My Musings

The Sunflower: A Book Review

The Sunflower: A Book Review

The Sunflower. Author: Simon Wiesenthal, Schoken Books, New York, 1976, 2007.


Simon Wiesenthal, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, devoted his life to documenting the crimes of the Holocaust and bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.  He was also an author and his book, The Sunflower, is one of the most riveting reads you‘ll ever enjoy.

Actually, enjoy is not the right word.  The Sunflower will force you to ask some deeply troubling questions about the nature of repentance and forgiveness.  This book is a  spiritual wrestling match.

Wiesenthal, a young architect in Poland in 1941, was captured when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union.  In four years, he was held in twelve different concentration camps.  He survived near executions and a couple suicide attempts.  In the end, eighty-nine of his relatives died in the Holocaust.

In a concentration camp, one longs for outside work details.  During one such excursion, Wiesenthal marched near a German military cemetery.  On each grave was planted a sunflower and butterflies danced around them.  Wiesenthal gravely doubted that a sunflower would ever attract butterflies to his resting place.  Thus, he envied the dead German soldiers.

The prisoners arrived at reserve hospital where they were assigned their duties.  It was dirty work.  A nurse singled Wiesenthal out and led him to the room of a German soldier wrapped in bandages and lying motionless on a bed.  He was a severe burn victim who was desperate to speak with a Jew.

His name was Karl, a member of the SS.  He said to Wiesenthal, “I have not much longer to live.”  He then spoke of an experience that was “torturing” him, something “dreadful” and “inhuman.”  He had participated in an atrocity that left about 200 Jewish men, women and children, locked in a three-story house burning to death.  He also told of a murder of a family with a small child.  Now, he was begging a Jew to forgive him so he could die in peace.

Wiesenthal was fully convinced that the man’s confession and repentance was real.  It was unforced and it came without any excuses.

What would you do?  That is the moral and spiritual dilemma of The Sunflower.  Do any of us even have the right to forgive sins committed against others?  What do we owe the victims?  Is the crime too heinous to forgive?  Can you forgive the person but not the deeds?  Can you excuse the young soldier but not the evil organizers?

After telling the story, Wiesenthal assembled a symposium of responses by leading intellectuals to the question of what they would have done in his place.  Their responses compose the second half of the book.

Rene Cassin counseled the refusal to forgive, saying, “The zealous repression of crimes against humanity is a duty unlimited by time.” Henry Marcues concluded, “I believe that the easy forgiving of such crimes perpetuates the very evil it wants to alleviate.”

David Daiches wrote, “I don’t see how in any genuinely meaningful sense one individual can offer forgiveness for crimes that were not committed against him.” Constantine FitzGibbon vented, saying, “I think I would strangle him in his bed.”

Edward H. Flannery, a Catholic, averred, “It is clear that forgiveness of repented sin is one of the basic concepts underlying the Judeo-Christian morality as well as universal natural ethics.”

Hans Habe added, “One of the worst crimes of the Nazi regime was that it made it so hard for us to forgive.”

Abraham J. Heschel said, “No one can forgive crimes committed by other people.” Christopher Holis advocated for a word of compassion to the dying German. His reason: “The law of God is the law of love.” Holis noted that the man’s confession revealed his willingness to make restitution if he only could.

John M. Oesterreicher reminded us that only humans are granted the capacity to forgive. He added, “To repent and to forgive are not arrogant struggles to change the course of events, vain attempts to undo what has been done; rather they are daring, loving ventures to offer new meaning to the ’dead’ and deadly past.” In the end, the question still stands.

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The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.

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About the Author:

Joel graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A., completing two majors: Art and Religion. He went on to earn the Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.
  • Claire

    This looks like a must-read, Joel. Thank you for the review.

    I hope I’m never sinned against in so horrible a way as Wiesenthal was. In fact, I think I’ll stop a moment and just be grateful for the unlikelihood of that prospect!

    But I’m a big believer in forgiveness. It’s a truism (because it’s true!) that forgiveness is as important for the one sinned against as for the sinner. Faced with the scenario that Wiesenthal describes, I hope I would have the grace to patiently hear the man’s confession–in the spirit of being a member of the universal priesthood–and extend to him the hope of forgiveness from God even if I couldn’t find it in me to forgive him myself, still less to presume to speak forgiveness on behalf of his more direct victims.

    I was going to say that God’s forgiveness is what really matters anyway, but I think that’s too glib. I wonder what power Jesus granted his disciples when he told them that when they forgave people’s sins they were forgiven (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%2020:19-23&version=NIV). We surely need to ask and grant forgiveness practically every day just to put one foot in front of the other without sinking into a mire of blame or shame or both. But imagine the change that could happen in the world if we actually harnessed the power of that divine commission to forgive.

    • Joelsolliday

      Thanks for the thoughtful AND heartfelt response, Claire. This book (“The Sunflower”)is a must read even though I think maybe the author puts more limits on the experience of forgiveness (giving and receiving it) than I would. Although my practice in forgiving is not always up to my ideal.

  • Rhoda Miller

    The idea that anyone could forgive crimes done to other people is arrogant. Sins against God may be forgiven by God; sins against others can only be forgiven by those who were hurt. Murder is the ultimate sin, since the dead cannot forgive.

  • Joel Solliday

    Thank you kindly, Rhoda, for your comment on a tremendous topic. For me, I hesitate to claim the authority to say who can forgive whom or not. But with forgiveness, there are almost always very tender and touchy perceived injustices at play potentially. And sometimes, “those who are hurt” can be a rather large body of people as the years go by. And as a believer in eternal life, maybe the dead can forgive in some way that I cannot understand. To forgive is indeed divine.

  • yael mandel

    Simon Weisenthal refers several times throughout the book to a young boy named Eli. is he referring to Eli Wiesel?

    • Joel Solliday

      Good question and I don’t know. Sorry.