In the Sunflower, Wiesenthal recounts his experience in a Polish Nazi Concentration Camp where a dying SS guard asks him forgiveness for an atrocity he committed. The event encapsulates what becomes Wiesenthal’s theme the rest of his life: Justice.
I thought this book was about forgiveness. The reader is affronted heavily throughout the book with the question, “should Wiesenthal forgive the SS guard?” “Is it right for someone to forgive something that wasn’t committed against him?” “Is deathbed repentance truly atoning for the sins committed?” Really, Weisenthal was more concerned with what is just. Would it have been justice to the Jew for forgiveness to be relinquished by Wienthal? When a debt is a life, can it be repaid, and by forgiving the transgressor is one not just committing another atrocity against the victim party?
Wiesenthal uses the sunflower as a symbol of the injustice. He describes the sunflower throughout the book. First encountering it on a sojourn out of the camp to a hospital for the day’s work, the party stops to look out over a German army cemetary. Each gravesite has as its companion a sunflower. “Suddenly, I envied the dead soldiers. Each had a sunflower to connect him with the living world, and butterflies to visit his grave. For me there would be no sunflower. I would be buried in a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me. No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb.” the sunflower represented, even in death, the injustice between the Jew and the German. From birth until death, the Jew was stereotyped, shunned, and ridiculed. Hitler Youth would beat them with razor-laden sticks. Neighbors would hold protests at local businesses and usurp their work positions. Students prevented them from taking their finals and progressing in school. Then they were eventually sent to camps and worked to death or slaughtered. And, finally, in death, they received no flower as for their epitaph.
The dilemma is razored to a fine edge with the SS soldier’s plea. The injustice is as thick and heavy as the death chamber’s air.
The question plagues Wiesenthal the rest of his life. He goes on to become a “Nazi Hunter”, and helps to track down perpetrators to be tried for war crimes, thus living out his lifelong search to find justice in an injust world.
If you were in his place to forgive the soldier, what would you have done?