Free Essay: the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

Published: 2022-12-06
Free Essay: the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  World War 2 Personality Concentration camps Books
Pages: 5
Wordcount: 1253 words
11 min read

The Sunflower is a non-fiction story by Simon Wiesenthal as a prisoner in one of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The focus of the story is not on his experience in the Nazi concentration camp but instead, it is on his struggle with forgiveness of the atrocities committed against him and his fellow prisoners. In the book, Simon gives a brief description of his life in Poland before the Nazi invasion. He then describes the growth of anti-Semitism and his eventual imprisonment in the camps. The climax of the story is when he is summoned to the deathbed of a dying Nazi officer, Karl, who asks for his forgiveness. He decides to walk out, without uttering a word. The author invites the readers to the discussion by inquiring about their reaction in the same situation. In the same position, I would have had the same response as Simon by not forgiving the soldier.

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I would have had the same reaction as Simon because in such an event one would be speaking or acting on behalf of all other Jews. In the book, Heschel, a Jewish theologian, and philosopher said: "No one can forgive crimes committed against other people [...] According to Jewish tradition, even God Himself can only forgive sins committed against Himself, not against man.,"(102). That shows that even if Wiesenthal wanted to forgive Karl, he could not because it would be unfair to the other Jews who have perished in the hands of Nazi soldiers. At no point did the other prisoners appoint the author to be speaking on their behalf. The fact that he was in such a situation is merely a matter of chance. Karl's plea for forgiveness was not necessarily directed at Wiesenthal as a prisoner but rather, the Jew community. It is very likely that Wiesenthal had never had a personal encounter with Karl. Therefore, his plea for forgiveness was towards all prisoners and Wiesenthal was a representation of that. The right choice would be to walk away because he doesn't have the right or the power to be forgiving Karl on behalf of those who have perished by his hands.

Furthermore, I would also be unable to forgive Karl because as a Jew, such an act would be an imitation of God. As part of the book's contributors, Habe, a Hungarian newspaper publisher, and writer, says, "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," (159). In that quote, Habe was essentially saying that acts of murder are utterly unforgivable. If one decides to take the mantle of forgiveness of death, then he or she is imitating God. The act of mercy and punishment are what God does, but he will never hate. The author went to see Karl's mother and even refrained from telling her of Karl's actions, although he is critical of her decision to neglect her responsibility of rising above her comfort and showing the world what her son had done (Wiesenthal 240). A sign that he did not have any form of hate reserved for Karl and his actions. Those are the two reasons as to why I would have had the same reaction as Simon. However, there are those who argue that Wiesenthal should have acted differently and extended an act of forgiveness to the Nazi soldier.

One counterargument against Wiesenthal's actions is that we should aspire to be forgiving to each other the same way God forgives towards us. From the book's symposium, Hesburgh, an ordained priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, says, "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."(169). In that quote, Hesburgh says that he would have forgiven Karl because that is what God would do. He does not think that it was right for Wiesenthal to walk out of the room because God would not walk out with anyone. However, Hesburgh's line of argument has already been debunked by Habe, who argued that we should understand that some actions are purely reserved for God. Because God would do something is not justification for we as humans to imitate him because some sins are unforgivable. Crimes such as murder are beyond man's jurisdiction. Therefore, Hesburgh's suggestion of acting as God would extend beyond what is allowed for humans. Unfortunately, there are others who hold that personal peace should outweigh the needs of others.

Another counterargument to Wiesenthal's actions is that he should have forgiven Karl for his peace of mind. According to Hobday, an influential lecturer, spiritual leader, and author, "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,"(174). The concept that Hobday is trying to put forward is that Wiesenthal should have forgiven the soldier because it would ease the burden from his heart and his mind. Hobday does not think Wiesenthal's decision was in his best interest because the event would be hanging over his head forever. Hobday's argument is flawed because it placed the welfare of self over the group. Hobday thinks that Wiesenthal should have moved to consider the impact of his response on himself rather than other Jews who were in the same situation or undergone worse events. The best way to debunk Hobday's argument is to refer back to Heschel's argument. Heschel said that no person could forgive the crimes committed against another. Hobday seems to be unaware or chosen to ignore the fact the Wiesenthal was acting on behalf of other Jews. Karl's appeal was not directly directed to Wiesenthal as an individual but rather the Jewish community. The Nazi soldier was not asking for forgiveness of the atrocities he had committed against Wiesenthal, but rather the wrongs that he had done against all other Jewish people he had come across. Therefore, any action or word that Wiesenthal did or said would have been on behalf of other Jewish people, and that would be wrong and unfair because at no point did the others allow Wiesenthal to act on their behalf on such matter. Therefore, Hobday's proposition is from a selfish point of view and should not be followed through.


Reading The Sunflower has proven to be a good learning experience in regards to the topic of forgiveness. The issue of forgiveness has always been portrayed as a simple act that should have no compromise. Religious books and other conventions of society have always advocated for forgiveness, regardless of the situation at hand. However, The Sunflower has shown that things can be complicated in regards to forgiveness. It has been demonstrated that forgiveness is not as straightforward as it may seem and that one should consider the impacts that such gestures may have on themselves and others.

Works Cited

Habe, Hans. The Sunflower. Wiesenthal, Simon. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 158-162.

Hesburgh, M. Theodore. The Sunflower. Wiesenthal, Simon. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 169.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sunflower. Wiesenthal, Simon. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 170-171.

Hobday, Jose. The Sunflower. Wiesenthal, Simon. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 174.

Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower: On the possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. Print.

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