Simon Wiesenthal’s self-reflective book, The Sunflower, recounts his personal experience as a Jewish prisoner held in a World War II-era concentration camp. Although Wiesenthal would survive the Holocaust and go on to become an important figure in the effort to bring Nazis to justice in the years following the end of the war, his days spent inside of the concentration camps were riddled with not only physical, psychological and laborious hardships, but moral dilemmas as well. The Sunflower depicts one particularly difficult moral dilemma that Wiesenthal endured in 1943 at the Lemberg Concentration Camp, when he was called to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier. Karl, the soldier, confesses to Simon that he was responsible for the burning and gunning down of 300 Jewish people, seeking forgiveness from Simon (a Jew) as he lay on his deathbed. Simon never forgives the man before he dies.
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My initial reaction to Simon’s decision was that he was wrong for not forgiving Karl, because forgiveness is something we are all taught to do. It is morally responsible. And the Nazis have been condemned for being morally irresponsible, so do two wrongs make a right when the victim (the Jew) responds to moral irresponsibility with moral irresponsibility? But after thinking about it, it seems that Simon was right and should not have done anything different. Karl never trespassed directly against Simon, so what did Simon have to forgive Karl for? It was not in the position to forgive the Nazi for the crimes he committed against other people. What if Karl’s victims would choose not to forgive Karl? It was not Simon’s moral obligation to forgive Karl for the sins he committed against other people. And he deserved to die without forgiveness. Perhaps if he did not make his victims silent forever the way he did, they would have been able to give him the forgiveness he so desperately sought on his deathbed. Because of this, I think that while we should all strive to forgive those that have trespassed against us, it is not our obligation to forgive people for the sins they have committed against others. In these instances, when the forgiveness that one seeks is not ours to determine or give, forgiveness is understandably impossible.