Imagine you’ve watched your neighbors, your friends, your relatives be humiliated, imprisoned, and murdered, and then one of the group who has been perpetrating the atrocities asks you to forgive him for his participation. What would you do?
That is the basic premise of and question asked by Simon Wiesenthal in his seminal work The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. The first half of the book describes, in harrowing detail, Mr. Wiesenthal’s experiences in the concentration camp in Poland where he has survived, against all odds, the Nazis’ torture.
At one point, Mr. Wiesenthal is taken to a nearby hospital where he and other concentration camp prisoners are required to remove garbage. A nun approaches him and asks him to go to the room of a German soldier. The soldier has been badly wounded and his face is covered in bandages. He appears to be near death. The soldier pulls Mr. Wiesenthal close to the bed and implores him: “In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I know only that you are a Jew and that is enough. I know what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and again I have longed to talk to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. I know what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace…I beg for forgiveness…”
Wiesenthal agonizes about the request – what response should he give? What action should he take?
As he trudges back to the concentration camp, Wiesenthal sees the graveyard where soldiers have been buried and a single sunflower has been placed at each grave. That image of the sunflower, a sign of individualism and respect for the death haunts him as he returns to a place of mass exterminations and mass, unmarked graves.
I won’t disclose what Mr. Wiesenthal does about the Nazi’s request. You should read and find out for yourself. And then read the second half of the book where others address the question: Should Wiesenthal have forgiven the Nazi? Would they have? And it prompts the question to all readers: What would you have done?
Short essays by numerous Rabbis and Jewish scholars, Buddhist monks and Christian ministers, a German S.S. Officer and others try to respond – not only grappling with “what would you have done?” but also “did Simon Wiesenthal do the right thing?”
My take on the question is: Who are we to judge? It seems to me that only those who suffered as he did, who experienced the horrors he experienced, can even begin to imagine whether and how his response was appropriate . . .
And yet, as I contemplated the questions, I was reminded of one of my death-sentenced clients who was asked by the mother of his victim if she could write to him, and then later visit him. After months of preparations, the visit was arranged. She wanted to know more about the last hours and minutes of her son’s life. My client wanted her to forgive him, even though he knew he was not entitled to her empathy. In the end, she said that she did forgive him – but she did not do it for him. She did it for herself. She was tired of hating the person who ended her son’s life. And in forgiveness, she found a certain peace.
I’m not sure it is the same – to be asked to forgive on behalf of victims you may not have even known, for acts that were beyond redemption. But it seems to me, if there is room for forgiveness in this story, it must only be to ease the grief of the victim, not so the perpetrator can ‘die in peace.’