The Sunflower explores the Anti-Semitism of pre-war and post-war Europe, emphasizing that the Nazis exploited and stoked widespread prejudice against Jews to get away with acts of unspeakable violence. Simon brings up examples of physical violence (such as hangings, harsh physical labor, and starvation) and psychological violence (such as Karl’s refusal to recognize Simon’s humanity, even while he asks for forgiveness) to show how prejudice led people to treat their Jewish victims as subhuman. However, despite this attempted dehumanization, Simon (and the other survivors of genocide with whom he speaks) have clearly retained their humanity. The book itself—a complex moral reckoning with compassion and forgiveness—demonstrates that despite the Nazis’ efforts to dehumanize him, Simon remains much more humane than any of his tormentors.
Of all the anti-Semitic dehumanization that Simon describes in The Sunflower, the concentration camps are perhaps the most significant, since they combine physical and psychological violence to make Jewish prisoners seem less than human in the eyes of both themselves and their captors. The psychological violence of the camps comes from the pervasive treatment of prisoners as if they weren’t human. When the prisoners leave the camps to go to work, for instance, the people of Lemberg barely look at them. Simon describes them as looking at “a herd of cattle being driven to the slaughterhouse.” The prisoners are also subjected to physical violence, such as beatings, hangings, or being shot to death for getting sick. In this environment, Simon ceases to fear sickness, suffering, or death. This shows Simon’s dehumanization, as to fear death is one of the most basic instincts of all living beings. Recalling the camps, Simon describes “a world that has ceased to regard man as man, which repeatedly ‘proves’ that one is no longer a man.” This description suggests that the camps set in place a self-fulfilling prophecy: Simon’s captors believed that he was less than human, so they treated him as less than human, which made Simon himself feel that he wasn’t fully human. Perhaps this is why the image of the sunflower itself—which adorns the graves of Nazi soldiers, but not Jewish prisoners, most of whom died without proper burial—plagues Simon so much. It represents the unjust idea that the innocent Jews are less human than the criminal Nazis.
Even though, at the end of his life, Karl comes to recognize that dehumanization is wrong, his confession shows that he retained until his death the dehumanizing prejudice that led to this violence in the first place. When Karl asks the nurse to get Simon, for instance, he asks simply for “a Jew,” and thus sees Simon not as an individual, but rather as a category of person. Furthermore, even as Karl asks for forgiveness, he does not seem to have any empathy for Simon’s own personal suffering. Simon notes that Karl has warm undertones in his voice when he speaks about the Jews, but this did not prevent him from committing the atrocity of lighting a house full of people on fire and watching as other soldiers shot people who tried to jump from the building. This shows how deeply rooted Karl’s anti-Semitism is; even as he sincerely asks forgiveness for the atrocities he has committed, he dehumanizes Simon in a way that parallels his dehumanization of other Jews during the war.
Yet for all of these attempts to dehumanize the Jews, the book is a testament to Simon’s ability to retain his own humanity in a time of crisis. Simon’s compassion for Karl makes this clear; even as Karl disrespects him and confesses to horrible crimes, Simon listens and holds Karl’s hand. Clearly, Simon is the more humane of the two men. Furthermore, after Simon’s encounter with Karl, Simon and others in the camp have a thought-provoking discussion about whether Simon should have forgiven Karl. This further attests to their humanity: they do not immediately dismiss this dying soldier or revel in his death the way many of the Nazi soldiers reveled in the deaths of people like them. Lastly, Simon treats and portrays Karl with empathy and he genuinely tries to do right by him in asking the reader to weigh in on whether Karl should have been forgiven. Therefore, despite the Nazis’ attempts to dehumanize the Jews, The Sunflower shows that this effort was in many cases unsuccessful, as Simon and other Holocaust survivors emerged from the camps with a greater and deeper sense of humanity than their violent, anti-Semitic captors.
Anti-Semitism and Dehumanization ThemeTracker
Anti-Semitism and Dehumanization Quotes in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness
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.
For me there would be no sunflower. I would be buried in a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me. No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb.
Although the Radicals formed a mere 20 percent of the students, this minority reigned because of the cowardice and laziness of the majority.
“Look,” he said, “those Jews died quickly, they did not suffer as I do—though they were not as guilty as I am.”
I asked myself if it was only the Nazis who had persecuted us. Was it not just as wicked for people to look on quietly and without protest at human beings enduring such shocking humiliation? But in their eyes were we human beings at all?
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.
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.
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.
We are not contemplating an action in the present, but the place of a past action in our memory. What can we do with evil in the past, how can we put it to use in the service of our moral education?