The following is an archived online reading group discussion on:

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, by Simon Wiesenthal,
and the issue of forgiveness. See also the questions for discussion below.

The Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal — opening discussion

Dr. Eugene J. Fisher — our first moderator

Dr. Alan L. Berger — our second moderator

Roger Kamenetz — our third moderator

Prof. Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies of the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College, presents an interesting perspective on Jewish values and forgiveness on a very contemporary issue.

Questions for Discussion

  1. "In his confession there was true repentance," writes Wiesenthal (p. 53). Not all of the commentators agree. Many of them think Karl was angling for "cheap grace," and that his remorse exists only because he finds himself facing death

    With whose point of view do you agree? Do you think, as does literary critic Tzvetan Todorov (p. 251), that the very fact of Karl's expressing remorse makes him exceptional and therefore deserving of respect?

  2. Eva Fleischner found that almost without exception, her Christian students "come out in favor of forgiveness, while the Jewish students feel that Simon did the right thing by not granting the dying man's wish" (p. 139). Are the Christian and Jewish writers in this volume similarly divided? Do their differences stem from first-hand experience, or from different notions of sin and repentance, as Dennis Prager suggests? Do any writers in this book serious suggest forgiveness — and why? Do you believe, with political theorist Herbert Marcuse, that "the easy forgiving of such crimes perpetuates the very evil it wants to alleviate" (p. 198).

  3. Did the mother of the SS man, by her passivity, acquiesce in her son's crimes? Wiesenthal says that people who wanted "only peace and quiet" were "the mounting blocks by which the criminals climbed to power and kept it" (p. 91). Most of the authors in this volume believe that Wiesenthal did the right thing in not telling her about her son's crimes. Psychotherapist Andre Stein, however, disagrees, saying that "Simon [Wiesenthal] had a responsibility toward past and future victims to tell her the truth. And Karl's mother had the responsibility of rising above her personal pain and telling the world what her son had done" (p. 240). Which point of view do you agree with?

  4. "I asked myself if it was only the Nazis who had persecuted us. Was it not just as wicked for people to look on quietly and without protest at human beings enduring such shocking humiliation?" (p. 57). Some of the commentators believe that those who were following orders were just as guilty as those who gave them; others, like Dith Pran, draw a moral line between followers and leaders? Would you hold them equally responsible?

  5. "Without forgetting there can be no forgiving," says retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Moshe Bejski (p. 116); the Dalai Lama, on the other hand, believes that one must forgive but not necessarily forget. Do you think it is possible to forgive and not forget? How would you differentiate forgiveness and reconciliation?

  6. Wiesenthal's friend Josek tells him that no one can offer forgiveness on behalf of another victim. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, "No one can forgive crimes committed against another people" (p. 165). Wiesenthal is not so sure. "Aren't we a single community with the same destiny, and one must answer for the other?" he writes (p. 65).

    It is a question echoed by the Catholic writer Christopher Hollis when he posits that insofar as Karl's crime was part of "a general campaign of genocide, the author was as much a victim — or likely to be soon a victim — of that campaign as was the child, and, being a sufferer, had therefore the right to forgive" (p. 169). Whose point of view do you find more persuasive, that of Hollis or Heschel?

  7. Many of the Symposium contributors believe that even as he lay dying, Karl saw the Jews as objects or subhumans, and that his wish to confess to a Jew, any Jew, and a concentration camp prisoners at that, showed that he had learned nothing from his experiences. Do you agree with this?

  8. Why does Wiesenthal dream about the little boy Eli (p. 68)?

  9. "There are many kinds of silence," Wiesenthal states (p. 97). What messages, positive and negative, does Wiesenthal's own silence convey? What does it tell the dying man? What does it tell you, the reader?

  10. Eugene J. Fisher believes that "we have no right to put Jewish survivors in the impossible moral position of offering forgiveness, implicitly, in the name of the six million. Placing a Jew in this anguished position further victimizes him or her. This, in my reading, was the final sin of the dying Nazi" (pp. 132-33). Literature professor, Lawrence L. Langer and writer Primo Levi share this opinion. Do you agree?

  11. Jean Améry, Mark Goulden, and Cynthia Ozick insist that Karl and the other Nazis should never under any circumstances be forgiven. Do you find their arguments harsh or just?

  12. Theologian Robert McAfee Brown acknowledges that "perhaps there are situations where sacrificial love, with forgiveness at the heart of it, can make a difference, and can even empower" (pp. 122-23). He cites Nelson Mandela and Tomás Borge as examples of men who have forgiven wrongs that many might see as unforgivable. Do you think that Mandela and Borge's situations are comparable with Wiesenthal's? Where do the differences lie?

  13. If you believe that Karl should be forgiven, apply Harry James Cargas' reductio ad absurdum (p. 125): If Hitler had repented, should he be forgiven? Why or why not?

  14. Is Harry Wu's reaction to Comrade Ma (pp. 255-58) relevant to Wiesenthal's feelings toward Karl?

  15. How does collective guilt differ from national guilt? Do you believe that future generations should continue to feel remorse for a previous generation's crimes? Martin E. Marty compares the national guilt visited upon the war generation in Germany with our own national guilt for the institutions of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, and questions whether the perpetuation of such feelings is healthy. Do you agree with his position?

  16. How did you feel about President Reagan's visit to the SS cemetery in Bitberg, Germany? Has reading this book changed your opinions?

  17. "I wonder if Simon did not receive his vocation from this dying SS man," writes Episcopal priest Matthew Fox (p. 146). Does this seem a reasonable theory to you? Do you agree with Fox's belief that in hunting down former Nazis, Wiesenthal is actually offering them the opportunity for a moral conversion?

  18. Might Simon Wiesenthal's life's work as a Nazi hunter constitute his own response to the question he poses in this book?



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