The Sunflower: Mistakes That Cannot Be Forgiven
The book’s exposition takes us to the time of the Nazi concentration camps and tells about Simon and his friends’ life and hard work. Simon, Adam, Artur, and Jozek are Jews who work in a section of a concentration camp where medical waste is thrown out to prisoners. They support each other and often talk about God. In general, the problem of faith runs like a red thread through the entire plot, forcing each character to express his attitude towards God. Jozek, despite the state of affairs that surrounds him every day, despite the fear of death, continues to believe in God. His faith is adamant, and he does not feel anger either towards fate or God. Arthur tries to argue with him because his soul is filled with disappointments, and he does not understand how God, the creator, can contemplate everything that happens.
One day, Simon is invited by a nurse to see Karl, a German officer whose body is completely wrapped from head to toe and is suffering from wounds. Karl expressed a desire to talk to Simon because he has a heavy burden on his soul. Karl needs to get rid of this burden, and a Jew can help him do this. Simon listens to his stories about joining the Nazi Party, about being inspired by Hitler’s speeches, and about his parents; Simon does not feel surprised or has any emotion. However, Karl tells the episode where he set fire to the house and shot people jumping out of the fire. Simon does not know what to say, how to free Karl from the burden, and silently leaves; then he learns that Karl has died.
Simon shares his dilemma with his friends, but they will run away from him; the nurse asks Simon to take Karl’s things. He finds Karl’s mother and tells her fragmentarily about what happened, without saying that her son was involved in the Holocaust. The mother confirms many of the stories told by Karl about childhood. Simon walks away from her, bearing a heavy burden and contemplating his dilemma.
Injustice Haunts Even After Death
Simon is overwhelmed by injustice, and he is constantly forced to compare himself with the Nazis. He sees everywhere the built-up false superiority of these people over the Jews. Every day these thoughts accompany him: “Did he know already that he would get a sunflower when he was buried? The murderer would own something even when he was dead…And I?” (Wiesenthal, 2008, p. 51). Such is Simon’s inner thoughts that even the death of the Nazis looks more beautiful and sublime. Death and burial in an unmarked grave frighten Simon, where no one will bring flowers. He is afraid of being forgotten and leaving nothing behind. The Nazis continue to tower over living Jews even after death, and this injustice haunts Simon.
This symbolism of injustice in the form of a sunflower accompanies Simon constantly. After hearing repentance from Karl, he remains focused on his trauma: “I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands. Between then there seemed to rest a sunflower” (Wiesenthal, 2008, p. 55). Pleasant and bright flowers became for Simon a symbol of cruelty and injustice. Simon seems to be worried that he does not subconsciously deserve an ordinary burial. The suggestion of the idea that he is ‘subhuman’ (this is manifested even in communication between prisoners and friends) is firmly established in Simon’s mind. Through the sunflower symbol, one can see that under the circumstances of a concentration camp, a person cannot judge sensibly and talk about forgiveness. The concentration camp prisoners are ruined people who have no hopes, except for some illusions with which they may have grown up.
Meaningless and Absurdity
This injustice borders on the sense of absurdity that Simon, Adam, Jozek, and Artur experience. A sense of meaninglessness accompanies them next to concentration camp brutality. They asked: “Did any of them reflect that there were still Jews and as long as they were there, as long as the Nazis were still busy with the Jews, they would leave the citizens alone?” (Wiesenthal, 2008, pp. 13-14). Friends try to discuss together why they got such a share. At the same time, each of them answers this question for himself differently in his head. Painful injustice and unmotivated cruelty instill anger and hatred in these people. They live with this anger and cannot vent it anywhere.
Superman and Subhuman
In this existential abyss and the eternal expectation of death, Karl appears before Simon, and Karl asks for forgiveness. Simon never thought he would face such a situation, so he could not deal with it quickly. He turned to friends for support, and Arthur said: “A superman has asked a subhuman to do something which is superhuman. If you had forgiven him, you would never have forgiven yourself all your life” (Wiesenthal, 2008, p. 66). Did the comrades understand Simon’s true feelings and understand the ethical dilemma? The support of his comrades does not help Simon cope with the emotional burden.
Punishment as Release from a Burden
The comrades’ position is clear; the lack of forgiveness is evident on their part since they are at the epicenter of tension. Artur, Adam, and Jozek are the apparent victims of the massacre of the Jews, the unjust massacre. Their desire to promote conviction or trial is understandable, but Albert Speer argued: “The court punished only my legal guilt” (Wiesenthal, 2008, p. 245). The concepts of ethics and legal responsibility are sometimes blurred in such situations. Karl wanted precisely ethical liberation, and recognition at the same time became a type of punishment for him.
Speaking exclusively in ethics, the issue of forgiveness and guilt takes on other characteristics. Readers who ask an ethical question will realize broad differences between individual responsibility and forgiveness and general guilt and forgiveness. Philosophers and religious scholars are well aware of these boundaries; for example, Cardinal König states, “An individual cannot forgive what was done to others” (Wiesenthal, 2008, p. 182). It is difficult to regard the Holocaust as an individual trauma since many people suffered in this war.
Personal Trauma or Global Issue
Nevertheless, the human psyche is arranged to seek to pass off the public and global as personal. Personal trauma and damage to individuals were mixed in Karl’s head with the persecution of the people as a whole. Simon Wiesenthal describes it this way when Karl makes excuses: “Look,’ he said, ‘those Jews died quickly, they did not suffer as I do—though they were not as guilty as I am” (Wiesenthal, 2008, p. 52). Karl did not realize until the end of his life that the harm done was harm to the whole world.
Simon claims that the Jews were buried alive in the concentration camp, and they had nothing left but a serial number. Simon states: “For him we were as good as dead; each of us was carrying around his own death certificate, from which only the date was missing” (Wiesenthal, 2008, p. 14). How could a dead man forgive a living, solid and handsome officer? Even though Karl was languishing from his wounds and was utterly bandaged, he did not look like a person. This officer appeared before him as an ordinary person; one might say, a child who fell under the influence of ideology. Karl had neither life experience nor any exotic skills; he was the most ordinary German who believed in Hitler’s revanchism. It seemed to him that the renewal of Germany and other people was not far off.
A Step Towards Admitting a Great Mistake
As mentioned above, it is easier for religious leaders and philosophers to solve Simon’s dilemma from forgiveness. Forgiveness is one of the main categories of Christianity, and in other religions this category as well occupies a significant position. Simon was not a religious person and did not serve at the synagogue. Being an ordinary person, he also could not abstractly solve this issue. Philosopher Tsvetan Todorov offered a different interpretation of this dilemma, which does not come from forgiveness. Simon’s forgiveness of Karl should come from “not absolution, of course, but recognition for embarking on that specifically human activity which consists of changing for the better” (Wiesenthal, 2008, p. 265). The change in categories is the answer to the existing dilemma. It is not, as such, forgiveness for misconduct but the most crucial step towards correcting mistakes. The legal aspect, punishment, is appropriate, and ethical dilemmas are considered adequate for discussion within this framework. It is inappropriate to talk about individual forgiveness and absolution (hence, not forgive), but Karl’s act should be seen as an essential step towards changing the society of the then Germany.
Wiesenthal, S. (2008). The sunflower: On the possibilities and limits of forgiveness. Van Haren Publishing.