After reading, The Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal, I am asked to consider many moral questions. The primary question is one of forgiveness; Are there different definitions and levels? I answer this question with the help of many of the contributors to the novel, as well as my own personal thoughts and experience.
Having lived through many situations, I have been on both sidesthat of the offender, and that of the forgiver. I have found that it takes much more to actually forgive than to ask for forgiveness. Peoples actions are hard to forget, especially if they are loved ones who are very close to your heart. Although you might tell the other person that they are forgiven, still, deep in your heart, their actions are not forgotten, and they have left a mark that might cause the relationship to never be the same again. I have found that the best remedy for this kind of forgiveness is time. Time for both partys stories and situations to be revealed. Time for the hurt to heal, but also for the offender to forgive him or herself. Time also allows the victims to nurse his or her wounds, and make it known to the offender exactly what will need to be done to continue on in the relationship. The levels of true forgiveness mean different things to different people. At the same time, the limits and the depths to the human heart and soul are yet to be found.
I have seen many of these aspects and levels of forgiveness unfolding in the relationship of the dying Nazi soldier, Karl, and the Jewish prisoner, Simon. Their short interaction raises many questions about the true limits to the human capacity to forgive, as well as the outcome of this life-changing experience. Simon, the common Jewish prisoner, was approached by a Red Cross nurse and asked, “Are you a Jew?” He was then escorted, without any sort of explanation, up to a room in the hospital which contained Karl, the 21 year-old Nazi soldier dying in his hospital bed. Simon is then confronted with the situation and choice. Karl confesses to Simon all of his worst deeds, and then proceeds to forgiveness from Simon for what he has done, namely killing the little Jewish boy. Simon, confronted with this massive moral burden, decides on silence as his answer to Karl’s desperate plea. Several years later, he is faced with the task of returning Karl’s personal things to his mother. He is now faced with another choice; should he lie to Karl’s loving mother about who he is and what her son really did? He responds to this situation again with silence. He does not tell Karl’s mother about what his true identity is, or about the atrocities that Karl committed during the war. Simon choices were motivated by experiences, which I will never know or understand. But, I do know that for every rule of forgiveness, there is an exception; for every moral and belief there is a circumstance of doubt; and for every argument, there is a counter. After research and soul-search alike, I have found no absolute answer to the question of, “What would I have done?” This question in itself can be read in many conflicting ways; would, should, and could are all little words that, when added to the question, completely alter the meaning. The one truth that I hold fast to is the fact that forgiveness involves both restitution and atonement, and without either of the two it is like a person without a soul, incomplete. By this definition of forgiveness, I answer No the question of forgiving Karl.
My opinion can be supported by many of the contributors to Simon Wiesenthals book, The Sunflower. In Susannah Heschels response, she goes into Judaism as a religion, stating that “forgiveness requires both atonement and restitution” (Heschel 172). She also states that two sins exist for which there is no forgiveness: murder, and the destruction of someones reputation. The Holocaust, therefore, according to Heschel and Judaism, involved both of these offenses, and may never be forgiven. Her definitions and ideas mesh with my personal opinions, and this is the stance I have chosen to take. There may be atonement expressed for these crimes, but there will never be restitution, and it takes the combination of the two for forgiveness to take place.
Atonement, by definition, is compensation, or reconciliation, for a wrong. Although Germany did pay reparations, no amount of money, time, resources, or even lives will ever be able to compensate for the genocide that took place during the Holocaust. Germany, as a country, has not proven to the world that it takes responsibility for its crimes against humanity and actions against the Jews. Germans to this day are denying the fact that the Holocaust even took place. Yes, there were trials and even deaths of some of the perpetrators, but these few lives lost could never pay the price for the death and destruction of a people that they caused. The definition of restitution involves the total restoration of anything to its rightful owner, or giving an equivalent for any loss, damage or injury. As you can plainly see, this is simply not possible in this situation. Again, nothing in the world can bring back the people who perished during the Holocaust, nor take away the hurt, scars and memory of what happened to the Jewish people. This restitution is not possible; therefore forgiveness is not either.
I feel that Simon was put through unimaginable mental anguish, especially after meeting with Karls mother. He continually thought about his choices and wonders if silence in both cases was the right thing to do. Alan Berger asserts that his silence’s were not the same; one was out of confusion, and one out of kindness (Berger 118). Simon is so frightened by the situation with Karl that he cannot even digest the significance of the meeting. Without even knowing, Karls mother puts Simon in a similar position to what Karl had done. He was forced, on the spot, to make a moral decision that he knew would effect the rest of her life. Likewise, Simon did the best he could when responding to Karls mothers desperate pleas; his silence most likely kept her sane. In the end, it only proves that only the one who directly suffered because of the offenders actions can offer forgiveness. The little Jewish boy who Karl murdered cannot look Karl in the eye and say, “I forgive you for what you did to me,” and likewise, Simon cannot either. Simon could not find it in him to openly forgive Karl, and likewise, I cannot find this forgiveness in my heart, either.
This forgiveness also brings up the question of forgiving one for actions that were not committed directly against you. Alan Berger responds to this by saying that “Simon should, and could, not forgive on behalf of those so cruelly murdered” ( Berger 119). In addition, simply the fact that Karl asked Simon for this type of forgiveness is unforgivable. Karl’s attempts to remove his own guilt for his actions were at the expense of an unknown Jew. Nechama Tec, a Holocaust survivor, responded to this question in a way that was also especially meaningful to me. She responds with the fact that Karl, like all Nazis, saw Simon not as an individual, but as the Jewish race as a whole. Karl thought only of himself, not even considering the fact that he was dealing with another human being, not just a numbered Jewish prisoner. This fits in with the “Nazi ideology which defines all Jews as inferior human beings, as nonhumans” (Tec 259). Karl, blinded by his own self-pity and guilt, condemned Simon with a request that he knew was unreasonable. Furthermore, this action shows no moral courage on the side of Karl, and also seals the fact that his repentance is not genuine.
This situation can also be viewed from the other side, as the Dalai Lama states in his response. He says, “I believe one should forgive the person or persons who have committed atrocities against oneself and mankind” (Dalai Lama 129). Forgiveness is possible; however, one should never forget about the atrocities committed. He sums it up saying, “one should be aware and remember these experiences so that efforts can be made to check the reoccurrence of such atrocities in the future” (129). This view makes sense because, in theory, if we remember the horrors of the past, we should have enough sense to not allow them to happen ever again in the future.
Edward Flannery also takes the side of forgiveness. However, he approaches from the angle of the Judeo-Christian tradition. He states that a cardinal principle of this religion is “that forgiveness must always be granted to the sincerely repentant” (Flannery 136). He brings up the question of “whether the fundamental norms of ethics and morality are exceptional in certain difficult circumstances”(137). He finds and holds to the traditional and religious stance that there are moral laws that are universal through any and all situations. He believes that Simon should have forgiven Karl on the basis of making peace with God himself and asking him for his forgiveness.
Finally, I would like to respond to this question armed with all of the knowledge from the book, extraneous research, and my own personal experiences (more valuable than anything else, in my opinion). I cannot say what I would have done, if put in Simon’s shoes, only that I personally would not have forgiven Karl, had it been me by his side in the hospital. This response is reached with the understanding that forgiveness involves both atonement and restitution. At the same time, I question not only my decision, but also my motives in making it. I know that Simon was plagued for the rest of his life, knowing that he could have let Karl die in peace, but choose not too. I also know that no matter what Karl said, true repentance (or in another word, restitution) was not possible in that situation. I do not believe that the atonement that Karl offered, a spoken apology and appearing to be truly sorry, is enough to make up for atrocities such as hate, murder, and genocide. Simon will never forget this meeting, nor will he forget the people he loved and lost, the persecution he lived through, or the hate he witnessed first hand.
We, especially my generation, take for granted our freedom, and study the Holocaust with a sense of detachment. It is not something that really hits very close to home for most of us; the only survivors we know are grandparents, if they are still with us. Being a poster girl for the Aryan race myself, I know that had I been alive and in Germany during that time, I would not have been a victim of the times. This fact has been comforting, and at the same time disturbing to me. A situation such as this pushes the human capacity full to overflowing with thoughts, dreams, doubts and questions. As is true in most other situations, you cannot truly speak with advice or even hold a strong opinion until you have been through it yourself. This simple fact makes the question of “what would I have done?” difficult to think about, and almost impossible to write about. So, in conclusion, I find that this question can be answered with another, “What would you have done?”
Berger, Alan L. “Response.” The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.118-20.
Flannery, Edward H. “Response.” The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.135-37.
Heschel, Susannah. “Response.” The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.172-73.
Lana, Dalai. Response.” The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.129-30.
Weisenthal, Simon. “The Sunflower.” The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 1-98.