The Sunflower

Famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal died yesterday (Tuesday, 9/20).

He wrote a book called “The Sunflower” detailing an episode of his in the German concentration camp in which he was imprisoned.

He was summoned one day to the deathbed of a Nazi SS man. The German wanted a Jew to confess a horrible war crime to, specifically an incident in which he took part where some 200 Jews (men, women, children) were rounded up and forced into a home which was then burned to the ground. Those trying to escape through the windows were machine-gunned.

He was seeking forgiveness before he died. “I know,” said the SS man to Wiesenthal, “that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”

From “The Sunflower”:

“Here lay a man in bed who wished to die in peace – but he could not, because the memory of his terrible crime gave him no rest. And by him sat a man also doomed to die – but who did not want to die because he yearned to see the end of all the horror that blighted the world.

Two men who had never known each other had been brought together for a few hours by Fate. One asks the other for help. But the other was helpless and able to do nothing for him.

I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands.

At last I made up my mind and without a word I left the room.”

What would you have done?

Forgive him. And Simon probably thought so too, for why else would he visit the man’s mother after so many years, and then have written the book?


I don’t think I would forgive him if the particular incident he was talking about had nothing to do with me. I mean, if it wasn’t my family or friends or me in that house, my forgiveness would just be an empty token to make him feel better, wouldn’t it? Especially if I was going right back to the camp after I was done forgiving him. I think it would feel hollow and fake to forgive him for a crime against strangers, and I’d tell him so. If I was more intimately connected to the incident, or an incident like it, then I know I OUGHT to forgive, but it would be very hard to resist walking out, and sticking that last knife in him before he died.

Repentance (transformation) is forgiveness in itself.


I couldn’t forgive someone for something that they were still doing! It’s very presumptuous to seek absolution for a crime you’re still participating in even as you die. :unamused:

The dying man failed to see that forgiveness cannot come from without, but within. True contrition happens only once and in that moment, we forgive ourselves. Wiesenthal could not release the mans guilt even if he had tried. The man died not understanding forgiveness.


This is correct but the story is about Wiesenthal – not about a repentant Nazi.

The act of forgiving does not release the perpetrator from his crimes; it can only release the victim from his mental concentration camp of hate.
One can hate the actions of a mad man without hating the person.

Far more profound, Wiesenthal died not understanding forgiveness — he chose to remain imprisoned for the rest of his life.


Far more profound, Wiesenthal died not understanding forgiveness — he chose to remain imprisoned for the rest of his life.

This is an interesting point. One wonders if he had made that little jesture and actually forgiven the man, if he would have spent a large portion of his life hunting down escaped Nazis.


This is a question that has a chance to open something up inside. It requires whoever answers it to try and step beyond their ordinary perspective. Implicit in the question is another: can I really see myself?

So here is this dying man and he appears to be asking me for forgiveness for participating in an unforgivable act. I have to dig deeper. What is he really seeking? What do I have that I can give him? I can give him my presence and my patience. I can be as fully present with him as possible. There is something emerging in this man. Something that is trying to come into being. He is breaking apart. The guilt has cracked his shell. If I am spiteful I could try to hurt him and that would probably kill whatever was coming into being. Or I could give him what he thinks he wants. I could give him a pat forgiveness and then he will just patch up that crack and give it no more thought.

No, what I have to give him is a chance. I would want to be a facilitator to his own self-moving process of transformation. That would be the best that I could do for him. I would be as a mid-wife for his new self that is trying to emerge from the old. To be with it, give it space, acknowledge it and let it become as it must. A gardener cannot make a seed grow. The seed will grow or not by its own power. All he can do is give the seed a chance.


If the SS man had said “I want to ask forgiveness because I am truly sorry for what I have done” then perhaps it would be different. But he wanted forgiveness so he could die in peace. He did not deserve to die in peace just because he wanted to. I believe Wiesenthal (z’'l) was right not to forgive him.

  • ben


“I want to ask forgiveness because I am truly sorry for what I have done” then perhaps it would be different.

So these are the magic words, and the words:

“I cannot die…without coming clean. This must be my confession. But what sort of confession is this? A letter without an answer…Believe me, I would be ready to suffer worse and longer pains if by that means I could bring back the dead, at Dnepropetrovsk…I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for my death, time and time again I have longed to talk to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him…”

don’t qualify? Why?



Forgive me for I have not read the book in question, my response was only to the original quotation. If forgiveness was asked for its own sake then the situation is different. Surely that’s crucial information that was left out of the original post?

It’s possible that even this attempt at reconciliation was as a result of the dying man’s realisation that death was near and so too, judgement. I guess only he will every truly know his intentions.

  • ben


I guess only he will every truly know his intentions.

Even he may not have fully known his intentions and motivations. The question is: what is the act of forgiveness?, what does it do? to and for whom? Did Simon Wiesenthal loose out by holding out? It seems to me that even though Mr. Wiesenthal had every legitimate reason not to forgive, every moral advantage on his side, that small hesitancy may have had great effect on his own life. The book was published with about 40 short essayed responses from around the world, from everyone from the Dalai Lama to Albert Speer. It is interesting to note that I believe every Jewish respondent agreed that forgiveness was not appropriate. It is an interesting book to read for those interested in real world ethics.



I hear what you are saying. Perhaps Wiesenthal was affected by this decision or perhaps this disposition was already there and is what lead him to a) not forgive and b) dedicate his life to hunting down nazis. You say it like his failure to forgive was a negative. Do you think his quest in bringing nazis to justice was a negative one?

This is perhaps because of the way most Jews relate to the topic of the Holocaust. It goes in its own category. The concept of forgiveness is different to that of Christianity and I suppose other religions. The idea of forgiving a Nazi is almost unthinkable. Perhaps this will change as the generations go by and the topic starts to become less personal. It might already be changing.

  • ben


You say it like his failure to forgive was a negative. Do you think his quest in bringing nazis to justice was a negative one?

I think that there are grades of potentiality and perhaps no real place to stand and assess them, so I cannot say that such a justice/vengeance quest was a negative. It certainly was legitimate. But I do wonder how much of his life came to be defined by it, and I wonder if his life may have become something more with a few less Nazis caught, and whatever that remarkable mind and soul might have accomplished with a different focus.

This is perhaps because of the way most Jews relate to the topic of the Holocaust. It goes in its own category.

I agree. Most certainly as a Jew I don’t think Simon Wiesenthal, or any Jew could have forgiven a Nazi. In fact several Jewish essayists suggest that this idea that he should have is from a morality that Jews do not possess, for a murderer cannot be forgiven in Judaism, since forgiveness comes from the person wronged, and a dead man cannot forgive. Some stress that it is rather under Christian conceptions of forgiveness that the possibility to forgive is asserted, something that would not apply to a Jew.

I would argue though that it is not just the Christian view of forgiveness that indicates this, but also a Buddhist one, and also perhaps more significantly, a Humanist one. In Humanism, a general ethical theory of the universal equality, to a very great measure historically influenced by Christianity in Europe but not defined by or restricted to Christianity, such a move from a ethnically - that is regionally and historically - defined morality such as that of Judaism, (but also that of dogma-specific Christianity), to a larger-set morality that transcends those local limits, might be a legitimate moral argument. That whenever possible to move towards human (and perhaps greater) compassion, away from the traditions and codes that prevent this could be an worthy imperative. The personal and communal identification of contemporary Jews with the Holocaust is a significant remembrance and devotion. But one wonders if in denying the SS officer forgiveness Simon Wiesenthal was perpetuating the exact thing that the Nazis had taken to a brutal limit: the inability to see the other as yourself.


Ben, this is a perfect example of the conflict of goals between the esoteric and the secular. What does it mean to forgive?

From the secular perspective there are subjective views of forgiveness according to our standards. Should a loyal wife forgive a cheating husband? You can argue that forever and still argue over it and opinions will differ since forgiveness from the secular perspective is related to what defines our self importance.

Yet from the esoteric perspective, holding a grudge from what ever the impulse is an expression of egotism that denies ones inner life. So no matter what the cause the goal is to be able to forgive simply because the inability keeps us in inner slavery.

Naturally this provokes accusations of failing to care, insensitivity, elitism, and the whole nine yards but in reality it is just the realization of our inner slavery, of reactive life normal for Plato’s cave.

Secularists mistakenly think that Jesus saying forgive them for they know not what they do is suggestive of how we should act but it is much deeper than that. Lack of forgiveness just keeps one in the hold of egotism denying man’s inner right to the change of being capable for man. It no longer is a question of what to forgive but the personal realization of what is lost in relation to our being through lack of forgiveness regardless of the perceived cause. Naturally this sets up an inner tension. From the esoteric perspective a person sees the value of forgiveness but our conditioning denies it. Welcome to the human dilemma,

The secular position allows for heated discussion as what should be forgiven or what is a genuine insult that cannot be tolerated while in contrast, the esoteric position just considers becoming a slave to insult and threats against perceived self importance as personal slavery one wishes to free themselves of so as to be themselves. So instead of arguing over who is right or wrong, people discuss how we can get out of this mess so as to become our potential.

Forgiveness can be discussed or argued about from two entirely different perspectives each requiring a different attitude and having little in common…

I read “The Sunflower” a long time ago. I began this topic about it mainly because it was my feeling that no self-respecting philosophy board should allow Wiesenthal’s death to go by unnoticed. His book is an important contribution and Dunamis is right to call it an interesting book to read for those interested in real world ethics. I would only add my belief that that should include us all.

As for my opinion as to what Wiesenthal should have done? I didn’t have an answer when I originally read The Sunflower, and I still do not.

To me it seems ludicrous to think that Wiesenthal could step in on behalf of others and provide forgiveness on their behalf. It says something about the SS officer that he felt this was even possible. Thinking that asking a Jew – and apparently any Jew would suffice (they all must be the same, after all, and one can speak for all) – for forgiveness on behalf of other Jews is indicative of a mentality that clearly could not have been in any serious stage of meaningful transformation.

It only remains then as to what would have been the best thing to do for Wiesenthal himself. Would granting forgiveness (such that he could) have changed him, and therefore his life, altering his future course as Nazi hunter? Who can say. I do have to point out that Wiesenthal’s major interest, as he said many times, was not so much the hunting of Nazis, as it was making sure that the deaths of the millions of Jews would never be forgotten. The Nazi hunting was a logical extension of this idea.

Did he, as he was contemplating his answer, and it seems as I read the account that there was serious contemplation, see himself to any degree in the SS officer? This “seeing the other as yourself” is especially fascinating to me. I started a topic not long ago in Philosophy (“Spontaneous Compassion”) about this very subject. It didn’t really go anywhere but that didn’t lessen my fascination. The question is an important one I think. Was he blind to it? Were the atrocities of the Nazis, atrocities that he had witnessed first-hand, enough to render the humanness of the SS officer completely unrecognizable to him? Or did he “see himself in the other” yet remain silent anyway?

It is impossible to say. And it is therefore impossible to say what Wiesenthal should have done and presumptuous, I believe, to say with certainty what we would have done given the same set of circumstances.


The Nazi hunting was a logical extension of this idea.

In what way was hunting Nazis a “logical extension” of the idea of remembrance? Do you simply mean that if you want to hunt Nazis one can justify your hunting under the moral auspices of “remembrance”? Or do you mean something more than this? Do you mean that if you are going to remember the Holocaust, you must logically hunt down Nazis. There are after all many ways of remembering.


I think it inconsistent to, on one hand, press the argument that the holocaust was something so terrible that we must never forget it lest it happen again, and then say, oh but the people who carried it out who are still alive might as well just be allowed to live their lives in peace as if they did nothing wrong. Wiesenthal was being consistent.


The question isn’t whether he was being consistent. The question is whether such hunting is a logical necessity of remembrance, or rather “not forgetting”. Should we perhaps, once all these Nazis have died, then once a year sacrifice one of their offspring in a World Wide Remembrance Ceremony (WWRC), that can be somberly televised? Or perhaps a German citizen chosen by lot?