On the Dilemma of Forgiving a Dying Nazi Soldier – Reading Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower

Simon Wiesenthal was a Jewish architect when World War 2 began. He was imprisoned for four years in various ghettoes and concentration camps, and ultimately 89 family members were murdered in the Holocaust. After the war, he became famous for his work identifying and locating Nazi war criminals all over the world. Eventually Wiesenthal heroically helped to bring over one thousand Nazis to justice, including Adolph Eichmann and Karl Silberbauer, the policeman who arrested Ann Frank.
Wiesenthal published a book called The Sunflower, which recounts a true and compelling experience he had in a concentration camp. He was summoned to a hospital room, where a dying SS soldier confessed to Wiesenthal a terrible crime. German soldiers had herded a large number of Jewish people into a house, barricading and then firebombing it. When the desperate people tried to leave, the soldiers shot them. In his dying days, this SS man wanted to confess his sins to a Jewish person in the hopes of receiving some forgiveness. Wiesenthal listened patiently, but ultimately, he did not extend any forgiveness. In the years that followed, he wondered whether he acted correctly, and he engaged in numerous conversations about the ethics of this dilemma. Eventually, he wrote an account of this story with the goal of presenting it to the world to invite deliberation on the “possibilities and limits of forgiveness.” The book includes 53 different reflections on whether it would be right or wrong to offer forgiveness to this man.
The Sunflower sets the stage to reflect theologically on the forgiveness dilemma. I intend to engage this book at a few levels. First, I will analyze Jewish and Christian theological approaches to forgiveness as found in the responses. Christians tend to be more willing to offer forgiveness than Jews, and I would like to explore potential reasons. I will also explore Jewish and Christian distinctives on a range of related terms: grace, atonement, guilt, repentance among them. Second, I will consider the differences between God as a forgiver and humans who forgive. Our theological reflections focus on divine forgiveness but ignore what it means for humans to forgive. Divine forgiveness means reconciliation and salvation, but what does it mean when humans forgive a criminal, or when someone forgives an unfaithful spouse?
I will also explore the social implications of forgiveness. Can horrendous evils like shootings or the history of slavery be forgiven? What can be learned from the legacy of the Hutus and Tutsis, or from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa? I will conclude by reflecting on the implications of this study for the legacy of racially motivated crimes and abuses. This paper would be a good fit for the Christian Ethics section, as well as the Public Theology section.