Over the weekend, I read a book that’ll be with me for a long time: Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, recounts the relentless horror of life in concentration camps. He doesn’t gloss over the Nazi dehumanization of the Jews during WWII. But his text is no mere historical reflection. Instead, as the text’s subtitle indicates, he writes a stirring reflection “on the possibilities and limits of forgiveness.”
During his imprisonment, Wiesenthal was assigned as a part of a manual labor crew at a Nazi military hospital. While he was working one day, a nurse pulled him from his crew and asked him to follow her. She took him to the bedside of Karl, an SS soldier who was dying. On his deathbed, Karl sought absolution for the senseless violence he’d inflicted upon the Jews in his short life. In particular, Karl describes his participation in the gruesome annihilation of hundreds of Jews who were burned alive in a three-story building. Haunted by such memories, Karl’s dying request was that a Jew hear his sincere confession and forgive him for these horrific crimes against humanity.
Wiesenthal’s text purposefully creates a moral dilemma for its readers. If you were in his shoes, what would you do? Should forgiveness be offered to a remorseful individual, no matter how inhumane their crimes? And if his crimes are unforgivable, where do you draw the line? What if he’d merely tortured Jews instead of killing them? Should he be forgiven for a less heinous, less lethal crime? And beyond the question of whether you “should” forgive is the matter of whether or not you “could”. If you were in this situation, could you forgive this man for crimes he committed against someone else? Would you have any right to offer that kind of forgiveness? Does our responsibility to the victims preclude our desire to be merciful?
In that moment, Wiesenthal did what he thought was best. (I’ll not tell you, in case you decide to read it for yourself.) But he continued to wrestle with the implications of this encounter for the rest of his life. The narrative itself describing Simon’s concentration camp experience and his encounter with Karl is roughly 100 pages; the final 100 pages or so are made up of response essays from a variety of individuals: politicians, theologians, Jews, Christians, atheists, moral teachers…all of whom weigh in with their opinions on what they would have done in this unique situation. I’d encourage you to pick up a copy from your local library. You’ll probably be able to breeze through it in an evening, but I promise the text will stay with you for much longer.
Certainly the question of forgiveness is complex, even knotty at times. It seems that more often than not, the forgiveness discussion leaves the realm of the abstract and quickly becomes rooted in the harsh realities of the world we live in. But this is a good thing; this discussion needs meat on the bones. We desperately need to understand what the enfleshed Gospel looks like in our midst. Reading The Sunflower reminds me of the power of forgiveness to liberate both the receiver and the giver. I guess I tend to believe in the possibilities of forgiveness over against its limits.