In 1944 Simon Wiesenthal was a prisoner in a concentration camp located on the outskirts of the town in which he had been raised. One day his work detail was marched through the town. Along the way his group passed a military cemetery with a sunflower planted on each grave. He could not help but contrast that careful remembrance with the mass grave that almost surely would be his destiny, with other corpses piled on top of him, unmarked and unknown.
They finally came to the high school Wiesenthal had attended, a building full of memories of anti-Semitic harassment now turned into a makeshift hospital for wounded German soldiers. Wiesenthal’s group carried cartons of rubbish out of the hospital. While working on this detail, he was approached by a Red Cross nurse. “Are you a Jew?” she asked. When he indicated yes, she summoned him to follow. She led him to the bedside of a young German officer covered with bandages, barely able to speak. He had asked her to find a Jew to whom he could speak, and Wiesenthal had arbitrarily become that person. The officer said his name was Karl. He knew he was dying, and he needed to talk about something that was torturing him. As he summarized the story of his military action, Wiesenthal tried to leave three times, but the man reached out to grab his arm each time. He needed to tell him of an atrocity he had participated in while pursuing the retreating Russians. Thirty German soldiers had been killed in booby traps set by the Russians. In an irrational act of revenge against the innocent, he and his men rounded up a group of 300 Jews, herded them into a house, doused it with gasoline, and set it on fire with grenades. They then shot anyone who tried to escape.
He recounted with great emotion his memory of hearing the screams, of watching terrified women and children jump from the building, and of his own gunfire. One scene in particular haunted him: a desperate father and mother jumping with a child with black hair and dark eyes, only to be riddled with bullets.
The man kept talking, recounting a later battle, when he had been given orders to shoot a similar group of unarmed Jews. That time he wouldn’t or couldn’t squeeze the trigger. As he froze in place, a shell exploded, giving him the wounds that were now taking his life.
He pleaded with Wiesenthal:
I am left here with my guilt. In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are, I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough. . . . I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn’t know whether there were any Jews left. . . . I know what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.1
Wiesenthal stood there in silence, wrestling with what he should do. “At last I made up my mind, and without a word I left the room.”
The officer died, unforgiven by a Jew. But that was far from the end of the story. Wiesenthal anguished about his response.
After the war he visited Karl’s mother in Germany, trying to judge the authenticity of the young officer’s remorse. Finally, 20 years after the war, Wiesenthal felt compelled to write the story. He ended it with two plaintive questions: “Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong?” and “What would you have done?”
Wiesenthal sent the story to theologians, moral and political leaders, and writers for their answers to those questions. The story, with the responses, was published in 1969 in a book titled The Sunflower. The vast majority of contributors agreed that Wiesenthal did the right thing. He did not have any obligation, or even any right, to forgive the man.
Others contended that the entire notion of asking for and granting forgiveness was dangerous. Herbert Marcuse, a Marxist philosopher influential in the 60s and 70s, wrote:
One cannot, and should not, go around happily killing and torturing and then, when the moment has come, simply ask, and receive, forgiveness. . . . I believe the easy forgiving of such crimes perpetuates the very evil it wants to alleviate.2
The Sunflower takes the issue of forgiveness out of the realm of the idealistic and the sentimental and makes us face the ugly realities of life. Researchers have devoted a great deal of attention to questions of forgiveness. Unforgiven and unforgiving people have higher rates of stress-related disorders, cardiovascular disease, and clinical depression, as well as lower immune system function and higher divorce rates. Forgiveness contributes to a healthy life.
But what does forgiveness look like? Is it a single act or a process? Do we wait until we feel ready to forgive? Do we require the other person to repent, or is forgiveness personal and internal, something we do for ourselves? If we forgive, does that mean we must immediately return to a persistently abusive relationship? These and a host of other practical questions require careful answers. The best answers come when we listen carefully to a man named Jesus—the master forgiver.