The Sunflower: considering the possibilities and limits of forgiveness

The Sunflower is a remarkable, disturbing, and evocative book; the kind that will not let you go.  The author, Simon Wiesenthal, was a holocaust survivor.  Here, he writes vividly of his experiences as a resident of the Jewish ghetto in Lemburg (now Lviv,Ukraine) and as a prisoner in the Janowska concentration camp during the Nazi occupation.  The book’s title comes from a time when Wiesenthal’s work detail passed a German military cemetery and he was struck by how all of the soldier’s graves were decorated with a sunflower. He knew that there would  be no such grace upon the mass grave his body would likely inhabit: “No sunflower would ever bring light to my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb.”

It is one particular, shocking event that is at the core of this volume:  A dying Nazi soldier–an SS officer– asks Wiesenthal, a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp, for his forgiveness. Wiesenthal tells his story, then concludes the book with this query: “You, who have just read and seen this tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself a crucial question:  “What would I have done?”  The book, first published in 1969, now includes a subtitle: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.  The original ninety-eight page text is now supplemented with the reflections of 52 people willing to respond to Simon’s challenge.

Simon and fellow prisoners had been transported to what been the Technical High School he had once attended, a place where antisemitism was rife even before the occupation, with Jewish students beaten and mistreated and a periodic “day without Jews” actually celebrated.    It had been converted to a military hospital.  The prisoners were there to carry cartons of rubbish from the building.  A nurse fetched Simon for a purpose not disclosed.  He was taken to the room of a heavily-bandaged man wrapped under sheets, lying in bed, who weakly called Simon to come close. He knew he was dying, and felt isolated: “the hopeless cases die alone.”   He offered his name, Klaus, his age 22, and identified himself as an SS officer.  “I must tell you something dreadful,” he said to Simon, “something inhuman.”  He shared the story of his life, his family, his father’s disapproval when Klaus joined the Hitler Youth, his volunteering for the SS.  The man spoke interminably, with Simon not saying a word.

“And now I began to ask myself why a Jew must listen to the confession of a dying Nazi soldier.  If he had really rediscovered his faith in Christianity, then a priest should have been sent for, a priest who could help him die in peace.  If I were dying to whom should I make a confession if indeed anything to confess.  And anyway I would not have as much time as this man had.  My end would be violent, as it happened to millions before me.  Perhaps it would be an unexpected surprise, perhaps I would have no time to prepare for the bullet. He was still talking about his youth as if he was reading aloud and the only effect was to make me think of my youth, too.  But it was so far away that it seemed unreal.  It seemed to me as if I had always been in prison camps, as though I was born merely to be maltreated by beasts in human shape who wanted to work off their frustrations and racial hatreds on their victims.” (The Sunflower, pp. 34-35).

Simon admits that he just wanted to leave, to get away.  But he felt sorry for the man.  “I would stay, though I wanted to go.”  The man thanked him.  Simon writes, “And for the first tine I realized that I, a defenseless subhuman, had contrived to lighten the lot of an equally defenseless superhuman, without thinking, as a matter of course.” (p. 37)

The man told a horrific story of following orders, as he had participated in locking as many as 200 Jews, including families, in a house and then setting the house on fire.  They shot anyone jumping out or trying to escape.  In the midst of telling the story, Klaus begged Simon to stay until he finished.  Simon did.  When Klaus shared being haunted by the memory of a particular young child, it reminded Simon of the children of the Lemburg ghetto, including one, Eli.  “For me, the dark eyed child of whom the man had spoken was Eli.”  (p. 47)

The man said to him, “I cannot die . . . without coming clean.  This must be my confession.  But what sort of confession is this?  A letter without an answer . . .” Simon believes Klaus is referring to Simon’s silence, wanting him to speak words of release. But  Simon remained silent.  He believed the man’s regret was genuine, that he sought to repent.  ” I know that what I am asking is too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”  Simon stood up, and quietly left.

Common understandings of forgiveness as “pardon” or “wiping the slate clean” or ultimately “forgetting” have no place in this narrative.  A trivial call to forgive would dishonor everyone involved.  The Holocaust is a reality that ought to bring all of us to our knees, provoke deep remembering, and mitigate “cheap grace.”  If there is “unforgiveable sin,” this may indeed be it.  The personal nature of the story invites us to come close.  In gospels, forgiveness is the removal of barriers, the lifting of burdens, the loosening of bonds, movements of liberation, the giving of gracious gifts.  I would suggest that all those things are yet part of this story.

“What would I have done?” is an invitation to internal exploration, painful honesty, and deep reflection. This territory ranges far beyond “should-land.”  The book is as excruciating and penetrating as it is enlivening.  I commend it to you.  And I will seek to do the honest inner-work myself, and post further.


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