalm” is a corporate one, on behalf of a people, not just an individual.  Yet it is deeply personal, in spirit of Psalm 38.  And unlike the Psalms above, which give way to assurance and praise that God will yet deliver, his words do not echo the strength of such assurance.   Nevertheless, he presents himself, and the testimony he embodies is powerful.

Later in his story, Simon adds another awful irony to the violence of the SS man’s request:  “Then (Klaus) sighed and whispered, “My God, my God.”  Was he talking about God?  But God was absent . . . on leave, as the woman in the Ghetto had said.    Yet we all needed Him; we all longed to see signs of His omnipresence  . . . For this dying man, however, and for his like there could be no God.  The Fuhrer had taken His place.  And the fact that their atrocities remained unpunished merely strengthened their belief that God was a fiction, a hateful Jewish invention.  They were never tired to trying to “prove” it.  But now this man, who was dying here in his bed, was asking for God!”

In the midst of God’s very apparent absence, it is the killer who calls out for God in a seemingly personal way, who invokes God’s name in a manner that tests the meaning of Exodus 20:7.   He does so in front of a victim who has “longed to see signs of (God’s) omnipresence” in the midst of horror and mass murder, but cannot perceive them, his own prayers unanswered.  What God is available to Klaus?  The One who has failed to respond to the prayers of the millions who perished?  Indeed, in the SS man’s life the Fuhrer had taken the place, the authority, of the God of Klaus’s childhood.  Yet in his own “death chamber” he cried out for God.  Which one would Klaus’s Psalm be?

What seems remarkable to me is how Simon stayed with Klaus in spite of wanting several times to flee.  He acknowledged that he felt sorry for the young SS officer.  Even when Klaus vainly and horribly compared his own suffering to the Jews who had been murdered–“Look, those Jews died quickly, they did not suffer as I do”–Simon, who stood up to leave, allowed the SS man’s hand to hold him longer. (p. 52)

“I cannot die without coming clean,” Klaus told him;  ” I want to die in peace, and so I need . . . I know that what I am asking is almost too much from you, but without your answer, I cannot die in peace.”

Simon acknowledges, “In his confession there was true repentance, even though he did not admit it in so many words” (p. 53).  But he remained silent, and eventually got up and left the room without giving Klaus what he wanted.   Biblically, the scene reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke Chapter 16.  Where the rich man, who feasted behind his locked door while the poor Lazarus starved to death on the porch, is shocked to discover that he is equal to Lazarus in death.  And beyond, it is Lazarus who is comforted in the bosom of Abraham while the rich man suffers on the other side of a “great gulf” between them, one that reflects the awful distance that had defined their common life.   In the parable, the now-anguished rich man wants Abraham to send Lazarus across the gulf to bring water to the parched rich man.  But Abraham will not.  And in the scene between Klaus and Simon, the condemned Simon will not be the vehicle, the servant, who will be expected to carry the mercy and forgiveness that the SS officer now seeks for himself. “I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and to ask forgiveness from him.  Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left.”

In my next post, I will examine more deeply the questions Simon asks of himself and the reader.  But for now I want to suggest that Simon indeed manifested a number of the qualities of for-giveness that we consider regularly on this site.  While he did not and could not absolve Klaus nor excuse him in any way, Simon’s life gave testimony to humanity in the face of inhumanity.  His willingness to remain and to share his own humanity –even in silence– was a grace that powerfully interfered with the depths of depravity.  He listened carefully, as his account reveals, and acknowledged his own sensitivity to the man’s anguish.  If there is a shred of hope for the world in this murderous wilderness, it is less in Klaus’s deathbed confession than in Simon’s struggle of conscience.  His visiting of Klaus’s mother after the war is further manifestation, as is his fidelity to truth.  He honored the dead by giving unflinching (if silent) testimony to Klaus’s relationship with his victims.  And Simon Wiesenthal’s postwar role in bringing Nazis to justice is one that revered accountability over vengeance, a work that might help change the future direction of human history.

All of this in the experience of God’s absence.  Yet, as I read and re-read Simon’s story, it is the absence of those who might have confessed themselves to be “God’s people” that impacts me deeply:

–“There assembled inside the gates of the High Schools a crowd of fraternity students wearing ribbons inscribed ‘a day without the Jews’ (p. 19).”

–“The minority reigned because of the cowardice and laziness of the majority (p. 19).”

–“I asked myself  if it was only the Nazis who persecuted us.  Was it not just as wicked for the people to look on quietly and without protest at human beings enduring such shocking humiliation (p. 59)?”

–“He is the type who is always on the side of the people in power . . . The Nazis need people like him.  They would be helpless without them (p. 72).”

–“Most said they had been against it, but were frightened of their neighbors (p. 91).”

–Of Klaus and others on a similar path: “In their youth they received religious instruction, and none had a previous criminal record.  Yet they became murders, expert murderers by conviction.”

Yes, we ask along with Simon where God is in the midst of such horror.  But in the manner of the biblical text itself, Simon’s story is as much or more about us as it is about God.  To cease to “believe in a world order in which God has a definite place” seems wise in a world where God’s love is crucified. Can God be other-wise?  Simon offers us hope.


Wiesenthal, Simon.  (1969; 1997).  The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.  New York: Schocken Books.