The Limits Of Forgiveness In The Book The Sunflower

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Even kindness and forgiveness can create controversy in today’s world. There are few things as powerful as forgiveness, a concept that too many people struggle with. I define forgiveness as putting your trust into someone that has failed you. Despite cause for distrust, when you believe a person can change, and won’t hurt you in the same way, you can go about forgiving them. Considering how difficult it is to forgive those who have hurt us, The Sunflower is a book about either forgiving or condemning Karl Seidl, a nazi soldier on his deathbed.

The book is an account of Weisenthal’s experiences as a concentration camp prisoner and the moment he is summoned from his work detail by a nurse to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier. The soldier is seeking a Jew’s forgiveness for a crime that has haunted him, in vain he desperately awaits the comforting words that might provide him a peaceful death. Throughout the story, we understand that Simon is unmoved by the soldier’s words and is questioning himself for even listening to his confessions. Weisenthal then poses the ethical dilemma of whether or not he should have forgiven Seidl, to the reader: “You who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, ‘What would I have done?’ (98).

I argue the best response the nazi could have received from any Jew was silence. In this case, Karl’s repentance was not sincere, and in asking for a Jew to hear his confession, he unknowingly adhered to a nazi stereotype in perceiving Simon as an undifferentiated mass rather than an individual. Simon was not addressed as a person nor given the proper respect, so the nazi should be chained to his past and his conscience for the pain he has caused. Many people have pondered whether Simon dare to forgive the dying soldier. The book’s second half is a symposium of responses from a diverse group of individuals, including other Holocaust survivors, and religious leaders. The responses vary. Some respondents write that forgiveness ought to be awarded for the victims’ sake; others respond that it should be withheld. Others do not say definitively whether or not forgiveness was the right thing. José Hobday, a distinguished Franciscan nun of Native American descent, mentions the anger and desire for revenge she felt when she thought of genocides and crimes against her people. But that one day her mother told her, “Do not be so ignorant and stupid and inhuman as they are… You must learn the wisdom of how to let go of poison” (174).

I believe that people generally make mistakes but genuinely don’t mean them. But mistakes vary. Such as telling someone they don’t look fat when they do is not on the same level as cheating or murder. Simon in this instance was not being ignorant, stupid, nor inhuman by staying silent he was bringing justice by leaving him to deal with his sins, his victims, and his crimes. Her sudden change in heart about forgiving Karl was for the sake of her own peace. I disagree with her because she is justifying what mass murderers are doing by stating “ No one. No memory, should have the power to hold us down, to deny us peace” (175). What she fails to acknowledge is that the future is inevitable and that humans have progressed sans forgiveness and regardless of the atrocities. Simon’s silence was the most fitting response: “There are many kinds of silence. Indeed it can be more eloquent than words, and it can be interpreted in many ways” (97).

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His silence showed compassion but did not allow Seidl to easily feel unburdened of the weight of his wrongdoings. He acted as a confessor by listening to Karl and then leaving him to take responsibility for his actions. Harry James Cargas, a Catholic author and professor points out that we do not depend on others for forgiveness but rather earn it somehow. Certainly, Karl did not because his apology for the wrongs he caused only came when his guilt borne the consequences of his action on his deathbed rather than when the act was committed. Cargas argues that Weisenthal’s dilemma can be carried out to a logical end and poses a new question; “Should Adolf Hitler be forgiven?” He adds that if there is an unforgivable sin, certainly the Nazis have committed it.

I agree with Cargas because Simon would have no right to forgive Karl in the name of all Jewish people harmed. In this particular instance whether he had forgiven the soldier or not, that forgiveness would not relieve judgment from God. He also states that “Deathbed conversations are dramatic, but in many instances they are too easy” (125). Every human being has his burden to bear, and no one can remove it for another. We must hold accountable those who arrogantly valued their own lives more than the men and women we lost. It is important to realize that Wiesenthal held his hand and remained present throughout the confession. He did not express anger or spite.

The fact that Weisenthal was ambivalent about his actions and doubted their appropriateness only underlines his decency. In contrast, the dying german was indifferent to issues that did not bear directly on him. Moreover, as a simple gesture of human respect, he helped keep away a fly that was bothering Seidl. “Forgiveness is an act of volition” (98). By definition is the release of resentment. Even if he did not explicitly forgive Seidl, he acted with an immense amount of compassion given the circumstances. We often hear forgive but never forget, let you remember these experiences in efforts to not let it happen again. We’ve seen history be repeated by people, though a different incident, always the same story. It is clear that we have not gained anything from our experiences with man’s inhumanity towards man.

Think about it, how many times are we to forgive people who wrongfully kill a person. We don’t. A point often overlooked is that forgiveness can only be extended for wrongs personally suffered. Even then forgiveness can only be extended so far, there must be some sort of justice. Simon showed restraint without expressing hatred, by walking out without saying a word he did the most sensible, logical, and most decent thing possible.

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