S. Wiesenthal, The Sunflower, rev. ed. (New York, Schocken: 1997), pp. 271. [*]


In 1976, Schocken Books published Wiesenthal's The Sunflower, a book composed of two parts: the story of a Jewish concentration camp inmate who is summoned to the bed of a dying SS officer who confesses to having murdered Jews, and symposium on the story by 32 distinguished persons. The core of the book revolves around the ethical dilemma of whether the inmate should, or should not, have granted some kind of forgiveness to the confessing nazi. [1] Wiesenthal does not explicitly state that the story is autobiographical but most readers and respondents assumed this, allowing Wiesenthal's distinguished career as a nazi-hunter to lend credibility to the dilemma.

This revised edition is notable on four points. [2] First, it includes non-Christian, non-Jewish respondents, among them the Dalai Lama and Dith Pran, a survivor of the killing fields of Cambodia. The former recommends that one forgive but not forget (129), while the latter says one should neither forgive nor forget (221). It also includes Albert Speer, a full-fledged nazi, who notes that his trial established his legal guilt and set a penalty, but his moral guilt is something he must always bear (231-32).

Second, while many of the Christian respondents present the classical Christian stance on forgiveness, a fair number of Christian respondents show substantial nuance on this issue. Thus, on the one hand, Cardinal Franz König states: "The question of whether there is a limit to forgiveness has been emphatically answered by Christ in the negative" (173) and James Cargas, one of the editors of the volume, notes: "I am afraid not to forgive because I fear not to be forgiven" (124). On the other hand, Eugene Fisher, a Catholic active in all areas of dialogue, points out that forgiveness comes from God but that repentance comes from people, and repentance is judged by behavioral change, not just by confession (134). Eva Fleischner, also very active in dialogue, notes that only the victims could forgive, not any other person including the inmate (140-41). Similarly, Matthew Fox argues that some sins are too big even for a priest (145).

Third, the Jews continue to maintain staunchly that only the victim and never another person, even the inmate, can grant forgiveness (166, where Heschel's story of the offended rabbi is repeated from the original edition), that murder is an unforgiveable sin (217), and that God does not love evil persons (219). In this vein, Cynthia Ozick's argument that vengeance is really a form of public justice while forgiveness shows a lack of pity for the victims (206-8, repeated from the original edition) remains, as I noted in my review of the original edition, a major challenge to Christian thinking on the matter of forgiveness.

Fourth, the revised edition is sorely lacking in the same area in which the original edition was deficient: there has still been no clarification of the differences between forgiveness, repentance, atonement, and absolution. To fill this lacuna, I wrote an article entitled "Repentance and Forgiveness" which sets forth the Jewish understanding and contrasts it with the Catholic view. [3] The principles are rather straightforward:

  • "Atonement" (Hebrew, kappara) comes from God, while "forbearance" (Hebrew mechila) and "forgiveness" (Hebrew selicha) come, first, from humans and, then, from God -- for sins committed against other human beings. [4]
  • "Forbearance" is a forgiving of the moral and emotional debt that the offender has incurred vis-à-vis the offended, while "forgiveness" is an inner state of mind and heart on the part of the offended. It is, thus, possible to "forbear" without really "forgiving."
  • In sins against another human being, only the victim can grant either forbearance or forgiveness. Thus, if the victim is dead, one must go to the cemetery; one cannot obtain either from a third party.
  • There is no obligation to forbear, and certainly not to forgive, unless the offender is genuinely repentant. This means that the offender must feel remorse, must express remorse, and must resolve in a way convincing to the offended and to God never to commit the sin again. Ideally the sinner must face the same temptation and prove his or her resistance to it. Only then is the offended person urged, perhaps obligated, under Jewish law to forbear and forgive; not before.
  • After forbearance and forgiveness, one may seek "atonement" from God through confession to God and casting oneself on God's mercy.

Two issues dominate the book: Should the Jewish inmate have forgiven the SS officer, and did the inmate act correctly or should he have acted otherwise. On the first issue, in my opinion, there is no reason at all for the inmate to forgive the SS officer . First, he is not the victim; the people whom the officer murdered are the victims and only they can grant forgiveness. Second, and more important: The SS officer has not, in any way but in the telling of his story, done repentance. The following show this clearly:

  • The SS officer takes no steps at all to ameliorate the condition of the inmate: He does not order the nurses to give him food, neither for himself nor for his bunkmates. He does not order that a job in the hospital, which would be a much better life, be given to the inmate. He does not order that clothes be given to him. Etc.
  • The SS officer says he wants to ask forgiveness, but he does not actually do it (54; 57 in the original edition): "I want to die in peace, and so I need ... [broken quotation in the original]." "I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace." Note that he does not actually ask for forgiveness; he only says he needs it and cannot die without it.
  • The SS officer does not understand that the Jews were innocent: "'Look,' he said, 'those Jews died quickly, they did not suffer as I do -- though they were not as guilty as I am" (52 / 56). His use of the phrase "as guilty as I am" is morally preposterous, even offensive. It clearly implies that the Jews were somehow guilty and that their murder was, in some way, justified (Tec, 244 and Telushkin, 248).
  • The SS officer confesses only the one crime of murdering Jews; he does not confess his probable other, perhaps even violent, acts of antisemitism (Fox, 144).
  • The SS officer expresses no protest to the SS hierarchy (Tec, 245).

In addition, there are several contrary-to-fact assumptions, which nonetheless seem reasonable, which show that the SS officer did not, indeed, repent: Had he not been wounded, he would not have likely regretted his acts (Bejski, 113). If restored to health, he might not have changed his ways (Hollis, 168). And, if he had survived and been offered a medal of distinguished service, he might not have refused it (Telushkin, 248). Surely, all this is not evidence of the teshuva, repentance, which merits forgiveness.

On the matter of the correct, judicious behavior: Almost all the respondents have written as though this were a moral dilemma faced in the comfort of bourgeois society. That, however, was decidedly not the case. Given the enormous disparity of power between the SS officer and the Jewish inmate, the latter had no choice but to sit and listen; he could hardly have left abruptly or argued with an SS officer, even one who is dying. Even the inmate's acts of kindness in holding the SS officer's hand and brushing the fly from his face may well be the acts of a frightened man, and not the gift of the Jew to nazi (139, 195). Finally, given the totally arbitrary nature of life in the concentration camp, he had no choice but to leave in silence; any act at all would have entailed a very foolish risk of life and limb, even pardoning the dying man, for he could have no idea at all of what the outcome even of a charitable act might be.

Similarly, while the SS officer has been criticized for being concerned only with his own salvation (Tec, 244-46) and for not even asking the name of the Jew (Tec, 245), we must recognize that he was following the patterns German Catholicism: One confesses sin; one does not have to actually ask for forgiveness. One never asks the name of the priest; it would make no difference if one knew. One expects "absolution," that is, a statement that, since the confession is sincere, one is free of sin in the eyes of humanity and God. The young Catholic SS man had no way of knowing that teshuva, repentance -- a change in behavioral patterns accompanied by a thoroughgoing examination of the heart -- was expected, though informed, classical Catholic practice would have also demanded that. [5]

Finally, none of the respondents addressed the question of the third generation of perpetrators. What is the lesson of this story for them? As a Jew, I would say it is in repentance, that is, in the change in patterns of relatedness to the marginal other in contemporary German society. The Jews may not be the object of widespread virulent racism and classism in Germany today; but others are -- foreigners, gay people, and blacks. For me, the test of German society is not in how it treats its Jews, for there are very few; but in how it treats marginalized persons of all kinds. Action to reduce racism, civil courage in the face of bigotry, multicultural and pluralistic teachings and practices in the labor unions, the government, the churches, the schools, the police, the judiciary, the professions, and so on -- these are the measures of repentance. The shoah is history, but racism and classism are current events. The repentance of the German people can only be measured by this yardstick.

[*] Appeared in xxxxxxxxxxxxx; also available on my website: <http://www.emory.edu/ UDR/BLUMENTHAL>, under "Book Reviews."

[1] As a matter of ethical and theological principle, I do not capitalize words like "nazi, führer, final solution" and even "shoah, holocaust."

[2] For my review of the original edition, see Jewish Social Studies, 40:3-4, 1978, 330-32; also available on my website, under "Book Reviews."

[3] Cross Currents, Spring 1988, 75-81; also available on my website, under "Articles."

[4] For sins committed against God, we ask forbearance and forgiveness directly from God.

[5] I am told that fathers who abuse their daughters are not granted absolution until they have done thorough repentance, in deed as well as in self-examination and confession.

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