I am sure that you are all familiar with the name Simon Wiesenthal. He was not only an author and a brilliant academic, but he was also heralded for his tireless work in identifying Nazi criminals and bringing them to justice. He leaves behind an endless legacy which is primarily expressed through The Wiesenthal Centre, a global Jewish human rights organisation that confronts anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, promotes human rights and dignity, stands with Israel, defends the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. Wiesenthal is probably most remembered for his role in capturing Adolf Eichmann and bringing him to justice.
This book, The Sunflower, recounts an experience that Wiesenthal had whilst in a work camp/concentration camp during the Second World War. Taken out of the camp to work at a school now converted to a hospital, a nurse takes Wiesenthal to the bedside of a dying member of the SS. This man had asked the nurse to find him a Jew to whom he could confess his sins.
The soldier is seriously injured and clearly dying. He is burned and his face is wrapped in bandages, hidden from view. He proceeds to unburden himself to Wiesenthal, reaching out to him and preventing him from leaving the room. Wiesenthal is immobilised. He does not know whether to flee or stay and bear the weight of the confession.It is a complex and fraught situation, one with no proper response. Wiesenthal, the concentration camp survivor listens to the SS soldier’s words and then walks away, unable to provide the absolution which is sought. He wears this torn sense of guilt on his sleeve for years, incapable of giving himself absolution for sitting and listening to the confession. Wiesenthal’s solution is to seek out the soldier’s mother in an effort to unburden himself to her and make her wear the burden of her son’s sins… even in this endeavour he fails for he cannot destroy the mother’s illusion of her son as “a good boy” who would never do any wrong. Wiesenthal walks away. However, he leaves us with this question:
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?”
The remainder of the book presents a symposium of responses from various recognisable people – The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Cynthia Ozick and Primo Levi to name a few. I found this part of the book very difficult to read. The essay responses to Wiesenthal’s question are very short and what I wanted was more of a dialogue about this issue, rather than just a one sided response. At times I found myself vehemently disagreeing with the respondent’s but that was simply frustrating. I don’t think there is an answer to Wiesenthal’s question … I think that only God can forgive and in my mind, Wiesenthal had no power to take this man’s confession nor to bear the weight of the lives and legacies of the hundreds of people who died at his hand.