on 28 September 1998
Weisenthal, a Jew in a concentration camp in the Holocaust, is pulled out of work one day to listen to the confession of a dying SS man. The Nazi is truly repentant of his horrendous sins, and asks Weisenthal for forgivness. Even after Weisenthal makes his decision as to what to say, he spends the rest of his life wondering if he made the right choice. This book addresses such important questions as "can one man grant forgivness for another?" and "do even the Nazis deserve second chances?" Most importantly, Weisenthal (the writer of the true story) asks the reader "what would you have done?" This is the type of book that holds you in a horrified fascination so that you can't get it out of your hands until you've finished it, and you can't get it out of your mind until long after. *Everybody* should read this book.
Simon Wiesenthal is best known as the man who had been indefatigable and single-minded in trying to bring Nazi criminals to justice as long as there was a single one of them left. For him this was an absolute moral imperative and something that he felt he owed to the memory of the murdered millions of Jews, of whom Wiesenthal could so easily have been one: he was the survivor of a succession of concentration camps: the Janowska camp outside Lvov, Plaszow (the camp of Schindler's List), Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and finally Mauthausen. It may come as a surprise to some readers that Wiesenthal was sensitive to the moral problems raised by the issue of forgiveness - yet this book is a moving meditation on that theme. According to his biographer, Hella Pick, Wiesenthal had `always considered it his most important book'.
Cruelty and casual murder were everyday occurrences in the Janowska camp, and are described in gut-wrenching detail in the first half of this episode from Wiesenthal's life. While doing slave labour at a military hospital near the camp, he was secretly brought to the death-bed of Karl, a gravely wounded 21-year old SS officer whose conscience was wracked - not just at death's door, but apparently immediately after the event - by his participation in a horrific massacre of Jews in Dnepropetrovsk. The officer got a nurse to find `a Jew', who happened to be Wiesenthal, to whom he could make his confession and from whom he could seek forgiveness. Wiesenthal wanted to get away; but something - apart from the dying man's grip - made him stay to hear him out. A Catholic priest later told him that that alone should have helped the man to die in peace, since confession and genuine repentance are more important than any absolution. But at the end Wiesenthal left the room without saying anything. Quite apart from the sufferings he was himself undergoing at the hands of the SS just then and from his expectation of death at their hands at any moment, it was not for him to offer forgiveness on behalf of the victims of Dnepropetrovsk. But the issue haunted him - had he done the right thing? After the war he sought out the SS man's mother. The young man had come from a devout and Social Democrat family who were distressed when their son had joined the Hitler Youth and even more when he had volunteered to join the SS. But the mother was convinced that her son had been a good man. Wiesenthal said nothing to her about what her son had done... The short but haunting book charges the reader to put himself in Wiesenthal's shoes and to ask himself `What would I have done?'
Before publishing his book in 1969, Wiesenthal sent his manuscript to a number of distinguished thinkers for their response, and the comments of ten of them were included in the first edition. Further contributions were made by others to the 1997 and 1998 editions: there are now 53 altogether, and they make up nearly two-thirds of the book. They include - to name only the most famous - those of the Dalai Lama, Cardinal König, Primo Levi, Deborah Lipstadt, Herbert Marcuse, and Desmond Tutu.
Some of the respondents seem to me to veer away from the question Wiesenthal had posed, and draw a distinction between forgetting and forgiving; others discuss the question of collective guilt (some reject it; others blame all the bystanders) - interesting, but irrelevant in the context of this story. Almost all agree that whilst individuals can forgive offences committed against themselves, no human can forgive in the name of other victims. In such cases, if the victims cannot be asked because they are dead, perhaps only God can be asked for forgiveness - though one respondent says that God was hardly fit to forgive something which He had after all allowed to happen. And the Jewish tradition has it that even God will not forgive the unpardonable sin of murder. It is unpardonable, because it is the one sin for which reparation is impossible. The Christian tradition, basing itself on Jesus asking God to forgive them, `for they know not what they do', and on the idea that you must hate the sin, but not the sinner, shaped the answer of some Christian respondents. Some say that forgiveness is not only a boon to the penitent, but also for the victim, freeing him from the burden and poison of hate. Two Asian contributors, one a survivor from the Khmer Rouge and the other a victim of the Cultural Revolution in China, blame only the top leadership, and have some understanding for those who were brainwashed.
One respondent hopes that Karl will rot in hell; others also refuse to accept the genuineness of his repentance, indeed stress the offensiveness of him putting a Jew - chosen not as an individual but picked at random - under the moral burden of hearing the confession and being asked to forgive. Wiesenthal at least saw Karl as an individual and is capable of some compassion towards the dying man and later towards his mother (but one respondent thinks that Wiesenthal did wrong to shield her from the knowledge of what her son had done).
These are just some of the responses to Wiesenthal's question. It is a question addressed to all of us, and it is not surprising that this book has been used as a text in many courses on the Holocaust.
on 28 September 1998
The Sunflower is a very good firsthand account of the Nazi concentration camps. Wiesenthal depicts the setting and tone of the area so well at you feel like you're right there with him in those cramped beds recalling the horrors of the day. Towards the second half, the book progresses into a torturous confession of an S.S. officer and a plea of forgiveness. Wiesenthal leaves the reader to ponder the choice that he had to make, by leaving the story open to the mind. You'll ponder the question of "what would you do?" for days and weeks to come. I highly recommend this book to all readers.
on 8 January 2015
This is a soul-searing book. I started reading it at 5pm on the day it arrived, read until I fell asleep at 10, woke up again at 2am and carried on reading until I finally finished it at 4am. It took possession of my mind as no other book has done, and ever since, I continued to work through its implications.
The fact that these events occurred 75 years ago is irrelevant. Evil is evil, however long ago it happened. The moral situation is unchanged.
My father was Jewish, and had Hitler's armies invaded, both he and I would have been sent away and murdered. I can therefore put myself to some extent in Wiesenthal's position: what would I have done if this man had been responsible for the horrific death of my beloved father?
There are some enormities before which only silence is possible, and I admire Wiesenthal beyond measure for his self-control and his life-time's dedication to the hunting down of these monsters.
This book is one which should be required reading for everyone. No moral position can be posited which does not in some measure take account of this situation.
on 28 September 1998
This book is a compelling tale which illustrates the life of a Jew in a concentration camp. He is a dead man walking, yet when confronted with the unusual circumstance of forgiving a dying Nazi for his evil deeds, he makes his own decisions. This book is easy to read, yet thought provoking. It provides in detail the daily tragedies taking place and horror stories turned realities in such extermination facilities. A great book to read when studying WW2 in Europe
on 16 May 2011
An excellent book for those engaged in pastoral work and for those who have an interest in the realities of war. The holocaust should never be forgotten, yet it appears to be put aside under the title of past history, particularly as survives are ageing and are passing away. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, It makes you have to think of your response should you be faced with a similar situation. Do we have the right to forgive on behalf of someone else?
on 24 September 1998
Simon Wiesenthal's book, The Sunflower, is a true life story of a Jew called to the bedside of a dying Nazi to hear the Nazi's life story. The Nazi then asks the Jew, Wiesenthal, to forgive him. Wiesenthal leaves in silence, but poses to you the same question: In his position, would you have forgiven the Nazi? A very thought-provoking book, The Sunflower makes the reader ponder for hours over the meaning of right and wrong, as well as giving a vivid picture of a Jew's life during the Holocaust. An excellent read.
on 1 August 1999
The book through the Simon Weisenthal's human will for survival takes you through nightmare after nightmare. It is the story of a jew, one amongst millions but probably the most famous survivor of the camps which keeps you engrossed from beginning to end. The lasting effect on myself is that whenever I see a sunflower, my mind always goes straight to the scene of a dying nazi begging his forgiveness with simon looking out of the hospital window overlooking the beauty of the sunflower fields.
Horror and beauty alongside each other strike a poignant reminder of the fight between good and evil.
on 2 March 2010
I heard about this book from a colleague in work and bought it the same afternoon.
I was totally overwhelmed by the first part of the book that raised the question, learning things about the mistreatment of Jews in Poland long before the war. Once into the views of the contributors over the issue of 'what they would have done' I was riveted and could not put the book down. Only the Dalai Lama's view was predictable and seemed to have no depth (the depth part surprised me).
I would recommend this book to anyone, interested or not in the holocaust. It raises more questions than it answers and certainly made me look at things differently.