The Ultimate Moral Question

The Ultimate Moral Question


Wendy Cooley

        The realm of human forgiveness is incomprehensible. Throughout our difficult and trying lives, we are faced with a number of situations whose full understanding goes beyond our conscience thoughts. Some people in special situations are asked to dig deeper into their hearts, souls, and minds to find solutions or answers to these situations. The act of digging deeper to find solutions begins to define what makes us human.

        Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower is a true story of Simon as a Jewish prisoner and his journey through one of history’s most difficult and trying events, the Holocaust. This book deals with the “possibilities and limits of forgiveness.” I support Simon’s judgment in walking away from the dying SS man without saying a word. I feel that it was not his place or even his right to forgive someone for their crimes against others.

        Simon is in a Nazi concentration camp with his companions, Arthur and Josek, during the Holocaust. One day, Simon was taken on a march with other camp members. As he walked through a ghetto towards a hospital, Simon notices some sunflowers in the German graveyard. Each grave had one “ straight as a soldier on parade” (Wiesenthal 14). In Simon’s eyes, it seemed as though the flowers took in sun rays and pulled them down into the dark ground where the soldier lay. He also mentions that butterflies traveled from flower to flower, perhaps carrying messages from grave to grave. Simon immediately realized that there would be no sunflower on his grave, where corpses were piled on top of each other. There would be no sunflower to connect him with the world or bring him light, no butterflies to visit his grave. This here shows that when Simon and other Jews die, they will be inferior to the Germans. Perhaps Simon is directing this symbolism towards God and heaven as well. At the beginning of the novel, Simon and his friends, Josek and Arthur, are talking about God being “on leave” (8). They feel that God is absent and not looking on his earth or after the Jews. I feel that the sunflower can symbolize the Nazi’s relationship with God in the eyes of the Jewish population, in that when the Nazis die, they each have a sunflower. Simon sees this sunflower as drawing in or collecting sun rays from the heavens and lighting their dark grave. When the Jews die, the sunflower is absent. They will be in their dark graves, lying on top of one another with no light shining in on their dark world. This is related to their fear that God is absent in their world.

        As he passes through the ghetto, a town in which he once lived, Simon comes across his old school. It had been turned into a hospital. When he arrives, a nurse approaches him and asks him if he is a Jew. Simon answers yes and is taken to a room which used to be his Dean’s office. Simon finds himself at the bedside of a dying, young SS soldier. The Nazi, haunted by the crimes he had committed, wants to confess his crimes to a Jew in hopes to achieve forgiveness. Simon listens to the man’s story and then, finally, leaves the room without ever saying a word. Simon refused all subsequent efforts by the nurse to go back and see the Nazi soldier. When he arrived back at the concentration camp, Simon told his friends what had happened and asked them if what he did was right. But their assurances were not enough.

        Today, many years after the war, Simon is still bothered by the choice he had made. So, he asks in his book, “What would [you] have done?” In a sense, this is an almost impossible situation to morally respond to with our own judgment. When we respond to this question, we have to keep in consideration the amount of atrocities and suffering the Jewish population went through. I feel that it is not our right to deeply forgive another for their sins. To forgive by word of mouth seems to me to be so superficial. A deeper forgiveness does not come from us but from God. Who are we to say that someone is truly forgiven for their sins? It is not our right. I do, however, believe that we should remain compassionate and kind to everyone, even the sinful. My response is that Simon Wiesenthal did the right thing by keeping his silence when the Nazi soldier asked for forgiveness. Simon could not have forgiven the Nazi for crimes and brutalities he did to other Jews.

        In the face of such difficult moral judgment, there are some scholars who believe that Simon should have forgiven the dying soldier and granted his last wish for forgiveness and repentance. In some instances, these scholars display a great capacity for compassion and love. However, in this particular situation, I do not feel that forgiveness by Simon on behalf of the Jews was correct.

        Collectively, these scholar’s reasons for forgiveness can be summed up in the following principles. The first reason for forgiveness is because of death. The scholars who mention this reason could see forgiveness as filling a dying man’s last wish. There is also forgiveness because of religion. Simon should have forgiven the dying soldier because “we have Jesus as a great forgiver” (Hesburgh 169). We should take after God and show the same mercy that God shows us (169). Most Christians believe that Jesus was born to die on the cross for our sins. The purpose of this was for us to be forgiven for our wrong doings so we could go to heaven when we die.

        Another reason for forgiveness that these scholars point out is freedom. “Forgiveness happens inside us. It represents letting go of the sense of grievance, and perhaps most importantly the role of the victim” (Kushner 186). Because of being able to forgive, the person can free himself from the burden of hate and victimization. The victim is able to move on and heal himself.

        I feel, however, that with such a horrific and brutalizing event, it would be impossible to fully be able to heal and move on. Such an incomprehensible event can leave a long term negative effect on the subconscious and emotions of a person. It was not unheard of that Jewish prisoners in the Holocaust literally ripped themselves apart–despite the fact that they were already torn–after the event because of what they saw. Perhaps not forgiving is the victim’s assurance that the murderers and brutalizers will be brought to justice. Maybe it gives them a sense of relief and control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation and their uncontrollable feelings. It is their security.

        The final reason for forgiveness is true repentance. Some scholars believe that Karl experienced true contrition and, thus, should be forgiven. Edward H. Flannery, a Roman Catholic priest, says that one should be forgiven if he sincerely repents. However, this man is a priest and has the power to forgive on behalf of God. He is God’s verbal forgiver for sins. Thus, Karl should have sought forgiveness from a priest. If Karl truly wants repentance, he should have sought it from someone who could actually have the authority to forgive him. Some scholars mention that “anyone willing to ask for forgiveness should be forgiven” (Hesburgh 169). They also mention that if Karl is truly sorry and asks for forgiveness then he is experiencing true repentance and should be forgiven. However, no one is absolutely positive that people who ask for forgiveness are truly sorry for what they have done. I feel that Karl on some level or another was sorry for his sins and crimes. As for knowing what his heart and soul feels, only God knows that and, therefore, only God has the ability to truly forgive him. I admire these people’s hearts in a way because they have such a deep capacity for love. However, in the case of millions of Jews and their brutal torture, quick forgiveness is not justifiable.

        I agree with Simon’s judgment in walking away from the dying SS man. Even when Karl asked for forgiveness, he is still in a superior position in that when he dies, he will still be better off than the Jews because he will be buried in a graveyard with a beautiful sunflower to light his dark grave. I believe that Simon, in this book, uses the sunflower to symbolize God and the soldier’s relationship with God. The sunflower, as I saw it through Simon’s thoughts, brings light rays from the heavens down to the dark ground that the soldiers are buried in. In other words, even in the darkness of their deeds, there will be light, there will be God. This, I feel, is part of the reason why Simon cannot forgive Karl. He could be jealous of Karl’s afterlife because his is uncertain.

        As a scholar Matthew Fox points out, Simon did the right thing. He acted as a confessor by listening to Karl and then leaving him to deal with his sins, his victims, and his crimes. This is the best attitude to take towards this story. It provides a model of compassion, with Simon being the confessor and listener. It also provides a model of truth and justice by allowing Karl to deal and face the consequences of his actions.

        “I could forgive someone who has sinned against me but not someone who has taken the life of another” (Berger 119). I, as well as God, have the power to forgive someone who has harmed me but I, myself, do not have the power to forgive a sinner or a murderer for crimes he committed against someone else. It is not my place nor my right. It was not Simon’s place to forgive someone for crimes against someone else. He did not represent the whole Jewish society. I believe that “Karl had the desire to cleanse his own soul at the expense of a Jew” (119). Karl asked the nurse to bring him a Jew, any Jew would do. Never in his confession did Karl concern himself with Simon. He just wanted a Jew to listen to what he had to say and forgive him for what he had done. Simon did not have the power to forgive Karl because he did not represent the Jewish society as a whole. If someone truly wants forgiveness, he or she should turn to God (Kushner 184).

        Joseph Telushkin is a rabbi of the Synagogue of the Performing Arts in Los Angeles. He also agrees that Simon did the right thing by remaining silent. He says, “the killing and the torture of innocent people is an ultimate evil, and only the ones who can grant forgiveness are, by virtues of their deaths, incapable of doing so. The Nazi wanted to die with a clean, or at least clearer conscience. But what had he done to entitle himself to so distinct a privilege?” (Telushkin 263-264). I strongly believe this point, for I feel that Karl wanted “any Jew” to hear his confession and grant him forgiveness so he can die with a clear conscience and go to his heaven. He does not much care for Simon’s life; he is just a Jew in Karl’s mind. Karl does not care to get personal with Simon; he only wants to tell his story.

        To be faced with a moral question, especially concerning the Holocaust, requires us to dig deeper into our hearts, souls, and minds. It asks us to think about issues we desire not to think about. I feel that Simon Wiesenthal did the right thing by walking away in silence. He was not in a position and had no right to forgive the SS man, Karl, for his murders of other people. I also believe that Karl did not deserve full forgiveness for his actions by someone who did not suffer from those actions. I feel that we should honor the dead and the murdered by allowing them to forgive their perpetrators on their own terms.

        They were the ones who were murdered and brutalized and only they have the power to forgive those who have done them wrong.

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