The Sunflower--On Forgiveness
Bill Long 10/2/05
Reflecting on Simon Wiesenthal's Moral Dilemma
My colleague at the law school, Lee Jordan, gave me a copy of Simon Wiesenthal's book The Sunflower a few weeks ago when we were talking about his life after learning of his death. The Sunflower presents a dilemma based on Wiesenthal's WWII experience with a dying German SS soldier. The book is arranged in two parts: the description of the dilemma (the first 100 pages) and the responses of 53 religious leaders to the problem presented. The book was first published in English in 1976 with only 10 respondents but subsequent editions have increased the number to more than 50. The point appears to be, for the publishers, that Wisenthal has presented a timeless moral tale or, at least, a helpful heuristic device for students to enter into the complex world of the Holocaust. I would think, also, that the book has made a lot of money for Schocken Books...
This and the essay present the moral dilemma of Wiesenthal. In the third essay I give my response to it, as a sort of 54th respondent in a continuing conversation.
Setting the Stage
Wiesenthal tells the story of being forced, along with many fellow townspeople (from Lemberg [Lwow], Austria), to do demeaning work for the Nazis in a work/concentration camp with little or no food until they were so weak that many died or were killed. When the Jews were walking on a forced march one day, he realized that they passed a militiary cemetery, where Germans who died in the Russian Front offensive were buried. He noted that a sunflower was planted on each grave, as straight as a soldier on parade. He entered a moment of reverie:
"I stared spellbound. The flower heads seemed to absorb the sun's rays like mirrors and draw them down into the darkness of the ground as my gaze wandered from the sunflower to the grave. It seemed to penetrate the earth and suddenly I saw before me a periscope. It was gaily colored and butterflies fluttered from flower to flower. Were they carrying messages from grave to grave? Were they whispering something to each flower to pass on to the soldier below? Yes, this was just what they were doing; the dead were receiving light and messages...Suddenly I envied the dead soldiers" (14).
Hence the title of the book.
Wiesenthal was accosted one day near his old high school in Lemberg, which was now being used as a military hospital, by a nurse who wanted him to follow her. Not knowing whether this meant that he was to face summary or humiliating death, he followed her. She led him, however, to a heavily bandaged and dying German SS soldier who had a story to tell Wiesenthal. You get the impression that, for the soldier, "any Jew" would have been satisfactory to hear his story but the fact that it fell on the ears of Wiesenthal is one of the mysteries of fate or providence.
The story narrated by the soldier culminated in an account familiar to Wiesenthal's ears but no less chilling for its familiarity. Nazi soldiers had rounded up hundreds of Jews, forced them into a house, made some of the Jewish men pour gasoline around the house, and then incinerated it with the screaming Jews inside. Any who tried to escape were summarily shot. The soldier narrated that he couldn't get out of his mind the picture of a father, mother and child trying (unsuccessfully of course) to leap to safety from the second floor. The soldier said:
"I can see the child and his father and his mother...Perhaps they were already dead when they struck the pavement. It was frightful. Screams mixed with volleys of shots.." (47-48).
Wiesenthal was alternatively repulsed by and interested in the story. The dying man gripped his hand, sometimes released it, and then seized on it again, with a strength that seemed to belie the fact that he was about to die.
The Soldier's Dying Request
The soldier talked at length about joining the Hitler Youth, the indoctrination they received, the inhumanity of the training and treatment that they inflicted on others, the hatred mingled with unexpressed and unexpressible guilt that seethed out of every pore of his being. In this highly conflicted state, the soldier said:
"I cannot die...without coming clean. This must be my confession. But what sort of confession is this? A letter without an answer..." (53).
In other words, he narrated the story as a sort of confession of his sins against the unnamed Jews to Wiesenthal, a Jew, and wanted an answer from Wiesenthal before he died. What kind of "answer" did he want? He continues:
"I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn't know whether there were any Jews left...I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace" (54).
The next essay describes how Wiesenthal responded to this request and what he did about the soldier's belongings, which were entrusted to his care by the nurse after the soldier's death.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long