Comments on a Literary Analysis

by Dr. Glenn Janus

Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower, and the Question of Forgiveness

To err is human, to forgive divine. [1] The horrors of the Holocaust were crimes against not only the Jewish population, but of humanity. Millions of innocents [2] were slaughtered, all for the cruel vision of a fanatical mastermind. Although the days of Hitler and his evil regime are long gone, many questions still remain. Are the executors [3] to be forgiven? And if so, by whom? Do I, as a non-Jew who wasn’t [4] alive during that time have the right to debate the topic of forgiveness? Although I did not (and hopefully never will) experience the pain and torture of genocide, I can begin to form my own opinions on what I might have done in a similar situation. The ability to forgive is a human virtue possessed by each person, though only practiced by the strongest of individuals. In order to grow, we should try to nurture the qualities of compassion and loving-kindness, which is why forgiveness should be granted, even in the most heinous crimes committed during the Holocaust.

Simon Wiesenthal, [5] the author of The Sunflower has had to wrestle with the question of forgiveness for decades. As a student in a Polish technical school before World War II, Wiesenthal was harassed and humiliated daily because he was Jewish. As frightening and irritating as these events were, nothing could prepare Simon [6] for the torture that he would undergo in a Nazi death camp. For years, he was contained [7] in different concentration camps, performing disgusting and backbreaking labor under the nonstop scrutiny of the guards. In 1945, Wiesenthal's camp was liberated by allied troops and he was finally reunited with the remaining members of his family. After he had recovered his health, Wiesenthal embarked on a mission to see that the officers and collaborators of the Nazis were brought to justice. He became a self-proclaimed “Nazi hunter,” and for the next several decades he worked non stop to seek out the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

The purpose of The Sunflower is to stir in the minds of readers the question of when, and if, forgiveness should be granted to the participants of the Holocaust. The book is comprised of two halves; one tells Wiesenthal’s story, and the other is a collection of reactions to the book and to the actions performed by [8] Wiesenthal himself. These reactions illustrate the varying points of view that people of different religious groups, races, and backgrounds have when it comes to the issue of forgiveness.

In the first half of the book, Wiesenthal recounts his own story of being faced with a dying SS soldier who confesses to him his darkest crimes and then asks for forgiveness. Wiesenthal is horrified by the story, but still does not leave. He shows kindness to the soldier by simple actions like swatting a fly away from the soldier’s head. Although he shows compassion for the soldier, in the end he does not grant him his last wish of being forgiven by a Jew. The idea of forgiveness is not a black and white issue, as is expressed in the second half of the book. The second half is a collection of responses from 53 different people who give their opinion on what they would have done in Wiesenthal’s position. The reactions were all very different; some refused to make a decision either way, most would not forgive, and only a handful would. [9]

Buddhist spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, and Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, hold the belief that forgiveness should be granted in any case. [10] The Dalai Lama cites a story in which an acquaintance of his was held in a Chinese prison for 18 years but never lost compassion for his captors. To Buddhists, compassion is the ultimate and final answer to crimes committed against oneself [11] and others. Matthieu Ricard [12] goes further in his explanation of forgiveness based on Buddhist beliefs. He believes that forgiveness benefits both parties because it acknowledges the inner changes that have occurred in the one who has committed the crime, if they are truly repentant, and it also helps the wronged party rid themselves of negative feelings. If these feelings are never resolved, then only hatred, fear, and bad karma will be fostered. Ricard also states the idea that no matter what evil is done by a person, their inner nature is pure and good. “A piece of gold, after all, is still gold, even if buried in the ground. Once the dirt is removed, the true nature of the gold will be revealed” (Wiesenthal 235). [13] Once the crimes are admitted and forgiven, the true, untainted inner nature of the person and of the victim can be discovered. Forgiveness, to the Dalai Lama and Ricard is the only answer that will bring about happiness and tranquility to the individual, and on a larger level, to the world. [14]

Theodore M. Hesburgh, a Catholic priest, holds a somewhat similar view. He also believes that forgiveness should be granted in any case. Again, his religious beliefs influence his decision. He states, “If asked to forgive, by anyone for anything, I would forgive because God would forgive” (Wiesenthal 169). Christians believe that we were made in God’s image, and therefore have the ability to forgive. [15] If given the chance, why shouldn’t we do so? He also realizes that because we are not perfect, and are sinful by nature, forgiveness in such extreme conditions as the Holocaust might by difficult, but in the end, possible. God’s kindness has no limits, and we also should strive to become more compassionate in this way.

I agree with these views because I, too, believe that forgiveness should be granted under any circumstances, although the extremity of Wiesenthal’s situation would make it difficult to say if I would still be able to hold to this belief. [16] Compassion should be shown to every person, regardless of past deeds. [17] Some say that forgiveness is a weakness, but in truth, to forgive someone who has committed such extreme crimes against oneself and humanity is the greatest strength of all. If we truly are made from the perfect image of a creator/God/source, then our inherent, flawless inner nature needs only to be uncovered and utilized. The dying SS soldier also has this inner nature, though he was not able to realize it fully. No one, no matter how many atrocities they might cause, is evil by nature. Their actions may bring about untold suffering, but they, too, deserve as much compassion (forgiveness) as anyone else. This is not to say that the offense should be forgotten. Because we have not yet achieved perfection, we also have the ability to make mistakes and cause others to suffer. The wrongdoing should be remembered in order to prevent it from happening again in the future. We should never forget the horrors of the Holocaust, but to continue hating the Nazi officers, the people that stood back and did nothing, and the dying SS soldier, we are only hurting ourselves. The hate needs to be released in order for compassion and growth to take place.

Wiesenthal’s first half of the novel, The Sunflower illustrates a specific instance in which a persecuted Jew is faced with the opportunity to forgive someone who has caused him, and countless others, great misery. In the end, he refuses. The second section is made of responses to the question, “If put in Wiesenthal’s position, what would you do?” The responses ranged widely, the decisions being based largely on religious and cultural backgrounds. [18] Forgiveness is a personal issue that each person needs to resolve in their own minds and hearts. I believe that forgiveness is an element of compassion and should be extended to everyone, as difficult as that may be in some situations. [19] Hate is a crippling emotion that causes pain to everyone. Holding back mercy does not only punish the offender, but the offended. [20]

1. Possibly insert an exclamation point or quote the proverb.

2. Add more historical background- (Europe’s Jewish population, millions of innocent Jews and non-Jews, etc.)

3. Executioners, not executors

4. Avoid using contractions in formal writing.






5. Birth and death dates can help to provide more background and a sense of chronology (for Adolf Hitler and Simon Wiesenthal).


6. Use only last name after introducing someone.

7. Contained- (awkward)








8. Performed by- (awkward)










9. Watch tenses in this paragraph


10. In any case? Is this conditionally or unconditionally? (not clear)


11. Crimes committed against oneself- (awkward)

12. More information on Matthieu Ricard






13. In history, footnoting is used, not in text citing.


14. Is this paragraph describing the idea of forgiveness for the wronged party? What about someone who is speaking for another person or a larger group, as in Wiesenthal’s case?



15. The Catholics believe that God forgives, and we forgive only individually. A priest is only a vehicle for God’s mercy- he can only truly forgive someone who has wronged him personally.



16. To whom should forgiveness be granted? Does this include blanket forgiveness or forgiveness for someone who has mistreated you or your family?

17. How does justice figure into the idea of forgiveness? Does justice preclude forgiveness? What are the definitions of forgiveness, justice, and compassion?













18. But what would you have done in Wiesenthal’s situation?


19. State more clearly your beliefs on when and to whom forgiveness should be granted.

20. Overall, the paper is clear and well written. Text is used well, and organization is good.




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