At the beginning of The Sunflower, Simon (the author and protagonist) recounts the experience that led him to write the book: while Simon was still in the camps, a nurse brought him to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier named Karl, who asked Simon forgiveness for his crimes. Simon did not forgive Karl, but instead listened compassionately to his confession. Afterwards, Simon is plagued by not knowing whether his decision not to forgive a dying man was the right one, and this leads him to ask his friends what they might have done in his place. At the end of the story, Simon turns the question to his readers. The second half of the book is composed of responses to Simon’s question, written by thinkers and public figures from different religions and parts of the world. While not everyone agrees with Simon’s decision not to forgive Karl, nearly all agree that Simon acted with deep compassion. Simon’s actions reveal that when forgiveness is not an option, compassion can take its place as a means of providing comfort and hope.
Even though Karl is clearly repentant for his crimes, Simon feels that it would be irresponsible for him to forgive Karl, since he sees forgiveness as something that he cannot issue on behalf of the people Karl has wronged. Karl confesses to truly horrendous crimes, particularly an episode in which he helped light a house packed full of Jewish civilians on fire and then shot at them when they attempted to leap from the burning building. After Simon leaves Karl’s hospital room, he asks friends in the camp if he did the right thing, and they affirm his choice not to forgive Karl. Since Karl’s crimes were against other Jews (rather than against Simon specifically), they do not believe that it is Simon’s place to offer forgiveness on behalf of others, particularly strangers who are no longer alive.
Even though he feels he cannot grant Karl’s request for forgiveness, Simon still makes an effort to treat this man with compassion. For example, Simon holds Karl’s hand as he confesses, which is a clear recognition of Karl’s humanity and an attempt to give him comfort despite not being able to forgive him. Simon also waves away a fly that is bothering Karl and realizes with some surprise that he was trying to “lighten the lot of an equally defenseless superhuman, without thinking, simply as a matter of course.” Perhaps Simon’s kindest gesture lies in listening to this man’s confession at all, since the act of listening threatens both Simon’s physical and emotional health. Despite the distress it causes Simon to hear how Karl took part in the torture and murder of so many people like Simon, he remains to listen to Karl’s confession. On top of this, staying by Karl’s bedside is a threat to Simon’s safety, since he would have been punished if he had been discovered away from his work in the labor camp.
After the war, Simon travels to Germany to seek out Karl’s mother. When he visits her home, he doubles down on his decision not to forgive Karl or Germans in general, but still treats this woman with kindness and respect. When Karl’s mother tells Simon that they had always lived with the Jews peacefully and that they were not responsible for their fate, Simon reproaches her, saying “no German can shrug off the responsibility. Even if he has no personal guilt, he must share the shame of it.” In this way, Simon refuses to grant forgiveness to anyone, even those who were silently complicit. Yet Simon also sees that her grief is no different from the grief of so many others after the war, having lost her only son. Remaining silent for much of their brief visit, he refrains from telling her how he met her son or confirming her belief that Karl was a good person, but he also does not contradict this belief. In this way, Simon again provides compassion in the place of forgiveness.
At the end of his narrative, Simon puts the reader in his own shoes and asks others what they might have done. Many of the people who respond to Simon’s question affirm his actions, and many of those that do not agree with him still acknowledge that Simon acted as empathetically as he could, given the fact that he was still being tortured and was likely to die at the hands of the Nazis. One of the respondents who says he would have done as Simon did, Moshe Bejski, states that Simon’s kindness “goes beyond what a human being could be expected to do.” His words are echoed by many others. For those who believe Simon should have forgiven Karl, like Cardinal Franz König, their beliefs often stem from the idea that there is no limit to God’s mercy, and that therefore any repentant human being deserves forgiveness. Yet even the Cardinal acknowledges that Simon did Karl a great service just by listening to him. He points to the fact that Karl left Simon his belongings after his death as evidence that Karl felt accepted by him.
While many people after the war urged Jews to forgive and forget the atrocities of the Holocaust in order to move forward as a society, Simon’s experiences suggest that forgiveness is neither a simple solution nor straightforwardly ethical. In the absence of forgiveness, however, compassion provides an alternative way forward—one which does not require the individual to speak on behalf of others. Simon’s compassion instead offers the possibility of reconciliation simply by rejecting the hatred from which Karl’s crimes sprung in the first place. The question of whether Karl deserved forgiveness is answered by many different voices, but by presenting so many perspectives, the book suggests that there is no definitive answer. In the face of such an unanswerable question, compassion is offered as the best possible response.
Forgiveness and Compassion ThemeTracker
Forgiveness and Compassion Quotes in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness
“Look,” he said, “those Jews died quickly, they did not suffer as I do—though they were not as guilty as I am.”
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.
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.
By our silence, perhaps we acknowledge as much; we own up to our humanness. We concede that we are not gods and that we lack, as much as we might be loath to admit it, the capacity to provide understanding and assurance for every inexplicable moment in life.
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?