What does a sunflower have to do with Judaism? The Sunflower is a book and a symbol, both relating to a story told by Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi hunter. Simon names his story The Sunflower, because, as a prisoner in the Holocaust, he sees a graveyard where Nazi graves are surrounded by living sunflowers, but Jews are just piled in heaps. His life is so awful that he is even jealous of the dead Nazis. The Sunflower becomes a symbol of his story that is about remembrance and about the ethical problem of forgiving a dying Nazi. In my speech, I have researched the story of Simon Wiesenthal, and read his story, The Sunflower. Then I researched the concept of forgiveness in Judaism and other religions, and explored this concept in the context of the Holocaust and everyday life.
To fully understand the story you have to understand Simon Wiesenthal, the writer of The Sunflower. He was born in Eastern Europe on December 31st, 1908. He was a married architect in Poland who, when World War II broke out, tried to bribe his family out. Despite his efforts, he and his wife were eventually taken to a labor camp. Because his wife looked Aryan, he got her false papers and she escaped in the autumn of 1942. She lived in Warsaw and then Rhineland, never revealing her true identity. Wiesenthal escaped a year later. He was recaptured and sent back. The camp was liberated in 1945. He was one of less than 34 survivors out of 149,000 prisoners in that camp originally. That’s means only .02% survived. In the Holocaust 89 members of his family perished including his mother, though he was later miraculously reunited with his wife.
After the war, most Holocaust survivors just tried to forget their experiences and start new lives, but not Wiesenthal. Other Jews thought no one would believe them. In fact an SS corporal told Simon: "You would tell the truth [about the death camps] to the people in America. That's right. And you know what would happen, Wiesenthal? They wouldn't believe you. They'd say you were mad. Might even put you into an asylum. How can anyone believe this terrible business - unless he has lived through it?”
This obviously didn’t affect Wiesenthal. He refused to put the Holocaust behind him. Instead, he set up the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz, Austria, to catch hidden Nazis. He was later credited with the capture of 1,100 Nazi soldiers. Why did he devote his life to capturing Nazis? When asked why, Wiesenthal replied "I [believe in life after death.] When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us, 'What have you done?’, there will be many answers. You will say, 'I became a jeweler', another will say, 'I have smuggled coffee and American cigarettes', another will say, 'I built houses'. But I will say, 'I didn't forget you.'". Wiesenthal died on September 20, 2005, at his home in Vienna at the age of 96.
He did not forget, but he struggled with forgiveness.
In the beginning of the book called The Sunflower, Simon tells this story which takes place in the Holocaust. The story starts when he is in a labor camp. Soldiers who died got sunflowers planted on their graves, but the dead Jews just got piled in heaps. Simon is jealous because he thinks that he will not be remembered when he dies. On duty one day he is pulled into a hospital by a nurse. Inside is a German man named Karl covered in bandages with holes only for his nose, ears and mouth. Then Karl tells him a story of when he was a Nazi soldier and how he killed a helpless innocent Jewish family while burning down the house they were locked in. He had killed many Jews but only told Simon about this particular encounter. Karl was later shot in battle and brought to the hospital; to wait for the impending death he knew was coming. Then he asked the nurse to get him a Jew and bring them to him. After telling him his life story he asks Simon for forgiveness sounding sincerely repentant. Karl is truly haunted by his sins.
After hearing his story Simon walks out of the room silently without saying a word. The next day Karl dies and leaves Simon all of his possessions (which is not much), but Simon refused to take them.
When the war was over, Simon couldn’t stop thinking about the dying Nazi and his repentance on his deathbed. One day Simon found the Nazi’s mother’s house. She was now a widow living alone with only memories of her family left. The mother thought her son was an innocent, good, brave child because he had been an altar boy before he joined the Nazi Youth. She tells Simon her view on Karl’s life. Simon didn’t tell her what he knew. He left her like he had left Karl — without saying a word.
Many years later Simon questioned whether he had done the right thing. He asked many people about his actions. A few of these people included Jews, Rabbis, a Catholic Cardinal, Christians and even an ex-Nazi!
As I read through the opinions, I noticed that most Jews in the book said Simon did the right thing. I also noticed that most Christians in the book said the Nazi should have been forgiven on his deathbed. At first I thought this was because the Jews identified with Simon more and the Christians couldn’t. Later I realized that their opinions were also based on their religions and cultures.
Judaism teaches that the two things that cannot be forgiven are murder and destroying someone’s reputation because those are two things that cannot be repaired. Moses Maimonides told that an apology is only sincere if the situation in which the sinner sinned happens again and the sinner doesn’t sin. During Yom Kippur we are taught that Teshuva or Jewish repentance has four steps. Step 1 — ask the person you wronged for forgiveness. Step 2 — ask god for forgiveness. Step 3 — feel bad, and Step 4 — be in the same situation and don’t sin.
Some Jews that were asked their opinion were Susana Heschel - the first person to put an orange on her Seder plate, Rabbi Telushkin - a noted Jewish authority, and Primo Levi - another survivor of the Holocaust. Rabbi Heschel said that you can’t forgive something done to someone else. Primo Levi said that the only way that Simon could have truly forgiven the Nazi was by lying which isn’t right. He also said the Nazi was using Simon as a tool and didn’t deserve respect. Telushkin however questioned the Nazi’s every word as if analyzing a Torah portion. He said it sounded as if the Nazi was implying that Jews were also guilty just not as much as him. He questioned whether the Nazi would have asked for forgiveness if he wasn’t going to die.
Most Christians had a different concept of forgiveness. They usually said that the Nazi should have been forgiven just because he was sincerely repenting. Forgiving is a Christian virtue. Many Christians thought that Karl would go to Heaven for repenting but Simon Wiesenthal would not.
Some of the Christians that responded that I thought were different and interesting were Cardinal Franz Konig - formerly archbishop of Vienna, Mary Gordon - an author, and Desmund Tutu - winner of the Nobel peace prize. Cardinal Konig did not blame Simon for not forgiving the man. He said Simon could not forgive what was done to others and he understood how hard it must be to forgive a Nazi when you are a Jew. He said that Simon had done enough by listening to his story. Mary Gordon said that Karl was using Simon as a symbol for all Jews but Simon doesn’t have the right to be the leader of all Jews. The Nazi must publicly announce to the world that he is sorry and die in a camp with the Jews to truly deserve forgiveness. Desmund Tutu thought that Simon must have had a really hard time deciding. He agreed that it is really hard to forgive someone after something like that but he said that Simon should have forgiven him. “Without forgiveness there is no future,” he stated.
There were three different perspectives I thought were interesting. These were the Buddhist perspective, Native American Indian perspective and an ex-Nazi perspective. The Buddhist perspective was given by the 14th Dalai Lama, the religious and political symbol of Tibet. He said that Simon should have forgiven the man. He said that Buddhists are supposed to understand and forgive. They are supposed to make friends of their enemies. An ex-Nazi, Albert Speer, thought that if the Nazi couldn’t forgive himself why should Simon forgive him? “No one is bound to forgive,” he said. Jose Hobday, the Native American Indian, said that forgiveness is equal to forgetting and forgiving the Nazi would have helped Simon feel better. However if Simon didn’t forgive it could ruin his life.
Everybody thought that forgiveness would be a dull topic for my speech, but reading all these opinions really stimulated my mind and made me consider difficult ethical issues in Judaism. My own opinion is that Simon did the right thing. Usually when we ask for forgiveness, we have made a mistake and are asking for people to understand that we didn’t do it on purpose. It’s hard to make a mistake burning down a building and killing a human child. When you are trying to get forgiveness for something that you did on purpose, I think you have to show that you learned what you did was wrong and punish yourself. I think that the only punishment suitable for a murderer is to feel guilt and sadness for the rest of their life, and that is exactly what Simon Wiesenthal gave the Nazi.
Weisenthal, Simon. The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. Schocken, revised expanded edition, 1998.