Book Title: The Sunflower
Author: by Simon Wiesenthal
Date Published: May 1, 1998
Publisher: Schocken; Rev Exp Su edition (May 1, 1998)
Genre: 1. Judaism
2. Ethics
3. Christianity
ISBN: 978-0805210606
Reviewer: Diane Halm
Review Date: April 21, 2016

In his book, The Sunflower, renowned Jewish Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, recalls his encounter with a terminally ill Nazi officer. In doing so, Wiesenthal poses the moral dilemma of atonement and forgiveness. This subject has prompted debate amongst theologians, political and moral leaders and writers alike—a question, as Wiesenthal puts it, “that is at once religious, political, moral, and personal-each from their own perspective.”  Is forgiveness conditional?  Is it possible to forgive and not forget?  Wiesenthal leaves the answer in the hands of his readers.


His first-person, interactive narration personalizes the story while painting the scenario for the audience to answer the question: “What would I have done?” The reader is placed in the mind and thought processes of the author, who is coping with a sober encounter. The narrative gives little description of life in the camps, but focuses more on the experiences that shaped Wiesenthal’s personal convictions.


The atrocities committed against Jews by this Nazi officer and others, are said by some, like his friends Arthur and Josek in the camp, to be unforgiveable. Josek warns Wiesenthal to stop feeling responsible for leaving the Nazi officer’s room without granting his forgiveness. Josek tells him, “I would have refused my pardon quite deliberately and openly and yet with a clear conscience. . . You don’t know whether it was right or wrong . . . You have suffered nothing because of him, and it follows that what he has done to other people you are in no position to forgive . . . If you had forgiven him, you would never have forgiven yourself all your life.”


Despite Josek’s reassurance, Wiesenthal believes that due to the officer’s sincerity and earnest confession, he should have forgiven him. “The fellow showed a deep and genuine repentance, he did not once try to excuse what he had done,” writes Wiesenthal. Is our forgiveness dependent on an individual’s heart motivation?


Conflict is inevitable in human interaction. But how have humans throughout the centuries been led to dehumanize, subjugate and belittle others? As Wiesenthal asks, “Were we truly all made of the same stuff? If so, why were some murderers and other victims?”


The very concept of forgiveness requires a belief in right and wrong. If, as the Hebrew Scriptures teach, God is both just and merciful, it would make sense that He has made a way for us to be forgiven, as well as a way for us to forgive others. God commands Abraham to sacrifice His only son, but steps in at the last moment to instead provide a ram. Passover also demonstrates a saving sacrifice, in which the Israelites are instructed to choose a lamb that “shall be without blemish, a male a year old,” (Exodus 12:5) whose blood they affixed to the two doorposts and the lintel of their homes, protecting them from the Angel of Death.


Wiesenthal’s dilemma lies with whether all wrongs can be forgiven and if there is a limit. “Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.”


But who is really the one ultimately qualified to make that decision? Is it possible to forgive the unforgiveable? In the Hebrew Scriptures, the 53rd chapter of Isaiah describes a man being put to death. Not only was he suffering physical pain, but he was bearing the weight of forgiveness. In the New Testament, we read of a man, Yeshua (Jesus), who perfectly matches that description. He is forgiving the world of the wrongs already committed, being committed and not yet committed—wrongs that were done against others, but ultimately against God. Despite the mockery from the crowd, “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’” (Luke 23:34).


Wiesenthal, despite ridicule from his friends, contemplates forgiving in the place of someone unable to forgive. Jesus, who never did wrong, forgave those who could only do wrong. Wiesenthal’s dilemma is answered through Jesus on the cross.


Reviewer’s note: This updated 1998 edition of The Sunflower (first published in 1969) includes a second section of the book, a symposium of commentary from 53 contributors. The second section is not part of this review.