The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

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The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness
Simon Wiesenthal - The sunflower on the possibilities and limits of forgiveness.jpeg
AuthorSimon Wiesenthal
GenrePhilosophy, memoir
PublisherOpera Mundi

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness is a book on the Holocaust by Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal, in which he recounts his experience with a terminally wounded Nazi during World War II. The book describes Wiesenthal's experience in the Lemberg concentration camp and discusses the moral ethics of the decisions he made. The title comes from Wiesenthal's observation of a German military cemetery, where he saw a sunflower on each grave, and fearing his own placement in an unmarked mass grave. The book's second half is a symposium of answers from various people, including other Holocaust survivors, religious leaders and former Nazis. The book was originally published in German by Opera Mundi in Paris, France in 1969. The first English translation was published in 1970.[1]


In 1943, at the height of both World War II and the Holocaust, a group of forced labourers from the Lemberg concentration camp are sent to a converted army hospital to clear medical waste. Simon Wiesenthal is summoned from this work detail by a nurse to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier, Karl Seidl. The soldier tells him he is seeking "a Jew's" forgiveness for a crime that has haunted Seidl since it was committed one year prior.[2] Over a number of hours, Seidl tells Wisenthal his life story, including joining Hitler Youth and his experiences in the SS. He then confesses to having participated in the destruction, by fire and armaments, of a house full of 300 Jews. He states that as the Jews tried to leap out of windows to escape the burning building, he and the other soldiers gunned them down.

After Seidl finishes his story, he asks Wiesenthal to forgive him. Wiesenthal then leaves the room without saying anything. The next day, the nurse informs Wiesenthal that the soldier has died. The nurse tells him that Seidl has left his belongings to him, but Wiesenthal refuses to take them, telling the nurse to have them sent to Seidl's mother. Wiesenthal ruminates on whether or not he should have forgiven Seidl through the rest of his experiences in the concentration camp system. After the war, he finds Seidl's mother, who in their conversation unintentionally confirms the details of her son's story. Seidl's mother asks him how he knew his son, but Wiesenthal lies and leaves without telling her of her late son's participation in the Holocaust.[3] He then poses the ethical dilemma of whether or not he should have forgiven Seidl to the reader, after which a variety of responses from a diverse group of individuals is given.


In the latest edition of the book, there are 53 responses given from various people, up from 10 in the original edition.[4] Among respondents to the question are theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Holocaust survivors, former Nazis and victims of attempted genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, China and Tibet. The responses vary. Some respondents write that forgiveness ought to be awarded for the victims' sake; others respond that it should be withheld. Others do not say definitively whether or not forgiveness was the right thing.

List of responses[edit]

Name Nationality Profession Religion Response
Sven Alkalaj Bosnian Diplomat and politician Judaism Uncertain
Jean Améry Austrian Essayist; Holocaust survivor Judaism Uncertain
Smail Balić Bosnian-Austrian Historian Islam Uncertain
Moshe Bejski Israeli; Polish-born Judge; President of Yad Vashem's Righteous Among the Nations Commission; Holocaust survivor Judaism Do not forgive
Alan L. Berger Professor of Religion and Holocaust studies; Author Do not forgive
Robert McAfee Brown American Minister; Activist; Theologian; Professor of Theology and Ethics; Author Christianity (Presbyterian) Uncertain
Harry James Cargas American Professor; Holocaust scholar; Author Christianity (Roman Catholic) Do not forgive
Robert Coles American Author; Psychiatrist; Professor Do not forgive
The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) Tibetan Spiritual leader; Activist; Nobel Peace Prize laureate Buddhism (Tibetan) Forgive
Eugene J. Fisher Catholic Bishop; Author; Scholar of Interreligious studies Christianity (Roman Catholic) Uncertain
Edward H. Flannery American Catholic Priest; Author; Activist against anti-Semitism Christianity (Roman Catholic) Forgive
Eva Fleischner Professor of Religion; Author Do not forgive
Matthew Fox President of University of Creation Spirituality; Author; Priest Christianity (Episcopalian); formerly Roman Catholic Do not forgive
Rebecca Goldstein American Philosopher; Author Judaism (Orthodox) Do not forgive
Mary Gordon American Professor of English, Barnard College; Author Christianity (Roman Catholic) Do not forgive
Mark Goulden British Journalist; Publisher Judaism Do not forgive
Hans Habe Austrian; Hungarian-born Author; Publisher; Jewish descent Christianity (Protestant) Uncertain
Yossi Klein Halevi Israeli; American-born Author; Journalist; Son of Holocaust survivor Judaism Uncertain
Arthur Hertzberg American; Polish-born Rabbi; Author; Scholar; Activist Judaism (Conservative) Do not forgive
Theodore M. Hesburgh American Priest; Professor; President of University of Notre Dame Christianity (Roman Catholic) Forgive
Abraham Joshua Heschel American; Polish-born Rabbi; Theologian; Philosopher; Professor; Author Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative) Do not forgive
Susannah Heschel American Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College; Scholar; Daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel Judaism Do not forgive
José Hobday American Franciscan nun; Author; has written about Catholic and Native American spirituality; of Seneca, Iroquois and Seminole descent Christianity (Roman Catholic) Forgive
Christopher Hollis British Journalist; Author; former Member of Parliament Christianity (Roman Catholic) Forgive
Rodger Kamenetz American Poet; Author; Professor of Religious Studies at Louisiana State University Judaism Do not forgive
Cardinal Franz König Austrian Cardinal; Archbishop of Vienna; Theologian; Scholar Christianity (Roman Catholic) Forgive
Harold S. Kushner American Rabbi; Author Judaism (Conservative) Do not forgive
Lawrence L. Langer American Scholar; Professor; Holocaust analyst; Author Do not forgive
Primo Levi Italian Author; Chemist; Holocaust survivor Judaism Do not forgive
Deborah E. Lipstadt American Historian; Author; Professor; Holocaust scholar Judaism Do not forgive
Franklin H. Littell American Holocaust scholar; Christianity (Methodist) Do not forgive
Hubert G. Locke Professor; Holocaust scholar Uncertain
Erich H. Loewy Professor of Bioethics, University of California Davis Do not forgive
Herbert Marcuse German; American Philosopher; Sociologist; Political theorist; Author Judaism Do not forgive
Martin E. Marty American Religious scholar Christianity (Lutheran) Forgive
Cynthia Ozick American Author Judaism Do not forgive
John T. Pawlikowski American Priest; Professor of Social Ethics; Advocate for Catholic-Jewish relations Christianity (Roman Catholic) Do not forgive
Dennis Prager American Author; Theologian Judaism (Orthodox) Do not forgive
Dith Pran American; Cambodian Photojournalist; survivor of Cambodian genocide; subject of The Killing Fields Forgive
Terence Prittie British Journalist; Author; Do not forgive
Matthieu Ricard French Author; Buddhist Monk; PhD in Molecular Genetics Buddhism (Tibetan) Forgive
Joshua Rubenstein Regional director for Amnesty International USA; Fellow of Russian Studies Do not forgive
Sidney Shachnow American; Lithuanian-born Major General, U.S. Army; Purple Heart Recipient; Green Beret; Holocaust survivor Judaism Do not forgive
Dorothee Sölle German Theologian; Author Christianity (Lutheran) Uncertain
Albert Speer German Minister of Armaments and War Production for Nazi Germany; Chief Architect to Adolf Hitler; Nazi party member; Accepted moral responsibility at the Nuremberg trials; known as the "Nazi who said sorry" Do not forgive
Manès Sperber Austrian-French Author; Psychologist Judaism Do not forgive
André Stein Professor; Psychotherapist; Author; Holocaust survivor Judaism Do not forgive
Nechama Tec American; Polish-born Professor of Sociology; Author; Holocaust survivor Judaism Do not forgive
Joseph Telushkin American Rabbi; Author Judaism Do not forgive
Tzvetan Todorov Bulgarian; French Historian; Philosopher; Sociologist; Author Do not forgive
Desmond Tutu South African Social rights activist; Politician; Anglican Bishop; Author Christianity (Anglican) Forgive
Arthur Waskow American Rabbi; Author; Political activist Judaism Do not forgive
Harry Wu American; Chinese-born Advocate for human rights in China; survivor of 19 years in Chinese labor camps Do not forgive


  1. ^ Simon., Wiesenthal, (1997). The sunflower : on the possibilities and limits of forgiveness. Cargas, Harry J., Fetterman, Bonny V., Mazal Holocaust Collection. (Rev. and expanded, 2nd ed.). New York: Schocken Books. ISBN 0805241450. OCLC 35718520.
  2. ^ "THE SUNFLOWER by Simon Wiesenthal | Kirkus Reviews". Kirkus Reviews. April 23, 1976.
  3. ^ "The Sunflower Synopsis". Facing History and Ourselves. Retrieved 2018-10-14.
  4. ^ Wiesenthal, Simon (1998). The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. New York: Schocken Books. pp. 101–288. ISBN 978-0-8052-1060-6.

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