I picked up a copy of The Sunflower at my local den of temptation (aka used bookstore) a couple of weeks ago, and have been slowly making my way through it since. It’s pretty much the go-to book for initiating theological discussions of forgiveness – first of all, the initial narrative is told exceptionally well, so it’s impossible for the problem to come off as a simple one lacking in personal emotional or moral resonance. Since the Amazon description kind of sucks, the book is in two sections: in the first hundred or so pages, Wiesenthal describes what his life was like in a concentration camp, surrounded by constant death and knowledge of death and wondering how there could possibly be a God as this was being done to human beings, then being called to enter a dark room for no immediately apparent reason, only to find that he was to hear the dying confession/request for forgiveness of a 22-year-old Nazi officer, and finally Wiesenthal’s inability to get the event, and his choice – to remain silent and walk out following the request – out of his mind, to the point that he visited the man’s mother after the war. The second section is the “What would you do?” posed to theological and philosophical scholars and leaders after the fact.
It sounds very abstract and grandiosely hypothetical, but a number of themes run through the book that make me think. One is the fact that the question of forgiveness in the book is tied up with issues of racism and collective guilt/responsibility, rather than just harm done on an individual basis. The story gets its name from the sunflowers that Wiesenthal would see marking the graves of Nazi soldiers, reminding him that even in death, they were connected to life, to beauty, to individuality, while he and his friends and family would ultimately end up in mass graves, unnamed and unidentified. I think it’s extremely important to point out that Wiesenthal wasn’t chosen by the Nazi soldier because he had harmed him personally. The soldier simply asked for “a Jew”, and the nurse went outside and asked Wiesenthal if he qualified. Rebecca Goldstein says it better than I can:
You are summoned for no reason other than that you are a Jew, as if “Jew” were a mass term comparable, say, to “water” or “salt”. Here is a bit of water, we say, and any sample of it will do. All water manifests the same interchangeable water properties. That a Nazi should think this way about Jews is not in the least surprising. Mass terms, mass murders, mass graves: they are all of a piece.
When I was writing about Apologies a little while ago, I was thinking about how those highly individual terms/experiences translate to “mass” community terms, and one of the parallels is the way that privilege allows the harmer to transfer responsibility back onto the harmee, to essentially demand forgiveness and suggest that the other lacks grace if s/he can’t forgive/chooses not to/remains skeptical. Personally, I found it heartbreaking to read Wiesenthal’s description of the guilt he felt at having remained silent, which he felt and discussed with friends even while still in the concentration camp, assuming he would never survive. I honestly can’t think of a more powerful manifestation of grace than that, not because he was giving anything to the Nazi soldier or to the complicit bystanders, but because it speaks to his inability to lose that thread of connection to hope, humanity, the possibility that something like that mattered.
Eva Fleischner’s response reports that, having used the book as a text in a Holocaust course for years, the division between students who believe that Wiesenthal should have forgiven and those who believe that his silence was okay falls fairly neatly along Christian/Jewish lines. I find that sad, but completely unsurprising. Thinking about contemporary discussion on race, so many privileged people ask why it is that they’re expected to repent for things they’ve never done (perhaps vaguely beginning to entertain the notion of complicity, but only ever so peripherally), why we even have to keep talking about shit like this, demanding to know what more these people want, since isn’t an apology enough already? There is still a mass of these people who are not forgiving, and there is still one evildoer who has asked forgiveness/accepted punishment, thereby letting the rest of us off the hook. One action/one individual’s action is enough for those needing the forgiveness – the pope can do it on behalf of the Catholic Church, say, and then all Catholics are good to go in a general sense – but if even one among the harmed group speaks to say that no, s/he is not satisfied, it is not enough, we need more time, we need to see more change, you can damn well bet that others will step in to condemn the mass because of it. Ungrateful, the lot of them. The oppressors, those in power, are still individuals, they still get their single sunflowers, while the harmed are still a mass, because hearing them as individuals is way too damn difficult.
I think Fleischner’s response is my favourite among those I’ve read so far, and she goes on to discuss the difference between “atonement” during Yom Kippur – which is asked directly of those harmed – and confession in the Catholic tradition, which is mitigated by a priest presumably unconnected to the incident and which usually includes as the path to forgiveness the message “Say and Our Father or Hail Mary” and you’re done.
As I reread the story once more I am struck not only by the agony of the dying man, but by his obliviousness to the suffering, the inhuman condition, of Simon and his fellow Jews. The mere fact of having summoned Simon to his room exposes the Jew to punishment, if not death. Yet Karl insists on seeing “a Jew” – any Jew – in the hope of being able to die in peace. His own suffering completely blinds him to the suffering of the Jews – not of the Jews in whose murder he participated and who continue to haunt him – but of those still alive in the camps and ghettos, also of Simon.
We’re not just talking about the limits of forgiveness, about the psychology and metaphysics and theology. We’re talking about humanizing and individualizing, we’re talking about “othering” and dehumanizing and objectifying and making into a mass. I keep coming back to hearing the voices of “but what do you want me to do about it?” and “reverse racism/sexism/etc” and I see this: It’s uncomfortable for someone in a privileged position to become part of a collective, a mass, a group. We’re used to seeing ourselves as individuals. We’re used to being sunflowers.
(I’m leaving my reference to “silence” in the title of the post, even though I didn’t get around to making the point I wanted to in that regard…I’m hoping that will remind me to do it later).