The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal

Monday, November 15, 2010 1:00 PM

You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness. What would you do?

Simon Wiesenthal tells of an incident that occurred while he was a prisoner in the first of several concentration camps. Every day, the prisoners had to pass a military cemetery where rows of sunflowers were planted on the graves of German soldiers.Wiesenthal envied those sunflowers, knowing that he and other Jews were more likely to be buried in mass graves with no markers. One day, as he was removing garbage from the yard of a military hospital, a nurse summoned him to the bedside of a critically wounded SS man who wanted to confess and receive forgiveness from a Jew. His name was Karl and he was 22 years old. It occurred to Wiesenthal that Jewish inmates were dying all around him without the pity or compassion the German soldier was asking for. Wiesenthal listened to the SS man's story and left without a word.

Wiesenthal's postwar work as a "Nazi hunter" brought him into contact with many known murderers and many were brought to trial. Acknowledgment and remorse are rare reactions, he notes. But does it change anything when a criminal repents his crimes? Do we have the right to forgive on behalf of others? What would you have done in my place? Would you have forgiven the repentant Nazi? Wiesenthal poses this question to Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant theologians, historians, public figures, Holocaust survivors, and survivors of other atrocities in Cambodia, China, and Tibet. Their responses in the symposium present a challenging debate on repentance and forgiveness.

Bonny V. Fetterman is an independent editor and publishing consultant. Formerly senior editor of Schocken Books, she is currently literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.

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