Should a Concentration-Camp Prisoner Forgive His SS Captor?

Simon Wiesenthal's provocative question on the nature of forgiveness is raised again for a new generation

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

By Simon Wiesenthal

Schocken Books

271 pp., $24

In his autobiographical fable "The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness," Simon Wiesenthal applies various features of Holocaust memoir, fiction, and oral testimony to pose an incomparable moral dilemma: "You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks your forgiveness. What would you do?"

The query taps the deepest recesses of the post-Holocaust imagination. It also drives the reader to contemplate the unthinkable - how would I have acted in the Holocaust? Would I have somehow survived with my humanity intact?

"The Sunflower" was first published in the US in 1976. The author employed a fictionalized autobiographical account as a foil for raising profound moral questions about the nature of forgiveness. A symposium on the issue of forgiveness was included as an integral part of the book.

This 20th-anniversary edition is accompanied by a fresh set of responses. Ten original respondents are included and 36 new respondents are added. There are no stirring debates here. These are quiet, probing, carefully crafted rejoinders by theologians, writers, philosophers, and survivors of genocide. All of them epitomize aspects of the post-Holocaust imagination. Most consider whether or not Wiesenthal did the right thing through the lens of Christian and Jewish perceptions of forgiveness.

Wiesenthal has spent a lifetime bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. His successful capture of Adolph Eichmann after 12 years of pursuit was the ultimate fulfillment of his vocation.

Confronting his jailer

The tale that Wiesenthal tells in "The Sunflower" has become an archetype in Holocaust studies programs. Imprisoned in a concentration camp, young Wiesenthal is sent to work in a German-run hospital. Upon his arrival he is whisked to the bedside of a dying SS man, who wishes to unburden his conscience by confessing to the atrocities he committed.

The SS man does not seem to care about the identity of his listener - apparently, any Jew will do. Nevertheless, Wiesenthal feels morally compelled to listen to the Nazi detail how he and his comrades rounded up women and children in a house and set it on fire. Anyone caught trying to escape was shot.

"In his confession," writes Wiesenthal, "there was true repentance, even though he did not admit it in so many words. Nor was it necessary, for the way he spoke and the fact that he spoke to me was a proof of his repentance."

After several hours, however, Wiesenthal simply walks out of the room without having uttered a word, refusing to forgive the soldier. He remains haunted by the encounter. After the war he visits the SS man's widowed mother and he acquaints himself with the man as an individual through photographs and her recollections. The encounter eerily parallels postwar efforts to give voice to the Jewish victims of mass murder. Wiesenthal remains silent again, but this time when he does so, he grants absolution reluctantly.

"I again kept silent rather than shatter her illusions about her dead son's inherent goodness. And how many bystanders kept silent as they watched Jewish men, women, and children being led to the slaughterhouses of Europe?" By choosing to remain silent, Wiesenthal forfeits confrontation for contemplation.

Most Christian thinkers speculate that they would have summoned the grace to forgive the Nazi. But many respondents are cautious in that assertion. Eugene J. Fisher, director of ecumenical affairs for the National Conference of Bishops, opines that the Roman Catholic Church "has refrained from asking 'the Jews' (which Jews speak for all?) for 'forgiveness.' That could easily be seen as 'cheap grace.' "

Christian theologian Martin E. Marty says: "I can only respond with silence. Non-Jews and perhaps especially Christians should not give advice about the Holocaust experience to its heirs for the next two thousand years. And then we shall have nothing to say."

Jewish thinkers in this book are consistent in their interpretation of Jewish law. Young Wiesenthal cannot forgive the SS man on behalf of the murdered Jews. The noted Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel emphasizes that "according to Jewish tradition, even God himself can only forgive the sins committed against Himself, not against man."

Yossi Klein-Halevi, a son of survivors, says that "Wiesenthal's humane gesture toward Karl's mother reinforces for me the sense that, just as we are commanded to remember all our Egypts, there are times when we must also transcend them." Klein-Halevi's spiritual journey from ultra-rightist to moderate has also prompted him to become "increasingly committed to German-Jewish reconciliation."

Three voices of rapprochement from Asia join their Christian and Jewish colleagues. Gestures of reconciliation of the Dalai Lama, Dith Pran, and Harry Wu are both poignant and discomfitting in discussions on the Holocaust.

Dith Pran, a war correspondent for The New York Times who was starved and tortured by the Khmer Rouge, a guerrilla group in Cambodia, speaks with unassailable moral authority when he contends that "we need to learn to separate the true culprits from the pawns, the evil masterminds from the brainwashed. We cannot label everyone the same."

Readers must decide whether Pran is taking a revisionist view. Numerous historians have argued - most recently in "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" (Alfred A. Knopf), by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen - that many Germans voluntarily and enthusiastically carried out the Holocaust.

Empathy of a Chinese prisoner

Harry Wu, a Chinese dissident who spent 20 years in Chinese prisons, empathizes with Wiesenthal's refusal to forgive the SS man, but like Pran he qualifies the Nazi's involvement in the Holocaust. "I would have been able to say to him: 'I understand why you were a part of a horrible and vicious society. You are responsible for your own actions but everyone else in this society shares that same responsibility with you.'"

The Dalai Lama relates a meeting with a Tibetan monk. When he asks him what he feared most during his imprisonment, the monk replies, "losing his compassion for the Chinese."

But does such compassion court forgetfulness? If there is anything that we have learned from the Holocaust, it is that we cannot forget. Granting a dying SS man clemency is a complicated, controversial act of mercy. We need to ask ourselves why that is so, more than 50 years later.

* Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance writer specializing in Holocaust issues.

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