The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Deceptively simple, thought-provoking and sometimes chilling, The Sunflower is both a story and an invitation to explore what seems (on the face) a straightforward question ... but as its situational, moral and emotional layers peel away, becomes anything but. The book is comprised of two parts: first, the account of how the author, a Jewish man in a concentration camp, is called to the side of a dying Nazi soldier who begs forgiveness for his crimes; second, a collection of essays written in response.
I had read this book before, but I was surprised again how brief the encounter itself is. Using language that is straightforward but often poetic, realistic without becoming laden with melodrama, Wiesenthal builds a picture of his life and the mental state of his fellow prisoners and discusses the history of the high school in which he finds himself ... before he is called to the side of the SS man. The pages that form the purpose of this book disappear so swiftly ... and then the reader is drawn on to deal with Wiesenthal's fall-out, the conversations with fellow prisoners, and finally, a secondary confrontation years later with the SS man's mother. As a story - a novella, if you will - this account is satisfying in itself.
The essays that follow are hit and miss. Some are harsh, some merciful; some prosaic, some poetic and beautiful. Some present angles of the situation that a reader may never have considered, and you may come away richer for it. In my mind, however, there is perhaps more than a critical mass of essays here ... and some of them are incomplete, off-point - the author launching from the actual question to discuss a related topic of personal investment - or maddeningly reductionist. I can accept starting from the religious stance that is impossible to forgive someone who has not harmed you personally: I cannot accept ending with that stance without further exploration. Religion is not the only source of morality. I don't recognize a lot of the authors' names, I confess, and I wonder if some of the essays were included less because of merit or balance than because they were written by a "big name" individual.
That said, this book is definitely worth a read, worth thought ... worth attempting the exploration at its heart: what would I have done?
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