Thoughs on The Sunflower

   Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower recounts his experience as a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. In the book, readers walk with Wiesenthal as he recalls those people and events that stand out most to him. Obviously, having the opportunity to share these memories separates Wiesenthal from so many of those close to him whose livelihoods and very lives were taken away during this time. Any familiarity with the events of the Holocaust will bring light to many of the descriptions of life in the concentration camps presented by Wiesenthal. People will have heard of the gruesome and inhumane descriptions of daily activity in these camps, but most likely have never considered an account specific to The Sunflower.

   Among other things, enduring starvation, hatred, injustice and the very real, very near threat of death are common elements to Holocaust survival stories. What is unique about Wiesenthal’s story is his encounter with a dying Nazi soldier. The young soldier has participated in the work and mission of the SS. Now, lying on what is to be his deathbed, he awaits the fulfillment of his personal request: to confess what he has done and seek forgiveness from a Jewish person. Wiesenthal becomes that person who hears this most private confession. The reader knows where this unlikely conversation is moving towards, but shares with Wiesenthal as he struggles to understand why he is with this man and why the soldier is disclosing this information, and what should he be thinking all the while.

   Finally, the dying man offers his intent. Wiesenthal responds with silence. The remainder of the story centers on his reflection of that experience. Some in his company refuse to affirm any of his second thoughts on the matter while still others sympathize with his inner struggle. Long after the hours spent with the dying Nazi, Wiesenthal is left with the implications of his decision, or non-decision. Freedom from his time spent as a Nazi prisoner did not eliminate his questioning. An important image for Wiesenthal continued to be the sunflower; he remembered them placed on the graves of Nazi soldiers. Seeing a sunflower in freedom reminded him of many things—his dying soldier being one of them.

   Now, his struggle with the experience finds him at the doorstep of the mother of the young SS member. Karl, as Wiesenthal is introduced to him, was a good son and most loved by his mother. Wiesenthal is presented with another question. This question is his to ask: should he share with Karl’s mother the conversation that has so impacted him? Silence is once again his answer. An intriguing life story ends in this manner. However, the questions remain and are only brought to new heights by the conclusion of The Sunflower. Readers are not left wondering what Wiesenthal might have done; we know his actions and some of the notions behind them. What readers are left to wonder is the question Wiesenthal leaves with them. Exchanging places with Wiesenthal, the reader must ask, “What would I have done?”

   The book itself is a short account—only ninety-eight pages. The next almost two hundred pages are answers others have provided to that personal question. That speaks, in part, to the great importance of forgiveness presented in The Sunflower. At first my initial response is more of a defense. How could Wiesenthal be willing to ask me that question? He knows suffering, innocent suffering far beyond anything I could ever understand. My worst experiences do not belong in the same category of affliction or anguish in his best experiences during the Holocaust. It is unfair to ask that question to me. After my ranting, however, I discover another call quite similar—the call of our Lord. His call to “Follow me” seems to bare the same qualities of Wiesenthal’s question. Again my worst day doesn’t compare at all to the best of Jesus’ worst day as he suffered. Yet, I find myself committed, and seeking to recommit daily, to “take up” my own cross. While I may never understand the suffering of Jesus, I am not persuaded to deny his call. So, I should only see Wiesenthal’s question as one God might offer to us as well.

   Sure, no one wants to endure such hardships like those presented in The Sunflower, and most of us will not have to. That doesn’t exclude us from considering our own limits of forgiveness. We will suffer our own, and our limits will appear, or not. My surface answer: I would hope I would offer a notion of forgiveness to the soldier, but, not having such an extreme experience, I do not know. The deeper response requires me to acknowledge where I see my faith strong and where I know my faith has holes. I can’t keep from letting my spouse upset me from time to time, or relinquish my tendency to procrastinate. These are simple things my faith would have me improve. Would I be able to recognize then an opportunity like Wiesenthal’s to stand for a profound tenet like forgiveness? “Father, forgive them” would seem just a tad easier thing to do considering Jesus knew a few things about his world.

   I know a few things as well. Forgiveness is a part of my faith, our faith. It is a part of humanity. Neglecting forgiveness furthers our brokenness. I know, in my experience, no bad has stemmed from someone’s ability to forgive me, or me someone else. Forgiveness does not depend on my mood, who is seeking (or not seeking) forgiveness or what circumstances surround the offer of forgiveness. My forgiveness and yours brings peace. Peace is not always visible, not always immediate and does not come without pain. What in life isn’t or doesn’t? I know I am given many opportunities to make and accept peace. I know I have accepted many of those and floundered many others. My desire, however, is God’s Peace. To that end, my faith would have me respond with compassion to the dying man’s wishes, recognizing humanity in him. As hurtful as his confession would have been to hear, so was his own contemplation of his actions. I can relate. The world screams for peace in many ways. Karl joined that chorus. I know I am learning to sing, too.

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