Simon stands exhausted on the parade ground of the concentration camp, where prisoners are lining up after breakfast. He had not gotten coffee because he had not wanted to push his way through the crowd, and because SS officers often used the space in front of the kitchen as a “hunting-ground” to injure prisoners. He tries to remember something his friend Arthur told him the night before. During the previous day, two of the men from their hut had been given permission to enter the Ghetto and had brought news “from outside, war news.” Simon had only half-listened, as the news was seldom good, and if it was, they never believed it. He and 150 other men are sleeping in crowded bunks in what was once a stable.
From the first page, this parable about humanity immediately places the reader inside the most inhumane of places: a Nazi concentration camp. Yet for all the Nazi’s arguments that the Jews are subhuman, it is clear from Simon’s descriptions that the Nazis, too, have lost their humanity—just in a radically different way. Such extreme violence dehumanizes both the victim and the oppressor.
Simon explains that men from all walks of life have found themselves confined to this stable inside a concentration camp, and “inevitably they splintered into small groups, close communities of men who in other circumstances would never be found together.” Simon describes his group, which consists of his old friend Arthur and a Jew named Josek, whom he describes as sensitive and deeply religious. Simon is amazed at Josek’s faith, even referring to him sometimes as “Rabbi” even though he is a businessman. Josek seemed to have “an answer for everything,” while Simon and others “vainly groped for explanations and fell victim to despair.”
Simon’s friends demonstrate two sides to a conflict he experiences: Josek’s faith remains steadfast, while Arthur becomes cynical about God. Simon is conflicted about God’s role in the world and the war, because he is unsure how a moral god could allow the circumstances of the Holocaust.
In fact, Josek was so steadfast in his faith that he often seemed entirely unaware of the bleak reality of life in the camp. On one occasion, Simon, Arthur, and Josek nearly got into an argument over this. They had been listening to the news when Josek sat up suddenly and began to speak about the Creation of man. Josek explained that, at the Creation of man, four angels (Mercy, Truth, Peace, and Justice), quarreled over whether man should be created. The angel of Truth in particular opposed man. God then banished the angel to earth. The other angels begged God to pardon the angel, and He summoned the angel to Heaven. The angel brought back a clod of earth soaked in the tears he had shed, and God created man from this earth.
Josek’s story represents one of the most important functions of religion: to help people explain or understand the physical and moral state of the world. His own religion explains man as a unique being, but one whose life is synonymous with the sadness of a divine being. Josek uses the story to explain that the story of mankind was tragic from the outset.
Arthur interrupted Josek, saying that the Jews may have been made out of this earth, but the camp commandant could not have been made out of the same material. Josek tells Arthur the he is “forgetting Cain,” but Arthur rebuts that Josek is forgetting where he is. Arthur goes on to say that Cain never tortured Abel, and furthermore the two had known each other—they were brothers—whereas the Germans were strangers to the people they tortured and murdered. Simon intervenes to break up the quarrel, reminding Arthur that “thousands of years of evolution” have taken place since the story of Cain and Abel. Simon reflects, and wonders whether Arthur wasn’t right to object to Josek’s story. He asks why, if all human beings were truly made the same, some were murderers and some were victims.
Arthur and Josek are referring to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, who were the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain killed Abel. In referring to Cain, Josek draws a parallel to the Nazis killing Jews. Arthur tries to counteract Josek’s arguments by saying that their situation and the evil of the Nazis has no precedent in the Bible, and that some things cannot be explained or clarified through religion. This argument is somewhat refuted by the second section of the book, however, as nearly all of the respondents use religion as their basis for how a moral person should act.
Simon returns to the memory of the previous night. Arthur had shaken him out of his half-slumber to tell him what an old woman had said: that God was “on leave.” Simon responds by telling Arthur to let him know “when He gets back,” and distantly hears his friends laughing as he drifts back to sleep.
Much of the internal conflict Simon feels later in the book stems from his uncertainty as to the existence of God. The events of the Holocaust precipitated a crisis in faith for many of those who suffered.
The next morning, Simon asks Arthur what he had been saying about God the night before. Simon explains to the reader that Arthur, though an old friend and an advisor, thinks very differently from Simon. Arthur is often preoccupied with the future, believing that even if the Jews do not survive, the Germans would not escape unpunished.
Arthur’s beliefs are not false; the Germans are ultimately not victorious in the war, but Arthur is also not there to see them brought to justice. In a way, this book is Simon’s way of maintaining Arthur’s memory and the memory of so many others who were murdered during the Holocaust.
Simon, on the other hand, is much more concerned about what will happen in the present; he is preoccupied with hunger, exhaustion, anxiety for his family, and the humiliations he endures. He feels that he is no longer treated like a human being, and questions whether God in fact has a “definite place” in this “world order”—or if, as the woman said, God is on leave.
Simon makes his internal conflict over God and religion clearer here. It is also evident that Simon’s conflict comes from the fact that he is constantly being dehumanized, which supports the idea that those who have lost their humanity also have a difficult time maintaining their faith, and that humanity is inherently linked to faith in some way.
Simon describes the system of labor camps into which he and other prisoners are forced to work for the Eastern Railway works. They are also routinely “registered” by the German overseers of the camps, a word that seems simply technical but in fact refers to when the Germans determine that some prisoners are no longer capable of work and send those prisoners to the death chamber. Simon comments about how the prisoners are forced into a constant state of anxiety and mistrust, when even seemingly benign words like “registered” hide a fatal intent.
The brutality of the SS officers becomes more and more apparent. Simon’s description of how the prisoners are treated likens them to animals, literally dehumanizing them, as they are either put to work or sent to the slaughter. Note also how the German’s hide their morally deprave actions behind seemingly benign bureaucratic words like “registered” to refer to their sorting of which prisoner will live and which will die.
The work there is not easy, but Simon had felt free to an extent, as he did not need to return to the camp each night. The guards there, who are railway police, are much less sadistic than the SS camp patrols. The Germans look on many of the overseers and foremen at the Railway as second-class citizens because many of them, though German, are ethnically Polish or Ukrainian. These overseers and foremen, Simon recounts, worry what might happen to them when there are no Jews left.
The German anti-Semitism extends past the Nazis, as the ethnic Poles, and Ukrainians feel secure as long as there are other people who can be treated worse than they are, and thus they are silent towards the Nazi regime’s violent oppression of Jews.
“Ethnic Germans” sometimes slipped the Jewish railroad workers pieces of bread and tried to see to it that they were not worked to death, which Simon sees as an attempt to demonstrate that they are “more ‘German’ than the average German.” Others, however, had been crueler to the Jews. One elderly drunkard named Delosch beat up the prisoners simply out of boredom.
It is notable that in the confines of Nazi Germany, even these small acts of kindness are spurred largely from a sense of the Germans’ superiority and self-interest. An “ethnic German” is a German with German heritage, as opposed to a German with a family lineage in another country (such as Poland).
Simon lines up with the rest of the men from the stable to report for work. He worries that he will not chosen to work outside the camp today, as the assignment from the Eastern Railway works was nearly complete. The alternative, he explains, is to remain and work in the camp, where the greater number of guards translates to more brutal treatment. He describes some of the violence the prisoners endure: each day, Jews are hanged, trampled, bitten by dogs, whipped, and humiliated for the amusement of the SS men. Many killed themselves in order to escape the brutality.
The brutality of the camps is so extreme that many who are subjected to it opt to take their own lives rather than continue to suffer without hope.
Suddenly, a corporal comes over and counts off fifty men. Simon is one of the men selected; Arthur is left behind. These men are escorted by six askaris (Russian deserters who assisted the German guards), who were often more brutal than the Germans. The askaris were very interested in singing, even forming a band. The SS lieutenant, who had been a violinist before the war, was obsessed with the band. To Simon, it appeared he only had two passions: slaughtering prisoners and leading a band. In the evening the band played Bach, Wagner, and Grieg.
This tale of the SS lieutenant who had been a violinist before the war demonstrates that it is truly the Germans who have lost their humanity. Casually equating “slaughtering prisoners” with “leading a band” illuminates how their viciousness has become normalized and accepted.
The band begins to play, and the SS men insist that the prisoners march in time to the music. They are obscene songs, and attract a lot of attention. The prisoners sometimes join in the singing. Simon explains that, as they travel through Lemberg, people stare on the street and sometimes wave, but quickly stop out of fear that they are being too friendly. The people they pass have written the prisoners off as doomed, looking at them like “a herd of cattle being driven to the slaughterhouse. He remembers that a few days before, he had run into a former fellow student, who was a Polish engineer. He had been too afraid to acknowledge Simon openly, but seemed shocked to see Simon still alive.
This is the first instance in which readers are exposed to the ways in which the people of Germany were complicit in the genocide, failing to act in any way to help the Jews in this instance as in many others. The reference to cows being led to slaughter speaks to the ways in which Jews had been thoroughly dehumanized in the eyes of so many who stood by and watched, doing nothing. As the story of the Polish engineer shows, oftentimes bystanders were just as afraid; unlike the Jews, they still had much to lose.
Simon notices a military cemetery as they pass it. He sees that on each grave, there lies a sunflower. Simon envies the dead soldiers, believing that soon he himself would be dead and buried in a mass grave. He would not receive a sunflower, as the German soldiers did. The Germans would be superior to him even in death.
Throughout the remainder of the novel, sunflowers will be an important symbol of the importance of recognizing the humanity in others. At various points, Simon will see the sunflower in his mind’s eye when interacting with Germans, and will remember the humane treatment he himself has not been afforded him.
Simon and the others continue to walk through Lemberg. They still do not know where they are being taken. A man whispers to Simon that perhaps the Germans have set up new workshops in the Ghetto. Simon thinks to himself that it would be easy to do, because until recently Lemberg had been in the hands of the Russians, but when the Russians withdrew, the Germans took possession of all the factories (many of which had previously been owned by Jews). The Germans had seized the machines from the factories, and were now dividing them up among newly established German factories.
So much has changed since the German annexation of Poland. This passage not only underscores that Jews once held important positions of power in Poland’s economy and society more generally; it also reminds readers that the whole vast empire that the Nazis hoped to establish was undergirded by an economic system of production that was entirely dependent on the forced labor of Jews.
The prisoners turn onto Janowska Street, a street down which Simon had walked many times as a student and later as an architect. He contrasts that time with his current situation as a doomed man. He describes the bustling city street, noting the soldiers and peasants who populate the city at 8 in the morning. The “column of doomed men” turns left onto Sapiehy Street, where the Technical High School stood. Simon had walked along this street several times a day when working for his diploma.
Simon’s journey through the town reminds the reader that the daily lives and careers of those targeted by the Nazis have been interrupted, and they no longer have the basic human rights of freedom and self-determination.
Simon remembers that even when he had been in school, Sapiehy Street was a “street of doom.” The sons of the Poles that lived there also went to the High School and many of them were “rowdies, hooligans, antisemites.” They often beat Jews and left them bleeding in the street. Simon is baffled that when Hitler was poised to annex Poland, the only thing they could think of was their hatred for the Jews.
Simon’s story reminds readers that anti-Semitism was not a German invention; the Nazis had merely exploited the existing bias of much of Europe in order to carry out their plans. In creating a common enemy in the Jews, the Germans were then able to annex Poland without any protest from the non-Jewish Polish population.
Two years before the war, the Radicals had invented a “day without Jews” during examination days, hoping to prevent Jewish students from taking their exams. A loss of an exam often meant the loss of a term, because many professors would not allow the students to retake it. For Jews who came from poor families, this day often put an end to their studies entirely.
On the “day without Jews,” ambulances would stand waiting outside the school. The police, who could not interfere in the school without permission, also stood outside. Sometimes a few of the most brutal students were arrested but they always emerged from prison as heroes and were often given special privileges by some of the professors.
Notably, throughout the book Simon refrains from describing the violence against the Jews explicitly (instead merely implying what happened through the appearance of the ambulances), perhaps in an attempt to keep the nuances and complexities of his story from being overshadowed by the horrific violence.
Simon wonders where those Polish “super-patriots” are now. He thinks that the day without Jews may not be far off—only there won’t be a Poland, either.
Simon’s dark prediction highlights the dangers of complicity in this system that oppresses entire nations and groups of people, which the Polish people never truly seem to acknowledge.
Simon and the other prisoners stop in front of the Technical High School, which has been rebranded as a “Reserve Hospital.” They are brought to a courtyard, where large containers are arranged filled with bloodstained bandages. Wounded soldiers sit on benches around the courtyard. One soldier gets up from the bench and comes toward the prisoners, looking at them as if they are “animals in a zoo.” He points to his arm, which is in a sling, and says that the Jews and the Communists have done this to him, but that they’ll all be dead soon.
The wounded soldier serves as another example of the Germans’ anti-Semitism. Not only does this man look at the prisoners like animals, but he also views the Jews as one large group who have committed a crime against him, despite the fact that certainly Simon and the others in the hospital had nothing to do with the man’s broken arm.
Other soldiers look at the group more sympathetically, but none dare to speak. Simon stares at the soldier, thinking that the monster would one day have a sunflower planted on his grave. Suddenly, all Simon can see when he looks at the soldier is a sunflower. The soldier sees Simon staring and throws a stone at him, and the sunflower vanishes.
Simon’s thoughts in this passage are another expression of his crisis of faith as he wonders how a criminal could be allowed to receive better treatment than an innocent victim. All Simon can see when he looks at the soldier is a sunflower, suggesting that the man’s bigotry has made Simon unable to see him as an individual.
The orderly in charge of the prisoners leads them away to work. Their job is to carry cartons filled with garbage out of the building. As Simon stands off to the side to get a breath of fresh air, a nurse asks him if he is a Jew. Simon is curious why she is asking, and is surprised that she could not tell based on his clothing and features.
Many of the respondents in the second section of the book point to the nurse’s question as a reason why Karl should not be forgiven; he sent the nurse to find “a Jew,” in this way continuing to view them as a mass of people rather than individual human beings.
Simon thinks that perhaps the nurse is sympathetic and is trying to slip him a piece of bread. Two months earlier at the Eastern Railway, a soldier had told him that there was a piece of bread in his bag close by. When Simon asked why he did not just give him the bread, the soldier said that this way he could swear with a clear conscience that he did not give anything to a Jew.
This is one of the only times in which a soldier is truly sympathetic toward the Jews and attempts to ameliorate their situation. His act breaks the complicity of following orders, even if he can only help Simon in a roundabout way so that he can maintain plausible deniability.
The nurse leads Simon into the building. She takes him to an upper hallway. He wonders if he should try to escape, because he knows where each corridor leads. At the end of the hall lay the offices of two professors, both notorious for their hatred of Jews.
It is worth noting that even though Simon has these memories and examples of anti-Semitism at the school, when he encounters Karl just moments later he still treats Karl as an individual.
The nurse signals that Simon should wait. He leans over the balustrade and sees a soldier on a stretcher looking up at him. Another fragment of memory recurs: during the student riots of 1936, anti-Semitic students had hurled a Jewish student over the balustrade. He had looked just like this soldier, and had possibly landed on the very same spot.
Once again, Simon’s memories point to his ability to see the shared humanity of all people, as demonstrated by his observation of the pain of both the Jewish student and the wounded soldier. Karl and the other Nazis, however, do not afford him the same courtesy.
Past the balustrade was the office of the Dean of Architecture, who was very quiet and polite. No one had known whether he was for or against the Jews, as he had always been aloof. Simon remarks how people had been divided into two groups: those that liked Jews and those that did not.
One could just as easily classify these two categories (those who do or do not like Jews) as those that recognize the humanity of others, and those that do not.
The nurse returns and leads Simon to the Dean’s room. She pushes him through the door, where he sees a motionless figure wrapped in white on a bed. The figure asks Simon to come closer. He can see white, bloodless hands, but the figure’s head is completely bandaged except for holes for his mouth, nose, and ears. Simon recognizes that he is a German.
Karl’s first description makes Simon’s compassion even more remarkable. Even though Simon cannot see Karl’s face (which is usually the way that humans relate to one another), he still treats him not as “a Nazi” but as an individual.
Simon is bewildered by the figure, wondering whether he might be dreaming. Simon sits on the bed. The man tells him that he does not have long to live. Simon is unmoved by his words, as the camps have made him unafraid of death.
Fear of death is an inherently human instinct, and Simon’s lack of this instinct provides further evidence of how he has been degraded and dehumanized.
Simon remembers an incident nearly two weeks earlier, where he saw a dying prisoner. When he found the prison doctor, the doctor simply shrugged his shoulders. He said that six prisoners were dying, and said he could do nothing for them. At the evening roll call, there were in fact six corpses.
The very presence of a “prison doctor” is ironic. The doctor cannot care for dying or sick prisoners, and even if he could, the Nazis would sooner murder the Jews than cure them of their ailments.
The bandaged man says that he wants to talk about an experience that is torturing him. He tells Simon that he had asked a nurse, who had previously brought him a letter from his mother, to bring a Jewish prisoner to him, but that no one could see her doing so—it was too risky. Simon wonders if this man could be a Jew who had camouflaged himself as a German in order to survive.
Karl’s experience may be torturing him, but he seems somewhat indifferent to the suffering that Simon himself is experiencing. Karl may be racked with guilt, but he doesn’t appear to attempt to work towards restitution with the Jewish prisoners.
A letter slips from the man’s hand, and Simon picks it up for him. The man thanks him, saying that it is a letter from his mother. Simon thinks that he will never again receive a letter from his mother, who had been dragged out of the Ghetto in a raid. He had left her with a gold watch, the only object of value the family still possessed, so that she might bribe whichever officer would inevitably come to take her away. Later, Simon learned from neighbor that she had given the watch to a Ukrainian policeman, who had gone away only to come back later and take her “to a place from which no letters ever emerged…”
Simon picking up the letter indicates one of his first simple acts of kindness towards this man who has committed atrocities against people like Simon. Yet Simon still understands the irrevocability of the crimes that Karl and the Nazis have committed, as he thinks of his own mother’s disappearance. As elsewhere in the story, Simon contrasts his experience with those of Germans, whose humanity is taken as a given, while Jews are deprived of life’s simplest comforts.
The man tells Simon that his name is Karl, and that he joined the SS as a volunteer. Simon understands then that Karl could not be a Jew. Karl continues, saying that he has to confess a crime he committed a year prior. He holds Simon’s hand.
Simon holding Karl’s hand serves as another gesture of kindness, even as he finds out that Karl is a German Nazi. It is also worth noting that Karl’s motivations for joining the SS are never truly explained, leaving many of the respondents wondering how he volunteered to be complicit in the system.
Simon begins to worry that his absence will be noticed by one of the overseers, and they will think he has escaped. He grows uneasy listening to Karl, but hears the nurse’s voice outside and feels somewhat reassured. Simon thinks that whatever Karl wants to confess, there would still be a sunflower on his grave.
The symbol of the sunflower returns as Simon sees the injustice in the fact that, regardless of the magnitude of this soldier’s crime, he would still be remembered and honored.
Karl starts to recount his early life, saying that he was not born a murderer. Karl was born in Stuttgart, and is now twenty-one—too young to die, he says. Simon thinks to himself that the Nazis did not consider Jewish children too young to die. Karl guesses what Simon is thinking, and asks whether he may not still say that he is too young, regardless of circumstances.
Throughout Karl’s story, even as Simon reserves compassion for him, he does not forget the millions of others for whom Karl and the Nazis had no compassion.
Karl continues: his father had been a factory manager and a Social Democrat. His mother brought him up as a Catholic. When he joined the Hitler Youth, he stopped going to church. His parents stopped speaking to him about politics, worried that Karl would reveal their reservations about the Nazis.
Many of the Christian respondents later in the novel point to Karl’s asking for forgiveness as a sign that he has returned to a moral and religious life, and therefore he should be granted forgiveness. The Christian God is a merciful and forgiving one.
Karl found friends in the Hitler Youth, while his father rarely spoke to him. When the war broke out, Karl volunteered in the SS. His father was ardently opposed. He and the other volunteers had then been sent to a training camp. Karl says that he wanted to be a part of something exciting and grand. At that point, Simon tries to release his hand, but Karl holds tighter.
Karl’s explanation still leaves many psychological questions unanswered—for instance, the question of how ordinary men joined the army solely for “something exciting and grand” but lost their compassion and humanity so completely as to be able to carry out mass murder.
Karl moves on to his time in Poland, leading up to his crime. He hopes that his mother never finds out what he did; he supposes she remembers him as the happy, joke-making, high-spirited boy he once was. Simon thinks about his own childhood and the jokes he shared with friends, before questioning whether his and Karl’s backgrounds truly have anything in common.
Karl eventually asks for forgiveness, but Simon’s refusal to tell Karl’s mother about what he has done is actually a much larger gift in that it allows her to live a peaceful, happy end of her life.
Simon wonders why a Jew must listen to the confession of a dying Nazi, and why Karl did not ask for a priest instead to help him die in peace. Simon thinks of his own death, which he assumes will be violent. Remembering the past begins to make him feel weak and he wishes to leave, but seeing how helpless Karl is makes him stay.
Simon’s thoughts here anticipate the thoughts of many respondents later in the book. Perhaps Karl understood that he would be easily forgiven by a Catholic priest, but it would be much harder to earn forgiveness from Simon. Yet, in Simon’s religion, he cannot grant this forgiveness.
Karl begins to describe his fighting in Russia, but trails off as he feels sorry for himself. Simon looks out the window, looking for a sign. He explains that, in the wake of God’s apparent abandonment of his people, “mysticism and superstition” had become much more common among the Jews in the camps. With God on leave, the only hope for the Jews was that supernatural powers might intervene to save them. Such fantasies were the only way of escaping the terrible truth of a world that had lost all reason. At that moment, a fly buzzes around Karl’s head, and Simon swats it away and Karl thanks him. Simon realizes that he has, without thinking, “contrived to lighten the lot” of this person who, though an enemy and an oppressor, was equally as helpless as Simon. Moreover, he had done so “without thinking, simply as a matter of course.”
The fly in a way represents Karl’s guilty conscience in the face of death, and Simon is able to alleviate it somewhat through his small acts of kindness, if not through explicit forgiveness. In the face of mortality, Simon realizes, all people are equally helpless. He seems to feel some ambivalence about how instinctive his humane treatment of the German is. He treats Karl with kindness and respect without even thinking about it. Thus, despite all their efforts to dehumanize the Jews, Simon retains a deep sense of humanity.
Karl continues his narration: when fighting in Russia, they had come to a Ukrainian village and shot at the Russians hiding in a deserted farmhouse. Karl describes the fighting as “inhuman,” but says that they had continued “to make history.”
Karl seems to begin to understand the inhumanity of war, but at first he only realizes it through his own experiences, not by having sympathy for the innocent Jews.
One summer day, Karl and his unit had pressed forward to Dnepropetrovsk, where the Russians had recently retreated. Karl and his fellow officers arrived at a large square in which a group of Jews stood. He had only come into contact with a few Jews before: a family doctor whom his mother trusted exclusively to treat her, and the Jews that worked at an army base in Poland, for whom he would leave food when they cleaned his quarters. Simon notes that Karl speaks about the Jews with a “warm undertone in his voice.”
Again, Karl shows how the Nazi’s tactics of dehumanization can be effective not only in demoralizing the Jews but in making it easier for the Nazis to commit atrocities. Here Karl has sympathy for the individual Jews with whom he is familiar, but the Nazi generalizations and stereotypes, on the other hand, make it easy to marginalize people.
Karl explains that they had been told that the Jews were the cause of all the Germans’ misfortunes—the cause of war, poverty, hunger, and unemployment. He and the other soldiers marched toward the mass of people, almost two hundred, including many children.
Here Karl shows how he has subscribed to the anti-Semitic generalizations and stereotypes that enabled Nazis to commit such grave atrocities.
The strong men among the Jews were ordered to carry cans of gasoline to the upper stories of a nearby house. The rest of the Jews were driven into the house with whips. Another truck arrived with more Jews, who were crammed into the house. The door was then locked and a machine gun posted outside the door.
Karl’s description demonstrates just how trapped and dehumanized the Jews are, when men could be made to carry the gasoline cans that would eventually kill them.
Simon knows how the story will end. He tries to leave, but Karl pleads with him to stay. Simon doesn’t understand why he does, but there is something in Karl’s voice that prevents him. Simon speculates that it is perhaps his desire to hear the atrocities from a Nazi’s own mouth.
Perhaps the fact that Karl acknowledges his own guilt is what makes Simon stay, as most of the other Nazis would not acknowledge any wrongdoing over this incident (which Simon experienced firsthand after the war as a Nazi hunter).
Soldiers had then thrown grenades at the house. Karl had watched as the flames engulfed each floor. The Nazis had rifles ready to shoot anyone who tried to jump. Karl describes a man with a small child in his arms and a woman by his side who had jumped from the second story, and Karl had shot at them. He begins to weep, remembering the eyes of the child.
Karl shows true repentance in weeping at the death of this child and family, yet again it seems that his guilt is due to this singular crime against these three individuals in particular, not the larger crimes he has carried out in general.
Simon remembers a boy he had not been able to forget as well: Eli, a six-year-old who had lived with him in the Lemberg Ghetto. Eli lived near the gate, and sometimes wandered right up to it even though he knew it was dangerous to approach it.
Simon’s remembrance of Eli highlights the uncertainty surrounding the question of whether anyone besides Karl will remember the little boy he shot.
Simon explains that Eli is a pet name for Elijah, or Eliyahu Hanavi, the prophet. At Passover Seders, there is a customary cup of wine set aside for Eliyahu. The door is then left open for him and a prayer is recited so that he would come in and drink the wine. As a child, Simon had wondered why the cup remained full. His grandmother had told him that “he doesn’t drink more than a tear!” The children had looked on Eliyahu as their protector.
Simon’s memory of Eli spurs him further into his memory of his childhood. The narrative returns to its implications of Simon’s crisis of faith. They had offered the prophet customary wine, but he had not protected the Jewish children who are now dying in concentration camps.
Eli had miraculously survived many of the raids on the children, whom Germans viewed as useless because they could not work. While the adults labored, the SS rounded up the children and took them away. Adults built hiding places into their homes and the children developed a sense for danger, but gradually the soldiers discovered almost all the children.
These children are clearly innocent of any of the crimes of which the Germans accuse them, but they are killed anyway because the Germans’ purpose is to ensure that the Jews have no future as a people.
Eli would often go up to the gate because German policemen would give him something to eat. Once Simon saw him standing by a window, collecting the crumbs which someone had put out for the birds.
Again, the comparison with animals demonstrates how even Eli understands that he has fallen below the treatment of birds.
The SS Group Leader in charge of the Ghetto knew that a few children remained, and so he told the Jewish Council that he would set up a kindergarten so that the children could be looked after while the adults worked. The Jews viewed this as a sign of a more humane attitude, so the parents of the remaining children were gradually persuaded to send them to kindergarten. One morning, however, three SS trucks arrived and took all the children away to the gas chambers. Eli had stayed home that day, however. He was the last Jewish child that Simon had seen.
For all the attempts at dehumanization that the Nazis make on the Jews, it is clear that those who have really fallen below the mark of human decency are the Nazis themselves. The use of deception to carry out the murder of innocent children is perhaps the most chilling act that is relayed in the book, even though the actual violence is not described.
Simon’s sympathy for Karl evaporates, but he still does not leave. Karl says that he is haunted by the screams. He continues his story, saying that he and others all had a sleepless night, and could not look at each other. Their platoon leader had scolded them for their sensitivity, yelling that Jews are not human beings.
Many respondents in the second section of the book, particularly the Christian respondents, believe that Karl is truly repentant, and therefore deserves Simon’s forgiveness. Simon, for his own part, does demonstrate compassion in continuing to listen to Karl even though he is shocked and disturbed by the incident he described.
Simon hears footsteps in the corridor, and again attempts to leave. Karl tells him the nurse is standing guard outside and asks him to stay. Karl continues: in the following weeks they had advanced toward Crimea to fight the Russians. He pauses often for breath, and cries out “My God, my God.” Simon thinks to himself that God is absent, and that the Führer had taken His place in Karl’s life.
Again, Simon’s uncertainty regarding God makes it difficult for him to know what he believes is the moral thing to do. Questioning Karl’s own moral belief also begs the question: if one acts so immorally, does their belief in God matter? Many respondents later make the point that there is a vast gap between Christian teachings and Christian actions, particularly with regard to the Holocaust.
Karl describes the fighting in Crimea, how it lasted for weeks and military cemeteries sprang up everywhere with flowers on all the graves. Simon is once again reminded of the sunflower, and how this murderer would own something even in death. As Karl approached Russian-held Taganrog, the artillery fire became incessant. One day, when Karl was given the attack order, he climbed out of the trenches but was suddenly stopped by the memory of the burning family. At that moment, a shell exploded near him.
Once again, the symbol of the sunflower appears as a reminder of the ways in which Germans are seen as humans while Jews are not afforded even the simplest gestures of respect in life or in death. It is clear that Karl acknowledges his own guilt, as his silence and inaction in the face of the burning family now cause him to turn away from violence completely. Stopped in his tracks by the memory, he himself is now gravely injured.
Karl’s face and upper body had been “torn to ribbons.” The pain had become unbearable for him, and he was moved from one hospital to another. He longs to see his mother, though he knows that his father would only be severe toward him.
Some of the respondents to Simon’s question argue that Karl’s wounds and death are God’s punishment, and therefore Simon should not feel guilty in forgiving him because he has paid deeply for his crimes.
Karl says that the Jews he had killed died quickly and did not suffer as he does, adding that the Jews had not been “as guilty” as he was. At this, Simon stands to go, but Karl holds his hand to stay. Karl says he wishes that the shell had killed him. Simon believes that he is truly repentant for his crimes, but does not say anything.
Karl asks Simon to forgive him for the crimes he has committed, saying that without his answer he cannot die in peace. Simon remains silent for a time, then decides to walk out of the room without a word. He rejoins his comrades downstairs.
Simon’s silence at Karl’s question stems primarily from uncertainty. Even though many others justify his choice, Simon’s primary motivation to leave seems to stem from a willingness to provide compassion, but an inability to forgive Karl in the name of others and a God of which he was deeply unsure.
A fellow prisoner asks Simon where he has been, worried that if he did not return, they would have been punished back at the camp. Simon remains quiet, his mind still on Karl. The prisoners return to the camp. As they go, Simon looks at the people they pass, wondering whether they were just as wicked as the Nazis to look at human beings enduring such torture and do nothing.
Simon recounts a story he had heard two days before in which three Jews had been hanged in public. They had been left on the gallows, and someone had pinned a piece of paper on each of them that read “kosher meat.” The bystanders had laughed; the only woman who objected was promptly beaten.
Simon provides another example of the dehumanization of the Jews, as well as another example of how the Nazis used group mentalities and fear to silence those who could potentially stand in their way.
When they returned to the camp, Simon explains, they would be made to do exhausting exercises until the SS officer grew tired of his cruel joke. Or if a man were missing at roll call, they would execute ten men in his place as a deterrent to the others. And the same thing would happen each day, Simon thinks, until all of them were dead. As the prisoners near the camp, they are made to sing.
The systems of torture the Nazis use also become effective in preventing prisoners from attempting to escape at all because their aversion to being responsible for having more people harmed outweighs their own individual will to escape. They still retain their morality while the Nazis have none.
When the prisoners arrive back at the camp, Simon sees Arthur and Josek, and joins them for dinner. Arthur notes that Simon looks depressed. Simon looks over at the “pipe”—a narrow, fenced passage running around the camp and ending where the executions took place. Arthur explains that five people had been killed that day, including a boy. Simon thinks of Eli.
As Eli reappears again and again in Simon’s memory, it serves as his way of reminding the reader how important it is to remember those who have been unceremoniously murdered in the Holocaust, and to try to honor them as much as possible.
Simon begins to explain what had happened earlier that day, but worries that Arthur will judge him for caring more about Karl than the five men who had been shot that day. He hesitates, but then tells Arthur and Josek Karl’s story.
Simon’s thought process here encapsulates some of his inner conflict about Karl: he empathizes with him, but he does not want to forgive him at the expense of Jews that he did not know.
At the end of Simon’s story, Arthur exclaims, “One less!” Simon is slightly disturbed by the reaction. Another man who had been listening, Adam, says that he would like to watch a murderer die ten times a day. Simon understands Adam’s cynicism—he had lost a career, all of his possessions, his parents, and his fiancée. Adam and Arthur move to another bunk where someone is sharing news from the radio.
Simon’s inner conflict continues, especially because of Arthur and Adam’s reaction. It seems that he fears that he will lose his ability to show kindness toward a dying person, even if that person did commit crimes. In this way, Simon shows that he has retained his humanity despite the Nazis’ efforts to dehumanize him.
Josek remains with Simon. He says he had worried that Simon might actually forgive Karl, because he could not forgive crimes on behalf of other people. Simon wonders if the Jews are not a single community with the same destiny. Josek warns him about such generalizations.
Unlike Arthur and Adam, Josek gives a makes religious argument. His logic is echoed by most, if not all, of the Jewish respondents in the second half of the book, who argue that Simon did right by showing compassion, but he could not have forgiven Karl.
Josek explains that he believes in Haolam Emes (which he defines as another world where humans will meet again after death). If Simon had forgiven Karl, Josek reasons, the dead people would ask who gave him the right to forgive their murderer.
Part of the question of forgiveness, Josek points out here, is the question of remembrance. It is important not to forget the victims of Karl’s crimes when weighing whether to forgive him, simply because they are no longer alive.
Simon asks what Josek thinks of Karl’s repentance and the fact that he was truly in torment over his actions; Josek responds that Karl’s torment is only a small part of his punishment. Simon thinks that Karl was looking to him as a representative of the other Jews to whom he could no longer speak.
Simon’s concerns are echoed later by some of the respondents who say that Karl deserves forgiveness because of his repentance, and that he could not atone because he had no time to.
At that point, Arthur returns. He tells Simon that even if he had forgiven Karl with superhuman kindness, Simon could never have forgiven himself. He reasons that Karl should have sent for a priest to confess, and the priest would have forgiven him for his crimes. Simon notes the subtle irony of Arthur’s words, and asks if there are no general laws of guilt and penitence—whether each religion has its own ethics and answers. Arthur says he believes so.
Arthur here criticizes the aspect of Christianity that offers people forgiveness for any crime simply because they repent for it. Arthur’s argument summarizes what readers find in the second half of the book: that different religions have different beliefs, and those beliefs dictate how the practitioners of those religions act.
Simon thinks to himself that the only universal law for the basis of judgement was the law of death, which he describes as “logical, certain, and irrefutable.” That night, he dreams of Eli being brought to him. He tries to take the boy, but he only finds a bloody mess.
Simon continues to be haunted by Eli, who perhaps serves as a representation of the Jews that Karl has killed. Simon’s desire to honor them holds him back from forgiving Karl.
Arthur shakes Simon awake to stop his screams. Simon says he does not want to return to the hospital the next day. Arthur berates him for his sensitivity to Karl when Jews are dying all around him. Simon sees that Arthur doesn’t understand him, and confesses he doesn’t want to look at the people in the street, either. Arthur leaves Simon to go back to sleep, but Simon tries to stay awake to avoid his dream. He thinks about how the Jews had tried to integrate themselves into society at large, only to be hated and rejected. The Poles in particular, he says, always treated them as foreigners—even now that the Poles were also subjugated.
When Simon is awake, he seems to have the opposite sentiment from when he is sleeping, and feels that he must forgive Karl. Arthur’s argument lacks one realization: that Simon has agency in lessening Karl’s suffering, but not in helping other Jews. Some of the Buddhist respondents later say that lessening suffering makes any act justifiable.
The next morning, Simon and Arthur assemble for roll call. The prisoners are split up as they had been the day before. As Simon marches to the hospital, he once again notices the military cemetery with all the sunflowers. Simon thinks to himself that Karl would soon join the graves.
The recurrence of the sunflowers demonstrates a slight change in Simon’s thinking: where before he had been jealous of the soldiers who received them, now he is preoccupied with Karl’s impending death, wondering whether he acted correctly.
Another man in line points out a passerby, identifying him as a “racial German,” though three years ago he had been a “fanatical Pole.” Simon explains that many people “tried to cover their imperfect knowledge of German by being particularly beastly to Poles and Jews.”
The passerby’s transformation implies that the more anti-Semitic one is, the more German one is. Thus, the Nazis ensure that even soldiers who are not German are buying into the torture in order to fit in and to avoid torment themselves.
The prisoners arrive at the hospital. Before Simon is assigned a task, the nurse from the prior day returns. She asks Simon to come with her; when he protests, she says a few words to the orderly in charge and takes him aside.
Even Karl’s death dehumanizes Simon in a way, since in order to pass on Karl’s bundle, the nurse disregards Simon’s agency and treats him like a servant, taking him away against his will.
To Simon’s surprise, the nurse does not take him to Karl’s room, but instead leads him to a storage room. Inside, she gives him a bundle tied in a sheet with an address sewn on it. The nurse tells him that Karl had died the previous night, and that Karl wanted Simon to have his belongings. Simon refuses to take the bundle. He tells the nurse to send it to Karl’s mother’s address.
Many of the respondents, regardless of their religion, view the fact that Karl gave Simon his bundle as confirmation that Simon did in fact provide him with a sense of comfort, even if he felt he was unable to forgive him.
Simon returns to work, and notes a hearse driving past. The rest of the day he works in a trance. That night, he tells Josek and Arthur of Karl’s death. They are not particularly interested, but tell Simon that he was right not to take Karl’s belongings.
Karl’s motivation for leaving Simon his possessions is never explained, but it is notable that Simon’s friends believed that accepting Karl’s bundle would have implied a tacit forgiveness, and therefore he should not accept it.
Arthur tells Simon to stop obsessing over what happened, particularly because he could be killed for shouting in his sleep. He says that if the world comes to its senses, they will be able to discuss the question of forgiveness, but at that moment philosophical debate is a luxury that they cannot afford. That night, Simon does not dream of Eli. The next day, they return to their regular work at Eastern Railway.
Perhaps Arthur’s statement is what prompts Simon to write the book and to open up his question to the readers after the end of the Holocaust, and why Simon presumably includes responses from people of different faiths. Many of the respondents note that it is difficult to judge Simon for this reason: because they can never truly live inside the circumstances faced by the Jews at that time.
Two years pass, in which Simon witnesses a great deal of suffering and death. He says, “Once I myself was about to be shot but I was saved by a miracle,” but explains no further. During these years, Arthur had died in Simon’s arms during an epidemic of typhus. Adam was sent to the pipe after spraining his ankle. Josek and Simon were separated, and one day Simon found out that Josek had gotten a high fever. When Josek could not get up for work, he was shot.
Simon’s list of the ways in which his friends died demonstrates the magnitude of the senseless violence and inhumane treatment of the Jews. The dispassion with which he recites their deaths only reinforces how desensitized he was and how all-encompassing the Holocaust was.
Eventually the Germans withdraw from Lemberg and the camp is evacuated. Simon moves through Plaszow, Gross-Rosen, and Buchenwald, and lands in Mauthausen. The gas chambers continue to work at full pressure there, and the prisoners no longer have to work. Simon’s hunger is unbearable, to the point where he and others eat grass even though it kills some of them because they cannot digest it. He worries that the remaining Jews will be murdered all at once as soon as the Americans approach the camp.
As Simon recounts the different concentration camps through which he had traveled, it becomes clear that his and anyone else’s survival is, as he said earlier, a miracle. The Jews’ mistreatment and dehumanization becomes so severe that they are reduced to eating grass like animals, even with the knowledge that it might kill them.
One night, when Simon is consumed by hunger, the memory of Karl resurfaces. Karl looks angrily at Simon for not accepting his bundle. Simon screams aloud, and a doctor comes to ask what was wrong. Simon says he had only been dreaming.
Whereas before Simon had been haunted by the memory of Eli, here he is haunted by the memory of Karl. In a way, these two represent the dual sides of Simon’s conscience: one telling him to forgive, and the other not to.
During the same night, a man in Simon’s bunk dies. He and others try to conceal his death in order to have more space, but the free place could not be hidden. Two days later, a young Pole named Bolek takes the man’s place. He had come from Auschwitz, which had been evacuated. Bolek tells Simon about the men who died on the way from Auschwitz, whether due to starvation or because they could no longer walk.
At this point, the Jews who remain alive in the camp have been so dehumanized that they have nearly lost sight of each other’s humanity; in this passage, the prisoners can only see the practical consequences of their bunkmate’s death rather than mourning his loss.
One morning, Simon hears Bolek murmuring prayers. Gradually, he learns that Bolek had been training to be a priest. Simon asks Bolek what he would have done in his place when Karl had asked for forgiveness. Bolek reasons that Simon could only forgive a wrong done to himself, but that Karl had no one to ask and viewed Simon as his last chance for redemption.
Bolek provides a different perspective than Simon’s other friends in the camp. Though Bolek agrees with the reasoning that sins can only be forgiven by their victims or by God, he makes a distinction about perpetrators of murder precisely because they have no one to ask for forgiveness.
Bolek continues, arguing that Karl died in peace because Simon heard his confession. However, he also believes that Simon should have forgiven him if he felt that Karl was truly repentant, because Bolek (a Catholic) believes that repentance is the most important element in seeking forgiveness, and Simon had failed to grant a dying man’s final request. Bolek and Simon speak for a long time on the subject. Simon states that the talk was rewarding for both of them, as they had explained their arguments and had a better understanding of each other’s views.
This argument marks a distinction between many of the Jewish and Catholic respondents, seen later in the book. For Catholics, only repentance is required for forgiveness; for Jews, one must also have atoned for one’s sins.
Time jumps forward, after the war has ended. When Simon is finally freed, there is no home for him to return to: Poland is a cemetery. After the liberation, Simon joins a commission for the investigation of Nazi crimes in order to carry out justice and hopefully regain some of his faith in humanity.
Simon’s career path after the war hints at some of his true goals: to bring the Nazis to justice (not forgiveness for the sins they have committed) and to make sure their crimes are remembered.
In the summer of 1946, Simon, his wife and a few friends have an afternoon picnic on a hillside in Linz. As they look out at the sunny landscape, Simon notices a sunflower near them. He remembers Karl, and how lovingly he had spoken of his mother. He recalls her name and address, which had been printed on Karl’s possessions.
Even after several years, the sunflower still evokes strong feelings for Simon. Yet now it has taken on a slightly different meaning: one of remembrance, not only of the crimes that the Nazis committed but also of the moral dilemma that Simon faced.
Two weeks later, Simon is traveling to Munich and he stops in Stuttgart on the way so that he can visit Karl’s mother. He is unsure why he wants to talk with her, but hopes that it will give him a clearer picture of Karl’s personality.
Simon once again shows a great deal of empathy toward Karl in attempting to get a fuller picture of his life, and in investigating further whether Simon did him an injustice by not forgiving him.
The world continues to uncover the Nazi atrocities and finds them to be “so monstrous as to be incredible.” But quickly, Simon explains, priests, philanthropists, and philosophers ask the world to forgive the Nazis. They would be judged by God, the priests argue, and so “earthly justice” is unnecessary. Simon thinks this suits the Nazis, because they do not believe in God; it was earthly justice they feared most.
After the war, the theme of forgiveness takes on much greater stakes, as it becomes coupled with remembrance. Simon and others worry that if the Nazis are forgiven so quickly for their crimes, the world will also forget the atrocities.
Simon finds Stuttgart in ruins, with rubble everywhere. On walls he sees notices posted by families who have been torn apart and are looking to find each other. Simon walks through the town until he comes to an almost completely destroyed house. He knocks on the door and Karl’s mother answers. He asks her name, which is the same as the one on Karl’s bundle. She tells him to come in.
It is ironic that society is asking the Jews to forgive the Nazis for their crimes when so many homes and so many families remain destroyed—often irreparably so.
Simon enters the house. Over the sideboard hangs a photo which Simon immediately understands is of Karl, whom she calls a “a good, dear boy.” She notes that he died in the war. Simon tells her that he is bringing greetings from her son. She asks Simon when he had seen Karl; he lies and says that, while he was working on the Eastern Railway, a wounded soldier handed him an address and asked him to convey greetings from a fellow soldier.
Simon continues to show compassion toward Karl by obscuring the circumstances under which they met. He also shows his mother a kindness by not correcting her assessment of her “good” son’s morals, instead listening to her story.
Simon stares at the photograph of Karl, and remarks at his uniform. Karl’s mother explains that he was sixteen and in the Hitler Youth at the time. She disapproved of his joining the movement because she had raised him Catholic. Karl’s father had refused to talk to him after he had joined the Hitler Youth. When Karl volunteered for the SS, he went off to war without a word from his father. Karl’s father had been passed over for promotions because he was a Social Democrat, but during the war he became the manager. Only a few weeks later, the factory was bombed and he died in the explosion.
Karl’s backstory, many argue, makes him more guilty instead of less. He was raised Catholic and yet he decided to turn away from the church. He joined the Hitler Youth and the SS voluntarily and over the objections of his parents. Some argue that Karl still had his morality from his early religious teachings and was attempting to return to that virtuous life; others argue that this religious teaching was not enough to prevent him from committing atrocities, and so he is unforgiveable.
Simon understands Karl’s mother’s situation: he had spoken to many Germans and Austrians about the Nazis. Most had been against them, but were frightened of their neighbors. Simon wonders about those who had readily accepted the new regime, which had lifted them out of insignificance. But he also sees how this woman’s concern for her family above all else had helped criminals climb to power.
Many of the respondents debate whether Karl’s mother’s continued denial of her son’s involvement in the Nazis’ crimes makes her complicit in them. Some take the opinion that her denial had allowed him to participate in the crimes; others say that she cannot be guilty for her son’s crimes, just as Simon cannot forgive Karl on behalf of his victims.
Simon wonders if he should reveal Karl’s crimes to his mother. But he realizes that she was not very different from himself, grieving for the ruin of her family and her people. Karl’s mother remembers when the Jews had been taken away. They had been told that Hitler was giving them their own province, but later she found out the brutal truth.
In many ways, Simon’s continued kindness through the situation is brought on by his sympathy for Karl’s mother, not because she has illuminated Karl’s backstory in a way that makes Simon more sympathetic to him.
Simon tells Karl’s mother that he is a Jew. She becomes embarrassed, and says that she and her husband always lived with Jews peacefully. Simon agrees that she is not responsible for the fate of the Jews, but that Germans must take on a national responsibility for the Nazi’s crimes.
As Karl’s mother continues, the question of forgiveness becomes muddled because bringing Karl to justice would also involve hurting his mother, and the pair did not have nearly the same degree of guilt.
Karl’s mother tells Simon of a time in which a Gestapo official had come to inquire into a case of sabotage, but had told Karl’s father that he was above suspicion because Karl was in the SS. Still, Karl’s mother affirms that he never did anything wrong. Simon does not contradict her, nor does he confirm her belief. He leaves her house.
Even if Karl’s mother and father never committed any crimes themselves, the fact that they benefitted from their association with a Nazi does inherently associate them with an immoral regime.
Karl’s mother’s stories give Simon a fuller picture of Karl, but do not help Simon in his predicament. Simon thinks of the Nazis he put on trial, only one of whom showed remorse. Many of them regretted only that witnesses had survived to tell the truth. He wonders how Karl might have acted if put on trial.
Known as the most famous Nazi to show remorse, Albert Speer’s response appears in the second section of the book. He argues that Simon provided Karl with a great deal of comfort, and knows that forgiveness would be asking too much.
Simon makes a few final arguments: few Nazis had been born murderers, but they had become murderers on a grand scale. He thinks about how the world counsels him to forgive and forget the crimes committed against the Jews—to remain silent about what they had seen.
Simon explains how remaining silent, forgiving, and forgetting work in tandem to erase the history of the Holocaust. But it is clear through Simon’s work that he will not allow any of these things to happen.
Simon points out that he kept silent at Karl’s deathbed, and then again with Karl’s mother. He wonders about the silence of the bystanders in Nazi Germany as they watched Jews being led to the slaughterhouse.
Simon highlights the different silences that occur in the book: silences of resistance, silences of compassion, and silences of complicity. Silence is thus shown to be far from empty of meaning.
Finally, Simon brings up the question of forgiveness. He states that time takes care of forgetting, but forgiveness is an act of volition. He asks the reader to change places with himself and poses the question: what would they have done in his place?