The Sunflower (Die Sonnenblume: Von Schuld Und Vergebung)

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THE SUNFLOWER (Die Sonnenblume: Von Schuld und Vergebung)

Memoir by Simon Wiesenthal, 1970

The literature on the Shoah includes anthology, diary, fiction, history, memoir, psychology, reports, and theology, which individually and collectively recount the horrors of the Nazi treatment of Europe's Jews in the historical context of deep-rooted prejudice and ethnocentric behavior. A number of these studies indict the outwardly anti-Semitic actions of church authorities, the inwardly hypocritical humanism of Western democracies, and the inactivity of some influential Jewish leaders as partially responsible for the murder of six million Jews. Few accounts, however, confront the reader directly in a learning process, thereby challenging existing ideas and modes of behavior. Enter Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower, whose original text and symposium of responses translated from German and French into English (1970) has been reprinted several times and now appears in a new English expanded edition, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (1998).

In a sensitive and provocative narrative, Wiesenthal tells the account of being taken one day from his work detail in a Nazi concentration camp to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier, a participant in the slaughter of innocents, who is terrified of dying with a burden of guilt and asks forgiveness for his actions. Wiesenthal, who knows well that Nazi crimes could never be fully "avenged "(The Murderers among Us ) but seeks justice for the millions of victims of the most heinous crime of recorded history (Justice Not Vengeance ), listens with horror and feeling to the German's deathbed confession and walks silently from his presence without granting him absolution. But Wiesenthal is haunted by this memory and invites a distinguished group of respondents (32 in the first edition; 53 in the second edition, including nine reprinted responses) to tell what they would have done in his place.

The contributors reflect a wide variety of behavior and belief, discipline and experience. Their writing is a reciprocal tool: it reveals and at the same time it is revealing. That is, not only do they tackle a moral question from Auschwitz but they also explain and define themselves within and without that world. Though all agree that one cannot forget, there is a divide between commentators whether to forgive. And this speaks of many things: Can one forgive and not forget? Can the living forgive for the murdered dead? Does forgiveness perpetuate the very evil it wants to make easier to bear? Is following orders the same as giving them? Is it right to impose Nazi crimes on a postwar generation in Germany? Can forgiveness confront, not close, the cycle of pain? If forgiveness is not possible, can reconciliation ever be? And so forth.

Wiesenthal reveals his self-dilemma and strength in his narrative of the dying Nazi's bedside plea. He senses in the man's confession a "true repentance," but he answers in silence. But silence has many voices. May not Wiesenthal's silence then be the thread of commonalty of the murdered six million (among them, 89 of his own relatives) as opposed to the voice of heaven and earth? And by telling the story, is he not breaking his oath now for the sake of the living? Sunflowers marked the graves of the German war dead that lord over the unmarked and forgotten mass pits of the Jewish dead. The Sunflower serves as a testimony to victims without mark and to be silent no more.

—Zev Garber