Dear Mr. Wiesenthal

Simon Wiesenthal has a haunting story to tell. And an even more haunting question to ask. He tells his story and asks his question in his famous book, The Sunflower.

Simon Wiesenthal is an Austrian Jew imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. As the book opens, Wiesenthal is part of a work detail being taken from the concentration camp to do cleanup work in a makeshift field hospital near the Eastern Front. As they are marched from the prison camp to the hospital they come across a cemetery for German soldiers. On each grave is a sunflower. Wiesenthal writes,

I envied the dead soldiers. Each had a sunflower to connect him with the living world, and butterflies to visit his grave. For me there would be no sunflower. I would be buried in a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me. No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb.

While working at the field hospital a nurse orders Wiesenthal to follow her. He is taken into a room where a lone SS soldier lay dying. The SS soldier is a twenty-two year old German named Karl Seidl. Karl has asked the nurse to “bring him a Jew.” He wants to make his dying confession and he wants to make it to a Jew.

The SS man is wrapped in bandages covering his entire face, with only holes for his mouth, nose and ears. For the next several hours Simon sits alone in silence with Karl as the dying SS soldier tells his story. Karl was an only child from a Christian home. His parents had raised him in the church and had not been supportive of Hitler. But at fifteen, against his parents’ wishes, Karl joined the Hitler Youth. At eighteen Karl joined the infamous SS troops.

Now Karl wants to confess the atrocities he has participated in. Most horrifically he tells of being part of a group of SS soldiers who drove with whips three hundred Jews into a house where they had placed gasoline canisters in the attic. After setting the house on fire, Karl saw a mother and father, with the father holding their six year old son in his arms. To escape the flames this family jumped from the window. Karl shot them all.

Now Karl has been mortally wounded in battle and wants to make his final confession. During the several hours that Simon the Jew sat with Karl the Nazi, Simon never spoke. At Karl’s request Simon held the dying man’s hand. Simon brushed away the flies and gave Karl a drink of water, but he never spoke. During the long ordeal, Simon never doubted Karl’s sincerity or that he was truly sorry for his crimes. At last Karl said,

I am left here with my guilt. In the last hours of my life you are here 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 if there were any Jews left. I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.

With that, Simon Wiesenthal made up his mind and left the room in silence. That night Karl Seidl died. Karl left his possessions to Simon, but Simon refused them.

Against all odds Simon Wiesenthal survived the Holocaust. Eighty-nine members of his family did not. But Simon Wiesenthal could not forget Karl Seidl. After the war Simon visited Karl’s mother to check out Karl’s story. It was just as Karl had said. Karl’s mother assured Simon that her son was “a good boy” and could never have done anything bad. Again, this time out of kindness, Simon remained silent.

In The Sunflower Simon Wiesenthal says of Karl Seidl,

In his boyhood Karl had certainly been a “good boy.” But a graceless period of his life had turned him into a murderer.

Wiesenthal concludes his story with this question,

Ought I to have forgiven him? Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This is a profound moral question that challenges the conscience of the reader of this episode, just as much as it once challenged my heart and mind. The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision. You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, “What would I have done?”

The second part of The Sunflower is a symposium of fifty-three prominent thinkers — Jews, Christians, atheists, etc. — who respond to Wiesenthal’s question. The respondents understood the real question as this: Is there a way that a person in Simon Wiesenthal’s position could offer forgiveness of some kind to the dying Nazi? By my count, twenty-eight of the respondents said, No, offering forgiveness in this situation is not possible. Sixteen of the respondents said, Yes, there was some way in which forgiveness could have been offered. Nine of the respondents were unclear on their positions. Interestingly, the sixteen who were in favor of some form of forgiveness were all Christians or Buddhists (thirteen Christians and three Buddhists).

Simon Wiesenthal went on to live a noble and humanitarian life. He died in 2005 at the age of ninety-six.

Since Simon Wiesenthal addressed his question to all of his readers, I would like to take it upon myself to respond to his question.

Dear Mr. Wiesenthal,

First of all let me say I will not presume to sit in judgment of your actions. You showed kindness to a dying Nazi soldier as you held his hand, brushed away the flies and gave him a drink of water. You showed great kindness to his mother in not destroying the memory of her son. Also, I agree with Lutheran theologian Marty Martin who says, “Non-Jews and perhaps especially Christians should not give advice about the Holocaust experience to its heirs for the next two thousand years. And then we shall have nothing to say. Cheap instant advice from a Christian would trivialize the lives and deaths of millions.” Nevertheless, since you ask the question let me try to reply. I cannot say what I would have done, only what I could hope I would have done. As a Christian I would hope that I would reply in something of this manner to my dying enemy:

I cannot offer you forgiveness on behalf of those who have suffered monstrous crimes at your hands and the hands of those with whom you willingly aligned yourself; I have no right to speak on their behalf. But what I can tell you is that forgiveness is possible. There is a way for you to be reconciled with God, whose image you have defiled, and there is a way for you to be restored to the human race, from which you have fallen. There is a way because the One who never committed a crime cried from the cross saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Because I believe in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I believe there is a way for justice and reconciliation to co-exist — a way for justice to be satisfied and reconciliation to be offered. The forgiveness of which I speak is not a cheap forgiveness. It is not cheap because it was not cheap for Jesus Christ to suffer the violence of the cross and offer no retaliation but love and forgiveness. It is not a cheap forgiveness because it requires of you deep repentance, including a commitment to restorative justice for those you have wronged. There is no cheap forgiveness for your sins, but there is a costly forgiveness. If you in truth turn from your sins in sorrow and look to Christ in faith there is forgiveness. A costly forgiveness that can reconcile you to God and restore you to the human race. I cannot forgive you on behalf of others, but on my own behalf and in the name of Jesus Christ, I tell you, your sins are forgiven you. Welcome to the forgiving community of forgiven sinners. May you die in peace.

This is what I hope I would have said.

In Deep Admiration of Your Dignity,

Brian Zahnd

OK, reader, now it’s your turn. What would you say?



This Sunday I will begin a month long series on the subject of forgiveness.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh