“You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness. What would you do?” This is the premise of The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, not a new book, but among the most thought-provoking ones I have recently read. Imprisoned in a camp and waiting for his own torturous death, Wiesenthal was forced to bear witness to the confessions of a dying Nazi soldier who, haunted by his own war crimes, sought forgiveness from a Jew. In that moment of reckoning, Wiesenthal responded with silence. Years later, still haunted by his own silence, he invited responses to his moral dilemma from distinguished political leaders, writers and theorists, jurists, activists, psychiatrists, theologians and inter-faith commentators, survivors of the Holocaust; and they responded, with all the moral imagination they could summon. The Sunflower, a collection of these responses, is a powerful ethical reflection on justice, and on the possibilities and limits of forgiveness.
That a recognition of crime is necessary for forgiveness, that no reconciliation is possible without genuine (rather than performative) repentance, and that there can never be lasting peace if past injustices have not been addressed, are not necessarily new ideas. It is also true that remorse accompanied by reformed behaviour is, in routine criminology, often considered a reason for the lightening of a sentence, as the essays point out. What is perhaps more compelling in the debates and disagreements in this book is its willingness to tackle the more challenging aspects of the question of forgiveness. For instance, do those who have not faced the said injustice, those who have not borne the scars and cannot imagine themselves in the position of the other, have a right to forgive? No, says theologian Alan Berger; I may forgive one who has sinned against me, but have no right to forgive on behalf of another.
Wiesenthal was forced to bear witness to the confessions of a dying Nazi soldier who, haunted by his own war crimes, sought forgiveness from a Jew.
Then for Berger comes the question of silence which, “in literary terms, is the principal character of this morality tale”. Berger differentiates between the first silence, when Wiesenthal remains mute at the bedside of the dying soldier; and the second one when, in visiting the now-dead soldier’s mother and learning how she thinks of her son as an ethical boy, Wiesenthal chooses, yet again, to remain silent. Berger reads the first silence as one of confusion and ethical paralysis, brought about when faced by one’s tormentor, who then demands of the forgiver a degree of moral integrity they themselves lack; while the second is a conscious act of pure grace, where the truth would hurt more. Na bruyaat satyam apriyam, goes a famous Sanskrit saying.
But what when forgiveness becomes the virtue of the weak, that moral-escape valve that permits evil to not just survive but thrive, asks Robert Brown. The Hindi poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar had also expressed a similar sentiment in his poem Shakti Aur Kshama: Kshama shobhti uss bhujang ko, jiske paas garal hai, uska kya jo dantheen, vishrahit, vineet, saral hai? Brown critiques the idea of “never forget, never forgive,” acknowledging merit in the former, but not so much in the latter, pointing to situations where forgiveness does make a difference in building up moral capital; he gives the example of Nelson Mandela, who forgave his brutal jailors after 27 years of being in jail. The Dalai Lama, too, has a similar position—forgive, but not forget, and continue to exercise compassion—applying it to the Chinese invasion of Tibet. “Labelling the Chinese as our enemies, we could self-righteously condemn them for their brutality and dismiss them as unworthy of consideration, but that is not the Buddhist way.” Interestingly juxtaposed against this is Jean Amery’s atheist position, where the theological aspect of this problem does not matter, for both the dying and the living may come to terms with their God or just as well die without consolation. Instead, the problem is seen purely in political terms: refuse reconciliation with criminals and press for worldly justice. As readers work through the many layers and perspectives of these books, drawing their own conclusions, one image that will surely haunt is that of the sunflower, planted and blooming on the graves of the dead.