As Simon states in The Sunflower, there are many kinds of silence. There is the silence of those who stood by during the Holocaust, the silence of its victims, and the silence Simon refuses to break when Karl asks for forgiveness. Importantly, this latter type of silence does not mean that Simon is voiceless or uncertain: Simon’s silence communicates his refusal to forgive, as well as his sympathy for a dying man. Simon’s exploration of different types of silence shows that the silence of complicity, born out of willful ignorance, can be deeply harmful, but it also shows that silence can be positive. In Simon’s case, his silence is often compassionate and powerfully symbolic.
Simon’s silence in facing both Karl and Karl’s mother is simultaneously compassionate and a symbolic gesture of resistance. It enables reconciliation while withholding forgiveness. When Karl asks for Simon’s forgiveness, Simon’s silence is a tacit acknowledgement that he cannot forgive him on behalf of those he ahs wronged, and also that he feels Karl’s crimes are too great to be forgiven. Yet Simon’s willingness to listen to Karl, to have sympathy in the face of his suffering, and to not attempt to avenge those who have died or suffered at Karl’s hands demonstrates Simon’s immense capacity for compassion. Similarly, when Simon visits Karl’s mother, he listens to her story and provides her with comfort, bringing her “greetings” from her son. However, his decision to remain silent about Karl’s sordid past is a gesture of compassion, as he deliberately chooses not to ruin her belief that her son is “good.” This is a silence that refuses to lie (Simon does not affirm that Karl was a good person) and continues to refuse to grant forgiveness, but also one that works toward reconciliation. Simon again demonstrates his compassion in treating Karl’s mother with kindness and respect, thereby helping to ease both of their pain.
Simon contrasts these examples of compassionate silence with the silence of Germans and other bystanders during the war. Their silence in the face of injustice, he feels, makes them complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime. These silences spring from deliberate ignorance, or a desire to unburden oneself at the expense of others who are suffering. When Simon and other Jews are taken outside the camp, he describes how many people saw them and wrote them off as doomed in order to justify their inaction and silence. He recalls feeling that the world had conspired against the Jews, and that their “fate was accepted without a protest, without a trace of sympathy.” He also remembers how so many people—particularly Poles and ethnic Germans—had gone along with this extermination because they feared that if the Jews were not subjugated, they themselves would have been instead. Many of those who responded to Simon’s question pick up on these silences. Matthew Fox, in particular, speaks to the idea that “This story—the entire Nazi story—lays bare the sins of complicity and the sins of omission and denial that render our participation in evil so profound.” The silence of so many in the face of atrocity, therefore, can make an entire society responsible for enabling this kind of evil.
While Simon does show that silence can be powerful and compassionate, his discussion of complicit silence suggests that, often, silence is the wrong choice. After the war, many Jews were “advised to keep silent” about the hell that they had endured, a request that, once again, springs from a desire for willful ignorance and a perpetuation of oppression. Yet the book itself represents Simon’s own resistance to being silent in the face of injustice, as he aims to tell his story even when he and others are encouraged not to speak.
Silence, Guilt, and Resistance ThemeTracker
Silence, Guilt, and Resistance Quotes in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness
Although the Radicals formed a mere 20 percent of the students, this minority reigned because of the cowardice and laziness of the majority.
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?
Those who might appear uninvolved in the actual crimes, but who tolerate acts of torture, humiliation, and murder, are certainly also guilty.
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.
Willful ignorance is a sin. In this case, a catastrophic sin that made the Holocaust possible.
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.
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 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.