The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

by

Simon Wiesenthal

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The other principal character in The Sunflower and a Nazi soldier. When Simon meets Karl, he is bandaged from head to toe and dying in a makeshift hospital due to injuries he sustained when a shell exploded next to him. He had asked a nurse to fetch a Jew to whom he could confess his crimes, and begins to explain his life story to Simon. Karl was raised Catholic, but abandoned his faith to join the Hitler Youth and then volunteered for the SS over the objections of his mother and father. He goes on to recount his time during the war. His story centers around an episode in which he and other Nazis packed 300 Jews into a building which they then set on fire. When a family of three tried to jump from the second story, he shot at them. He is haunted by his actions, and Simon describes him as truly repentant. He asks Simon for forgiveness for his crimes, which Simon does not grant. Many of the respondents in the book point out that while Karl’s intentions are good, he does not seem to have let go of the anti-Semitism that served as the basis for his crimes, and shows little to no compassion for Simon during his confession.

Karl Quotes in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

The The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness quotes below are all either spoken by Karl or refer to Karl. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Forgiveness and Compassion Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Schocken Books edition of The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness published in 1969.
Book 1: The Sunflower Quotes

It is impossible to believe anything in a world that has ceased to regard man as man, which repeatedly “proves” that one is no longer a man.

Related Characters: Simon (speaker), Karl, Arthur
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

“Look,” he said, “those Jews died quickly, they did not suffer as I do—though they were not as guilty as I am.”

Related Characters: Karl (speaker), Simon
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

“Why,” I asked, “is there no general law of guilt and expiation? Has every religion its own ethics, its own answers?”

“Probably, yes.”

Related Characters: Simon (speaker), Arthur (speaker), Karl, Josek
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, “What would I have done?”

Related Characters: Simon (speaker), Karl, Arthur
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:
Sven Alkalaj Quotes

Forgetting the crimes would be worse than forgiving the criminal who seeks forgiveness, because forgetting the crimes devalues the humanity that perished in these atrocities.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:
Moshe Bejski Quotes

Even if Wiesenthal believed that he was empowered to grant a pardon in the name of the murdered masses, such an act of mercy would have been a kind of betrayal and repudiation of the memory of millions of innocent victims who were unjustly murdered, among them, the members of his family.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:
Matthew Fox Quotes

By holding his hand Simon was being present and being human. Though holding his hand repulsed him after more of the horror story was revealed, still he stayed in the room and listened. Listening was his gift; listening was his act of compassion.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

Willful ignorance is a sin. In this case, a catastrophic sin that made the Holocaust possible.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl, Karl’s Mother
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:
Hans Habe Quotes

Forgiveness is the imitation of God. Punishment too is an imitation of God. God punishes and forgives, in that order. But God never hates. That is the moral value worth striving for, but perhaps unattainable.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:
Theodore M. Hesburgh Quotes

Can we aspire to be as forgiving of each other as God is of us?

Of course, the sin here is monumental. It is still finite and God's mercy is infinite.

If asked to forgive, by anyone for anything, I would forgive because God would forgive.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:
Abraham Joshua Heschel Quotes

No one can forgive crimes committed against other people […] According to Jewish tradition, even God Himself can only forgive sins committed against Himself, not against man.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:
José Hobday Quotes

I would have forgiven, as much for my own peace as for Karl’s […] No one, no memory, should have the power to hold us down, to deny us peace. Forgiving is the real power.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:
Roger Kamanetz Quotes

I cannot encounter another person’s humanity as a category, but only when I meet him or her as a particular individual.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:
Cardinal Franz König Quotes

Nevertheless, you had an opportunity to put forward an act of almost superhuman goodness in the midst of a subhuman and bestial world of atrocities.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:
Matthieu Ricard Quotes

To grant forgiveness to someone who has truly changed is not a way of condoning or forgetting his or her past crimes, but of acknowledging whom he or she has become.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 236
Explanation and Analysis:
Albert Speer Quotes

You helped me a great deal—as you helped the SS man when you did not withdraw your hand or reproach him. Every human being has his burden to bear.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:
André Stein Quotes

We must not forget that millions were murdered by a nation of good sons. Every woman who doggedly holds on to a pristine moral image of her son is a collaborator in his crime.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl, Karl’s Mother
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire The Sunflower LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness PDF

Karl Character Timeline in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

The timeline below shows where the character Karl appears in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 1: The Sunflower
Forgiveness and Compassion Theme Icon
Silence, Guilt, and Resistance Theme Icon
The man tells Simon that his name is Karl, and that he joined the SS as a volunteer. Simon understands then that Karl could... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Karl starts to recount his early life, saying that he was not born a murderer. Karl... (full context)
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Karl continues: his father had been a factory manager and a Social Democrat. His mother brought... (full context)
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Karl found friends in the Hitler Youth, while his father rarely spoke to him. When the... (full context)
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Karl moves on to his time in Poland, leading up to his crime. He hopes that... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Karl begins to describe his fighting in Russia, but trails off as he feels sorry for... (full context)
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Karl continues his narration: when fighting in Russia, they had come to a Ukrainian village and... (full context)
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One summer day, Karl and his unit had pressed forward to Dnepropetrovsk, where the Russians had recently retreated. Karl... (full context)
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Karl explains that they had been told that the Jews were the cause of all the... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Soldiers had then thrown grenades at the house. Karl had watched as the flames engulfed each floor. The Nazis had rifles ready to shoot... (full context)
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Simon’s sympathy for Karl evaporates, but he still does not leave. Karl says that he is haunted by the... (full context)
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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:... (full context)
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Karl describes the fighting in Crimea, how it lasted for weeks and military cemeteries sprang up... (full context)
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Karl’s face and upper body had been “torn to ribbons.” The pain had become unbearable for... (full context)
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Karl says that the Jews he had killed died quickly and did not suffer as he... (full context)
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Karl asks Simon to forgive him for the crimes he has committed, saying that without his... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Simon asks what Josek thinks of Karl’s repentance and the fact that he was truly in torment over his actions; Josek responds... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...once again notices the military cemetery with all the sunflowers. Simon thinks to himself that Karl would soon join the graves. (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Bolek continues, arguing that Karl died in peace because Simon heard his confession. However, he also believes that Simon should... (full context)
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...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,... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Simon stares at the photograph of Karl, and remarks at his uniform. Karl’s mother explains that he was sixteen and in the... (full context)
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Simon understands Karl’s mother’s situation: he had spoken to many Germans and Austrians about the Nazis. Most had... (full context)
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Simon wonders if he should reveal Karl’s crimes to his mother. But he realizes that she was not very different from himself,... (full context)
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Simon tells Karl’s mother that he is a Jew. She becomes embarrassed, and says that she and her... (full context)
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Karl’s mother tells Simon of a time in which a Gestapo official had come to inquire... (full context)
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Karl’s mother’s stories give Simon a fuller picture of Karl, but do not help Simon in... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Sven Alkalaj
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...these atrocities.” He also argues that Simon had no right to forgive on behalf of Karl’s victims. (full context)
Jean Améry
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...or feeling. He supposes that only slightly different circumstances might have led Simon to forgive Karl. Thus, accepting Karl’s request means just as little as rejecting his request, and the psychological... (full context)
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...person or not. It comes down to a matter of whether Simon wanted to ease Karl’s pain or not. (full context)
Smail Balić
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There are those who argue that because Karl did not injure Simon himself, Simon could forgive him with more ease. These people miss... (full context)
Moshe Bejski
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...think about them fifty years after they took place. Bejski writes that, as a Nazi, Karl is a representative of all German Nazis, who collectively committed “abominable crimes” against the Jewish... (full context)
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...a witness to these crimes whose entire family has been annihilated. Bejski describes Simon and Karl as representing two entirely different worlds—one a criminal, the other a victim. (full context)
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Bejski concludes by affirming that Simon’s silence in the face of Karl’s statement and his restraint when visiting Karl’s mother “goes beyond what a human being could... (full context)
Alan L. Berger
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...out that silence is the main character in this morality tale. Simon’s first silence, in Karl’s room, is an instantaneous and confused decision. The second, in Karl’s mother’s home, is a... (full context)
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Berger believes that Simon could not and should not forgive Karl. Additionally, in asking for a Jew to hear his confession, Karl continued to perceive the... (full context)
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Berger questions whether Karl’s repentance was sincere, and if it was, whether it is morally possible to be repentant... (full context)
Robert McAfee Brown
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In Simon’s shoes, Brown states that he would have told Karl to address his plea to God. After that, it is the responsibility of people as... (full context)
Henry James Cargas
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...sin, certainly the Nazis have committed it. He himself would not be able to forgive Karl, as Simon could not. (full context)
Robert Coles
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...as well. Coles, for his own part, states that he would likely have turned from Karl in a “tearful rage” and would have prayed that God would forgive Karl. But he... (full context)
Edward H. Flannery
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...guilty following his silence, and that his feelings are even more evident when he visits Karl’s mother. (full context)
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...for mercy. He believes that the question of whether Simon has a right to forgive Karl in the name of all Jews is irrelevant, because Karl did not ask Simon to... (full context)
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...them subject to change based on individual needs. He says regardless, he would have forgiven Karl. (full context)
Eva Fleischner
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Fleischner believes that Simon responds to Karl’s request for forgiveness nonverbally throughout their interaction, by holding Karl’s hand, by shooing the fly... (full context)
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...the victims are in a position to forgive, and therefore Simon could not have granted Karl’s request. (full context)
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Fleischner points out that Karl cannot atone for his crime, because the victims are dead, and that Simon cannot forgive... (full context)
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...his situation. She also states that, rereading the story, she is struck by how oblivious Karl seems to Simon’s suffering as he makes his confession. She questions whether Karl could have... (full context)
Matthew Fox
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...story: Simon does not know whether he is going to live through the day, while Karl wants Simon to relieve him of his guilt. Fox points out that the crime to... (full context)
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Furthermore, Fox writes, Catholics must undergo penance and demonstrate contrition, and Karl was a lapsed Catholic. Thus, in remaining silent, Simon gave him the penance he could... (full context)
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Fox then considers Simon’s visit with Karl’s mother, where Simon let her believe that her son was innocent. He notes that Karl’s... (full context)
Rebecca Goldstein
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Goldstein addresses her response directly to Simon. She wonders why Karl feels he has the right to die in peace. She notes that Karl summons Simon... (full context)
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Goldstein believes that when Karl turned from Christianity to Nazi ideology, his moral nature did not change much at all.... (full context)
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Karl came to see his guilt to some extent, but not fully, Goldstein writes. If he... (full context)
Mary Gordon
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Gordon sees Karl’s request for forgiveness as a narcissistic act, because it places his need to be purged... (full context)
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Karl is wrong to ask for forgiveness for two reasons, Gordon states. He is asking one... (full context)
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In order to atone, Gordon writes, Karl should have publicly acknowledged his guilt. Then the atonement should match the crime, and Karl... (full context)
Mark Goulden
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...even God to exonerate the Nazis. Goulden concludes by saying he would have silently left Karl’s deathbed “having made quite certain there was now one Nazi less in the world!” (full context)
Hans Habe
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...question in this way: humans are not an appeal court from God. God’s punishment struck Karl, and Simon should not acquit someone whom God has punished. (full context)
Yossi Klein Halevi
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...He points to the immense humanity Simon and his fellow prisoners showed in debating forgiving Karl. (full context)
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Halevi’s essay thus begins not with Simon and Karl’s visit, but Simon’s visit with Karl’s mother. He sees that Simon rejects an opportunity for... (full context)
Arthur Hertzberg
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Hertzberg opens by stating that Karl’s personal history makes him more guilty, not less. He had been raised by a pious... (full context)
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...sure that one will be killed for not complying with an order to kill. Thus, Karl should have risked losing his life rather than murdering, and Simon was right not to... (full context)
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But Hertzberg also agrees that Simon should not have told Karl’s mother about her son, because each person should die for their own sins, and not... (full context)
José Hobday
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...order to forgive one must also forget. She believes that forgiveness is necessary not for Karl’s peace of mind, but for Simon’s. No memory should have the power to hold someone... (full context)
Christopher Hollis
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...said “a word of compassion,” because the law of God is the law of love. Karl was frankly confessing his crime and was sincerely repentant. Had Karl lived, he should have... (full context)
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...and Josek: that Simon could not forgive sins committed against someone else. Hollis argues that Karl’s crime was an incident in a general campaign of genocide, and Simon was certainly a... (full context)
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Hollis does see Karl’s actions as odd in that he asked for Simon at his deathbed and not a... (full context)
Roger Kamanetz
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Kamanetz states that Simon’s response to Karl was the best possible response. He makes a simple point: Karl did not view Simon... (full context)
Cardinal Franz König
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The Cardinal recognizes that pardoning Karl would have surpassed mere human kindness. However, he believes that Simon had an opportunity for... (full context)
Harold S. Kushner
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...God.” It occurs when one finds the ability to act differently in the future. Thus, Karl should have said to himself that he rejected his Nazi life instead of asking Simon... (full context)
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Because Karl died shortly after confessing, it is unclear whether he truly repented for his crimes. Furthermore,... (full context)
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...are granting forgiveness. Therefore, Kushner writes that, for Simon, forgiveness would mean refusing to let Karl define him as a victim. That would be liberating for Simon, while leaving Karl “chained... (full context)
Lawrence L. Langer
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The fact that Karl is asking for forgiveness shows to Langer that he does not understand the magnitude of... (full context)
Primo Levi
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...believes that Simon’s actions were right because they were the “lesser evil;” for Simon, forgiving Karl would have meant lying, or inflicting a “moral violence” upon himself. Forgiving Karl would have... (full context)
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Levi adds that, had Karl not been on his deathbed, he would not have repented until much later. It was... (full context)
Deborah E. Lipstadt
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...bears the consequences of one’s actions. She states that the reader does not know whether Karl actually performed teshuvah, and he did not perform kaparah. Thus, he could not be forgiven. (full context)
Franklin H. Littel
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Littel explains that the main problem for Karl was that “the only human persons who could have forgiven him were dead.” Christians believe... (full context)
Hubert G. Locke
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Locke homes in on the silence throughout The Sunflower: first in Karl’s room and then again at Karl’s mother’s home. He writes that readers should learn from... (full context)
Erich H. Loewy
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...an acceptance of common humanity, which he supposes might perhaps have been more valuable to Karl than forgiveness. (full context)
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Loewy understands Simon’s refusal to forgive Karl, because he cannot forgive the murder of someone else, nor should he need to point... (full context)
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Loewy also agrees with Simon’s decision to lie to Karl’s mother, viewing it as a well-calculated and kind decision to shield her from the truth.... (full context)
Cynthia Ozick
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Ozick breaks up her response into sections. She first addresses Karl’s Christian education, and how this education should have prevented him from growing up to be... (full context)
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Ozick compares Karl, who has a moral revelation, to the brute who has no conscience. She writes that... (full context)
John T. Pawlikowski
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...speak the words of forgiveness, his conversation in the camp and his unwillingness to destroy Karl’s image for his mother implies to Pawlikowski that Simon’s innermost feeling comes close to forgiveness. (full context)
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...writes, is reconciliation. This process requires repentance, contrition, taking responsibility, healing, and reunion, for which Karl and Simon had too little time. Thus, Pawlikowski agrees with Simon’s decision, but notes that... (full context)
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...whether Simon’s own uncertainty about God is truly what haunted him in his encounter with Karl, in the sense that perhaps Simon was uncertain how to approach Karl and the question... (full context)
Dith Pran
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...people, but he feels far more able to forgive the soldiers, and would have forgiven Karl. (full context)
Terence Prittie
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Prittie tries to understand Karl’s motives in asking for forgiveness, admitting that it is only natural when one is in... (full context)
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However, Prittie argues that if Simon were to forgive Karl, it would only be “mock-forgiveness,” purely because Karl is dying. Karl should not have been... (full context)
Matthieu Ricard
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...to escape the “whirlpool of wrongdoing.” Finally, Ricard counsels that a Buddhist might have told Karl to pray for his future lives, in which he is destined to undergo much suffering. (full context)
Joshua Rubenstein
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Rubenstein views Karl’s crimes as common in a century filled with violence, citing Cambodia, Rwanda, and Latin America.... (full context)
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Rubenstein writes that he is completely indifferent to Karl’s plea for forgiveness, because Karl seems to have been motivated more by his approaching death... (full context)
Sidney Shachnow
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Yet at the same time, Shachnow states Karl does not deserve forgiveness. Shachnow is also a Holocaust survivor. He understands that the misery... (full context)
Albert Speer
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...notes that Manès Sperber (who wrote the following essay) assumes that Simon would not condemn Karl if he had lived and remained faithful to his conviction of remorse. Speer reveals that... (full context)
Manès Sperber
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Sperber acknowledges Karl’s guilt, but says that Karl differed from others because he brought the accusation against himself.... (full context)
André Stein
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Stein asks if Karl even had the right to ask for forgiveness, whether his repentance was authentic, and whether... (full context)
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Stein views true repentance as involving empathy towards the victims. But Karl still thought of the Jew as an object that he could summon and from whom... (full context)
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...Simon listened with the ears of those who were dead or close to death, as Karl’s story reminded him of Eli, his mother, and his friends. Yet, he still listened to... (full context)
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...conscience. He also wonders why Simon should be expected to act with superhuman goodness towards Karl—i.e., why the victim should be expected to act more morally than the perpetrator. (full context)
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Stein states that he is not at peace, however, with Simon’s decision to let Karl’s mother believe in her son’s goodness, stating that millions of people were murdered by a... (full context)
Nechama Tec
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Tec points out that Karl’s guilt over a single family did not seem to include the Jews in general, nor... (full context)
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...not only shows an appropriate lack of forgiveness, but also a measure of compassion. Whereas Karl was indifferent to issues that did not bear on him directly, Simon and his friends... (full context)
Arthur Waskow
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Waskow theorizes that Karl has shattered the “Four Worlds”: Doing, Relating, Knowing, and Being. To forgive, Karl and the... (full context)
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...because there is no way to repair the physical damage done to the Jews that Karl murdered. Only in one of the worlds can they work together: the world of knowing.... (full context)
Harry Wu
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Like Simon, Wu would not have forgiven Karl, but also would have understood that he was part of a horrible and vicious society.... (full context)