Thursday, September 22, 2005

On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

In my September 20th post entitled In Memory of Simon Wiesenthal, I stated that Wiesenthal’s autobiography, The Murders Among Us, was published in 1967. However, in 1969 he published what I believe is a much more significant book: The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.

In this book he tells the story of an incident that happened to him in a Nazi death camp. One day is he taken from his work unit to the bedside of a dying SS soldier. The man is haunted by the many acts of cruelty he has committed. Before he dies, he wants to confess these to, and receive absolution for his sins from, a Jew. Simon Wiesenthal is the Jew who has been selected. Wiesenthal, faced with the choice between justice and compassion, silence and truth, responds with nothing.

He reports that this Nazi—Karl—is a quandary for him. Did he do the right thing in not responding to the man? Should he have granted the forgiveness that Karl sought?

In The Sunflower Simon Wiesenthal confronts us with those questions. But first he puts the question to 53 distinguished men and women—theologians, philosophers, humanitarians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Holocaust survivors, and victims of genocides that have taken place since the Second World War. Each answers the question in his or her own way.

But ultimately it is us—you and I—who must answer that question. It challenges us to define out own beliefs about justice and compassion, forgiveness and penalty. These are ethical questions that I consider to be of supreme import. I highly recommend Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.


  1. Wiesenthal was very brave to write such a book. It must have been very difficult to invite judgement of himself like that. I'll be sure to look it up.

  2. It's an excellent book, Thomas. For several years now I have been considering creating a discussion book centered on it.