Written by G. Kristian Miccio
On Yom Kippur, Jews are required to seek and give forgiveness. It is not about redemption, but rather about the power of forgiveness in our lives, the lives of others and the life of the community. Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower is a moving exploration and account of forgiveness during an historical moment marked by unspeakable terror.
Wiesenthal brings the reader into his inner circle by sharing a painful story about oppressor and oppressed. He takes us on a journey where we are privy to the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp where Wiesenthal was an inmate in WWII Poland. We read words that can never fully capture the pain, degradation, fear, and loathing that framed the lives of the interned at the hands of sadistic guards consumed by hate and an utter contempt for human life and suffering.
We watch as Wiesenthal is brought into a hospital room, inhabited by a young SS officer who is close to death. He is summoned by this officer for a specific and puzzling task. Wiesenthal is asked by this officer for forgiveness before he dies. Wiesenthal is asked to forgive the shooting, maiming and torture inflicted by this young officer on Jewish women and children whose remain nameless. Perhaps Wiesenthal’s forgiveness will bring absolution.
Ah, but it is irrelevant what Wiesenthal does because this book is about what we would do. Would we, or more to the point would I forgive this officer for his admitted brutality to fellow Jews? What is the morally correct answer here? Am I empowered to forgive this officer for brutality against persons other than myself? Is forgiveness even fitting under the circumstances: in other words are some acts so vile, so evil as to be beyond forgiveness? Can we, should we, forgive the unforgivable?
The Sunflower was on my mind this summer in Dublin. On June 15, 2010, the British Government released the Sayville Report which finally recounted what every Irish person in Northern Ireland and the Republic knew for over 35 years; that the British Army deliberately fired into an unarmed crowd of civil rights marchers on Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972. The Sayville Report placed blame for the murder of fourteen Catholics on the shoulders of the British. And Prime Minister David Cameron stood in the House of Commons and uttered words that won’t be forgotten, “On behalf of this country and of the government, I apologize.”
When I heard these words, I turned to an Irish friend and asked if she could forgive not just the soldiers who pulled the trigger but a government that created an environment where Irish Republican’s lives were expendable. Her reply was succinct and aligned with Wiesenthal’s, “I am not the one to give forgiveness that power rests with the mothers, fathers and families of the murdered.”
In that moment, I understood the importance of Wiesenthal’s book and the power it holds. Perhaps forgiveness is more than a salve on the wounds of the injured. Perhaps it is accountability in its purest form, where pain is acknowledged and victim and perpetrator clearly identified. Perhaps. This I do know-The Sunflower is as meaningful today as it was over seventy years ago and its extraordinary message will resonate with generations to come.