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The Sunflower

On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

By Simon Wiesenthal
10-minute read
Audio available
The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal

The Sunflower (1969) is an important exploration of forgiveness – both its possibilities and its limitations. We join the author as he attempts to find an answer to an extremely complex question: Can a Jewish concentration camp prisoner forgive a Nazi soldier on his deathbed? There is a range of opinions – from people like Primo Levi and the Dalai Lama – but is there a right answer?

  • Humanitarians seeking to understand humanity’s potential for good and evil
  • Skeptics who may not believe in the power of forgiveness
  • Pacifists wondering how to end our history of violence

Simon Wiesenthal was a Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life to bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. He has published many books on the topic, including The Murderers Among Us and Justice Not Vengeance, and been internationally lauded for this work. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which fights for Jewish human rights, is based in Los Angeles.

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The Sunflower

On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

By Simon Wiesenthal
  • Read in 10 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 6 key ideas
The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal
Synopsis

The Sunflower (1969) is an important exploration of forgiveness – both its possibilities and its limitations. We join the author as he attempts to find an answer to an extremely complex question: Can a Jewish concentration camp prisoner forgive a Nazi soldier on his deathbed? There is a range of opinions – from people like Primo Levi and the Dalai Lama – but is there a right answer?

Key idea 1 of 6

Some of our experiences and decisions stay with us forever.

In 1943, many Europeans were dealing with the ongoing death and destruction of World War II. One of these people, a Jewish prisoner at the Lemberg concentration camp in German-occupied Poland, was Simon Wiesenthal.

The possibility of death hung over Wiesenthal and his fellow prisoners every day, who were condemned to hard labor with almost no food. One day, however, Wiesenthal was unexpectedly confronted with a different, more philosophical dilemma.

He was sent to work at a hospital, and when he arrived a nurse pulled him aside and brought him face-to-face with a Nazi soldier named Karl Seidl. Fatally wounded, Seidl lay on his deathbed; he wanted to atone for his sins and confess his crimes to a Jew.

Wiesenthal found himself in a surreal situation. He had to listen to Seidl’s life story – a long confession from one of the people responsible for the torture and mass annihilation of his own people.

Seidl was filled with self-pity and remorse as he told Wiesenthal about his idyllic Catholic upbringing and his life story since joining the Nazi party. He was brought up by loving parents, and his father was a Social Democrat who opposed Hitler and the Nazi party. But as a young man, Seidl got caught up in the excitement and joined the Hitler Youth and, later, the SS.

Seidl described the events he felt most guilty about. In a small Russian town, he and his fellow soldiers were ordered to gather 300 Jews – primarily women, children and the elderly – and lock them in a building. The soldiers then burned the building to the ground, shooting and killing anyone who tried to escape.

Seidl was horrified by this event and, soon afterward, received the fatal injury he was now dying from. As he explained to Wiesenthal, he could not die in peace without first being granted forgiveness by a Jew.

The Nazi’s plea for forgiveness entailed complex questions about both the power and limits of forgiveness.

So what was Wiesenthal to do?

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