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The Sunflower Summary

Quick Summary: The Sunflower by Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal is a two-part book which explores the limits of forgiveness. In the first part, Wiesenthal recounts how he got to be asked for forgiveness by a Nazi soldier; in the second, he shares the opinions of 53 people on whether he should have forgiven him or not.

The Sunflower Summary

Who Should Read “The Sunflower”? And Why?

The Sunflower covers, yet again, one of the darkest periods of human history – the Holocaust – juxtaposing it against the backdrop of one of our most humane traits – forgiveness.

If you wonder if the two are incompatible – could you and should you forgive a Nazi – then The Sunflower is the book you should read; as its subtitle suggests, it explores the possibilities and limits of forgiveness, and it does that through more than 50 different pairs of eyes.

After finishing the book, you’ll inevitably lend Wiesenthal (if merely in the quiet repose of your thoughts) another; we dare you not to.

The Sunflower Summary

If you were a Holocaust survivor and were asked by a Nazi soldier on his deathbed for forgiveness, would you have forgotten the way you had been treated, the fate of your close ones, and the smoke above the gas chambers?

Well, for Holocaust survivor and famous Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, this was not merely a thought experiment, but an actual real-life experience.

After recounting it in entirety in the first part of the book, he poses this question to no less than 53 people of varied background; unsurprisingly, their answers differ.

But in order to understand why – first you need to hear the story.

Book One: The Sunflower

The Camp

The Sunflower opens in the Janowska concentration camp, where Simon Wiesenthal spent three years of his life – between the end of 1941 and September 1944 – working as a forced laborer. At the very beginning, he introduces us to his “closest companions”: Arthur and Josek.

Josek is a sensitive and deeply religious guy, a Jew whose “faith could be hurt by the environment of the camp and by the jeers or insinuations of others, but it could never be shaken.” Unsurprisingly, Simon jokingly calls him “Rabbi.”

Unlike him, Arthur has lost his faith in God, and his attitude to life is ironic. Consequently, Arthur is often “irritated by Josek’s placidity and sometimes he even mocked him or was angry with him.”

Simon is somewhere in the middle: to Arthur’s “God has abandoned us” and Josek’s “God is with us,” Simon prefers the bitterly funny comment by an old woman: “God is on leave.” “Let me sleep,” Simon replies upon hearing this from Arthur. “Tell me when He gets back.”

Needless to say, the conditions in the camp are more suited for beasts than for humans. And it is not just the forced labor – it is also the scarcity of food and the cold-hearted and sadistic treatment at the hands of the SS officers.

You know the drill: you work until you can, and when you can’t, you’re shot.

The Hospital

At the height of World War II – and the Holocaust – Simon is transferred from the Janowska concentration camp to a makeshift hospital set up in the very same Technical School where Simon had previously studied architecture.

As Simon travels to his new job, he notices a military cemetery enclosed by a low barbed wire fence. On each grave behind the fence, there is a sunflower, as straight as a soldier on parade.

“I stared spellbound,” recalls Wiesenthal:

The flower heads seemed to absorb the sun’s rays like mirrors and draw them down into the darkness of the ground as my gaze wandered from the sunflower to the grave. It seemed to penetrate the earth, and suddenly I saw before me a periscope. It was gaily colored, and butterflies fluttered from flower to flower. Were they carrying messages from grave to grave? Were they whispering something to each flower to pass on to the soldier below? Yes, this was just what they were doing; the dead were receiving light and messages.

“Suddenly I envied the dead soldiers,” he adds. “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.”

Haunted by these thoughts, Wiesenthal arrives at the makeshift hospital.

And just before he is about to start cleaning medical waste there, a nurse asks him if he is a Jew. After he replies in the affirmative, she carries him to the bedside of a terminally wounded Nazi soldier by the name of Karl Seidl.

The soldier, surprisingly, asks Wiesenthal for forgiveness.

Karl Seidl’s Story

“I must tell you something dreadful… Something inhuman,” Karl says. “It happened a year ago… a year since the crime I committed. I have to talk to someone about it, perhaps that will help. I must tell you of this horrible deed – tell you because… you are a Jew.”

And Karl proceeds to tell his story.

We learn that he had been born in Stuttgart twenty-one years before his conversation with Simon. His father had been a convicted Social Democrat, and his mother – a Catholic.

That’s why, neither of them was happy when Karl joined the Hitler Youth, where, by his own admission, his days were full, since he had found both friends and comrades.

Soon after the beginning of the war, Karl made the next, almost natural, step in his career: he started volunteering in the SS.

And then came the crime.

One day, about three hundred Jews were forced into a house. The house was then set on fire. Karl was one of the SS-officers tasked with shooting at those who would try to escape.

“Behind the windows of the second floor,” he goes on, “I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the mother of the child. With his free hand, the man covered the child’s eyes… then he jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. Then from the other windows fell burning bodies… We shot… Oh God!”

Karl remained haunted by the sight.

And one day, while fighting in Crimea, this image came back to him: climbing out of the trenches near Taganrog, the memory of the burning family seized him, and he suddenly lost all will to fight.

And then a shell exploded by his side.

Simon’s Answer

“I lie here waiting for death,” Karl says after recounting his experiences. “The pains in my body are terrible, but worse still is my conscience. It never ceases to remind me of the burning house and the family that jumped from the window.”

“I cannot die,” he goes on, “without coming clean. This must be my confession… I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him.”

“I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer, I cannot die in peace.”

While Karl is telling his story, Simon, though disgusted and at times all but determined to leave, holds Karl’s hand and shoos a fly away from his rotting body.

And now, after he is finished, Simon is so taken aback that he doesn’t know what to say.

So, he doesn’t say anything.

“I stood up and looked in his direction,” writes Wiesenthal, at his folded hands. Between them, there seemed to rest a sunflower. At last, I made up my mind and without a word I left the room.”

The next day, he returns to the hospital only to find out from the nurse that Karl died in the night.

Surprisingly, he left him all of his possessions, in addition to his mother’s address. Simon refuses to take anything telling the nurse to send the bundle at the address, to Karl’s mother.

The Outcome

After rejoining his friends at the camp, Simon retells them the story above. All of them are quite happy with the outcome, and even Josek is pretty glad that Simon decided not to forgive Karl – we can’t forgive sins on behalf of other people, he says to him.

During the next two years, both Josek and Arthur die.

So, one night, Simon, still haunted by his experiences with Karl, recounts this same story to a recent inmate, a young Catholic Pole named Bolek.

“It is true that you can only forgive a wrong that has been done to yourself,” Bolek says to Simon. “Yet on the other hand: whom had the SS man to turn to? None of those he had wronged were still alive.”

In other words, in Bolek’s opinion, Simon should have forgiven Karl, as difficult as it seemed to him at the time.

“Here was a dying man repenting for his sins,” concludes Bolek, “and you failed to grant his last request.”

Simon is liberated in 1945, and one day, a sunflower reminds him of Karl and his mother’s address. He goes there and, in discussion with her, he realizes that Karl’s mother still believes that her son died an innocent young man.

“I can well believe what people said,” she says to Wiesenthal, “so many dreadful things happened. But one thing is certain, Karl never did any wrong. He was always a decent young man.”

Simon doesn’t reveal to her the truth about Karl.

Once again, he remains silent, choosing not to diminish her faith in the goodness of her son.

The Question

“There are many kinds of silence,” concludes Wiesenthal. “Indeed it can be more eloquent than words, and it can be interpreted in many ways.”

“Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong?” Simon asks, before directing this question to the reader of his book:

This is a profound moral question that challenges the conscience of the reader of this episode, just as much as it once challenged my heart and my mind. There are those who can appreciate my dilemma, and so endorse my attitude, and there are others who will be ready to condemn me for refusing to ease the last moment of a repentant murderer.
The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.
You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, ‘What would I have done?’

Book Two: The Symposium

In the second part of Wiesenthal’s book, 53 people – from writers to architects, from jurists to human rights activists, from Holocaust survivors to former Nazis, from religious to political leaders, from victims of the genocide in Bosnia to victims of the genocide in Tibet – try to answer this question.

And these are their answers.

Undecided

9 of the interviewed people don’t really give an answer, choosing not to say definitely if forgiveness was the right or the wrong thing to do in the situation.

These 9 come from very different backgrounds: three of them are Judaists, four Christians (Protestant, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic), one a Muslim, and one not a religious person.

It is the answer of the last one – Hubert G. Locke – which we feel that, somehow, sums up the opinion of these nine: perhaps Simon’s silence was the right answer, if not the only imaginable one.

“If God was silent,” writes Locke, “dare any of us speak?”

NameNationalityProfessionReligion
Hubert G. Locke AmericanProfessor; Holocaust scholar /
Dorothee Sölle German Theologian; Author Lutheran
Robert M. Brown American Professor of Theology and Ethics Presbyterian
Hans Habe AustrianAuthor; Publisher; Jewish descent Protestant
Eugene J. Fisher AmericanCatholic Bishop Roman Catholic
Smail Balić Bosnian-Austrian Historian Islam
Sven Alkalaj Bosnian Diplomat and politician Judaism
Jean Améry Austrian Holocaust survivor; EssayistJudaism
Yossi Klein Halevi Israeli Son of Holocaust survivor; AuthorJudaism

Not to Forgive

34 out of 53 respondents – which is about 65% of the interviewees – gave a negative answer to Simon Wiesenthal’s question: in their opinion, you shouldn’t forgive one if he merely repents for his sins.

Interestingly enough, most of these 34 respondents are Judaists: 19 to be exact. And this makes sense since their “no” is connected to Judaism’s fundamental idea regarding forgiveness, the one uttered by Josek to Simon in the camp.

Namely, that only those who have been sinned against can forgive the sinners. If one is killed, the perpetrator can never be forgiven – at least here, on Earth.

Even a non-religious person such as Bulgarian-French polymath Tzvetan Todorov shares this opinion, summing it up thus:

The only one who can forgive is the one who has experienced the injury. Every extension by analogy, from the individual to the group, seems to me illegitimate: one cannot forgive by proxy any more than one can be a victim by association or uphold the existence of a collective guilt. Therefore, murder, by definition, cannot be forgiven: the injured party is no longer there to do it. I should add that, since I was not raised as a believing Christian, I have never considered absolution as an essential element of life; justice and morality are far more important to me.

Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor himself, offers yet another reason: “the figure of the SS man as portrayed in [Simon’s] book does not appear as fully reinstated from the moral point of view.”

Why?

Because he’s asking for a Jew to utter his forgiveness – any Jew; meaning, even on his deathbed, he still doesn’t think of the Jewish people as anything other than a distinguishable half-human group of people, which is how everything began in the first place.

Name Nationality Profession Religion
Alan L. Berger AmericanProfessor of the Holocaust /
Robert Coles American Author; Psychiatrist; Professor /
Eva Fleischner AustrianProfessor of Religion; Author /
Lawrence L. Langer American Scholar; Professor; Holocaust analyst/
Erich H. Loewy AustrianProfessor of Bioethics /
Terence Prittie British Journalist; Author/
Joshua Rubenstein AmericanAmnesty International USA /
Albert Speer German Chief Architect to Adolf Hitler /
Tzvetan Todorov BulgarianHistorian; Philosopher; Sociologist /
Harry Wu American Chinese labor camps survivor/
Matthew Fox AmericanProfessor; Priest Episcopalian
Franklin H. Littell American Holocaust scholar;Methodist
Harry J. Cargas American Professor; Holocaust scholar; Author Roman Catholic
Mary Gordon American Professor of English Roman Catholic
John Pawlikowski American Priest; Professor of Social EthicsRoman Catholic
Moshe Bejski Israeli Holocaust survivor; JudgeJudaism
Mark Goulden British Journalist; Publisher Judaism
Susannah Heschel American Professor of Jewish StudiesJudaism
Rodger Kamenetz American Poet; Professor of Religious StudiesJudaism
Primo Levi Italian Author; Chemist; Holocaust survivor Judaism
Deborah E. Lipstadt American Historian; Professor; Holocaust scholar Judaism
Herbert Marcuse German Philosopher; Political theorist Judaism
Cynthia Ozick American Author Judaism
Sidney Shachnow American Major General; Holocaust survivor Judaism
Manès Sperber Austrian-French Author; Psychologist Judaism
André Stein CanadianPsychotherapist; Holocaust survivor Judaism
Nechama Tec American Sociologist; Holocaust survivor Judaism
Joseph Telushkin American Rabbi Judaism
Arthur Waskow American Rabbi; Political activist Judaism
Arthur Hertzberg American Rabbi; Author; Scholar; Activist Judaism (Cons.)
Harold S. Kushner American Rabbi; Author Judaism (Cons.)
Rebecca Goldstein American Philosopher; Author Judaism (Orth.)
Dennis Prager American Author; Theologian Judaism (Orth.)
Abraham J. Heschel American Rabbi; Philosopher; Professor Judaism (Orth.)

To Forgive

And then there are the 10 forgivers.

Almost unsurprisingly, just like Bolek, most of them are Christians, and the other three are Buddhists.

All of them think that though difficult, the answer to Simon’s question is “yes, he should have forgiven Karl.”

Why?

Well, first of all, because forgiveness is the only path toward a more peaceful future, and because it is not the same as forgetfulness.

Also, because forgiveness gives peace of mind to the forgiver as well – and Simon Wiesenthal doesn’t deserve to be haunted by Karl’s memory; forgiving him may have helped him more than not forgiving him.

The Dalai Lama retells “an interesting incident” to make his point (made in The Art of Happiness as well):

A few years back, a Tibetan monk who had served about eighteen years in a Chinese prison in Tibet came to see me after his escape to India. I knew him from my days in Tibet and remember last seeing him in 1959. During the course of that meeting, I had asked him what he felt was the biggest threat or danger while he was in prison. I was amazed by his answer. It was extraordinary and inspiring. I was expecting him to say something else; instead, he said that what he most feared was losing his compassion for the Chinese.

Desmond Tutu, the coauthor with the Dalai Lama of The Book of Joy, concurs, reminding the readers of Jesus’s words on the cross – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” – and of a similar example to the one offered by Tenzin Gyatso.

Namely, his very own president: Nelson Mandela.

It was him forgiving the whites (who took 27 years of his life) which made South Africa the country that it is today.

NameNationalityProfessionReligion
Dith Pran Cambodian Survivor of Cambodian genocide Buddhism
The Dalai LamaTibetan Spiritual leader; Nobel LaureateBuddhism
Matthieu Ricard French Buddhist Monk; PhD in Genetics Buddhism
Desmond Tutu South African Anglican Bishop; Nobel LaureateAnglican
Martin E. Marty American Religious scholar Lutheran
Edward H. Flannery American Catholic PriestRoman Catholic
Theodore M. Hesburgh American Priest; ProfessorRoman Catholic
José Hobday American Franciscan nun Roman Catholic
Christopher Hollis British Journalist; Member of Parliament Roman Catholic
Cardinal Franz König Austrian Cardinal; Archbishop of ViennaRoman Catholic

Key Lessons from “The Sunflower”

1.      Would You Forgive Your Tormentor If He Sincerely Asked You To?
2.      Judaists Think That There’s a Limit to Forgiveness
3.      Christians and Buddhists Believe That Forgiveness Is Always the Rightful Path

Would You Forgive Your Tormentor If He Sincerely Asked You To?

The question posed in the title of this lesson is the reason why Simon Wiesenthal wrote and published The Sunflower.

It is an event which has haunted him to this very day: back in 1943, a terminally wounded Nazi soldier asked him to forgive his sins in the name of all Jews.

Simon remained silent.

What would you do? – he asks after telling his story.

Judaists Think That There’s a Limit to Forgiveness

Most of Simon’s Judaist friends think that his silence was the best answer possible: under no circumstance, he was allowed to forgive the Nazi soldiers.

They offer two reasons: 1) repentance doesn’t mean salvation per se; and, more importantly, 2) nobody is entitled to forgive someone else’s sins.

Christians and Buddhists Believe That Forgiveness Is Always the Rightful Path

Even though they acknowledge the difficulty of the situation, most of the Christians and Buddhists asked by Simon Wiesenthal chose a different path: forgiving the Nazi soldier.

They too have reasons, at least three of them: 1) forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting; 2) a murderer can’t be forgiven by his victim by definition; and 3) we’ll never attain peace (both individually and as a humanity) unless we learn to forgive each other.

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The Sunflower Quotes

I am prepared to believe that God created a Jew out of this tear-soaked clod of earth, but do you expect me to believe He also made our camp commandant, Wilhaus, out of the same material? Click To Tweet Those Jews died quickly; they did not suffer as I do – though they were not as guilty as I am. Click To Tweet Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision. Click To Tweet ’What do you think of that, Simon?’ he asked. ‘God is on leave.’ ‘Let me sleep,’ I replied. ‘Tell me when He gets back.’ Click To Tweet

Final Notes

Touching and thought-provoking, The Sunflower is a unique book.

Both a memoir and a symposium, it is certainly one of the most haunting books you’ll ever read, not merely because of its story, but also (and maybe even more) because of the question it poses and the differing answers this question instigates among various people.

In case you wonder, we still don’t have one.

But, we guess, that’s why some books are better than others: when their authors don’t have an answer, they are satisfied with merely posing the right questions.

And Simon Wiesenthal’s question is one of the most difficult you’ll ever have to think about.

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