The Sunflower and Forgiveness

by Bill Sundhu

“A Question To God”

Age after age, O God, You have sent Your
messengers into this pitiless world, who have left
their word:  “Forgive all.  Love all.  Cleanse your
hearts from the blood-red stains of hatred.”

Adorable are they, ever to be remembered; yet
from the outer door, I have turned them away
today—this evil day—-with unmeaning salutation.

Have I not seen secret malignance strike down
the helpless under the cover of hypocritical might?

Have I not heard the silenced voice of justice
weeping in solitude at might’s defiant outrages?

Have I not seen in what agony reckless youth,
running mad, has vainly shattered its life against
insensitive rocks?

Choked is my voice, mute are my songs today,
and darkly my world lies imprisoned in a dismal
dream; and I ask You, O God, in tears, “Have You
Yourself forgiven, have even You loved those who
are poisoning Your air and blotting out Your

Rabindranath Tagore1

If there is divine providence, a God – can even he or she be forgiven for such heinous, unimaginable and horrific crimes against his children?  And, if there is no God, does forgiveness have any place or relevance?

Simon was summonsed to the bedside of the young SS officer not of his own volition or free will.  He displayed tenderness and grace as reasonably could be given in his vulnerable circumstances.  He carried and bore the burden of the encounter, of whether he could or should have forgiven the SS officer as sought.  It was, however, not for him to forgive.  If there is a divine power, it was possibly for it to forgive, if even it could forgive Itself.   If there is no divine power or God; then there cannot or should not be forgiveness.  The crimes are too enormous and horrific to be ever forgiven.

To forgive is to diminish, condone , explain, quantify – to appease.  The acts of the Nazis – the savagery, industrialized butchery – the Holocaust, should not and cannot ever be forgotten.  To forgive would be to forget.  “Forgiveness is pitiless.  It forgets the victim…It drowns the past.” advocated Cynthia Ozick.2 Harken, also – the words of Santayana.

Forgiveness, however, need not preclude reconciliation or redemption.  The SS officer, Karl was still a young man, only 21 years of age.  He lacked the maturity or authority available to others.  He confessed, accepted responsibility and demonstrated remorse.  He acknowledged his guilt.  It is irrelevant to speculate whether he may have done so, and instead acted like those in the Stuttgart trials, if he was not facing imminent death.  We must deal with the facts as they were.   He must be judged on his acts, not how others may have behaved in a different setting, nor on speculation.  His acknowledgement opens the possibility of mitigation in consequence – be it heavenly or earthly.  The former is for God and the latter for human justice.  It opens the door to measured, proportionate justice.

Desmond Tutu, Dith Pran and the Dalai Lama point to forgiveness.  While I do not agree on the usage of the word, their message points to the wisdom of how the victims, their descendants, humanity itself can live without bitterness, vengeance and hate.  This is indispensable, to avoid the soul destroying cycle of repetition.  To do otherwise, would be a renunciation of mercy, the possibility of embracing each other – of love; of the marriage of two souls or of humanity.  Is it inconceivable that a Gentile and a Jew, both German, could marry and through union create new life?   So, it must be for a people; for humanity.  It permits peace and progress – but only through truth and responsibility.  The alternative is revenge, the victims one day becoming the victimizers.  Destruction and dehumanization; hate prevailing over love.  The world engulfed in darkness. Diminishing the humanity of the survivors, the good.  The evil and hate of Nazism would prevail.  The possibility of reconciliation and redemption for those appropriate; not all, cases is a repudiation of that hateful ideology.  It creates new possibilities for our common humanity, a way out of hell.

It was naïve, even insulting of Karl to have asked Simon to forgive him.  I agree with the many, such as Harold Kushner, “That was a mistake of the Nazi soldier in The Sunflower.  His plea for forgiveness was addressed to someone who lacked the power (let alone the right) to grant it.”3 Did the soldier fail to see the individuality or true humanity of Simon?  Perhaps.  He could have, for example, have chosen to address his fellow soldiers, SS officers, Germans and admonished – even condemned- them.  He did not.  He, also, did not demonstrate or seek forgiveness from the actual victims of his wrongdoing.  If anyone was entitled to forgive, it may have been them.  They were dead.   Could he seek forgiveness from God?  His Christian upbringing presented that option.  He did not pursue it.  If God forgave him, how could God forgive himself?  Forgiveness is not to be given for such evils.

Mercy and reconciliation were available as earthly options in the right circumstances.  I leave open for consideration if Karl wasn’t blinded, if even momentarily, by his guilt and remorse – creating the timely opportunity for him to have suffered the blast which contributed to his decline and death.  It is impossible to know.  Simon extended him all that was necessary and humane.  He listened, he absorbed and walked out.  He took the memory of the encounter to Karl’s home, to his mother.  It was mercy and humanity affirming itself through his courage, strength of understanding and reconciliation to complete the cycle.  Simon’s acts are the appropriate acts for humanity.  It is a form of judgment, justice and reconciliation.  It allows us to live, to go forward with hope in ourselves and humanity.  It is not naïve.  It is aware of danger, sorrow and the need to confront the evil ideology of hate.  It is measured and proportionate.  Had Karl lived, he ought to have been tried for his crimes and sentenced according to his culpability.  Justice would or ought to have been proportionate to the gravity of his crimes, having weighed the nature of the offence with the sincerity of his guilt, remorse and responsibility.   No forgiveness, however.  He could not be forgiven, because no one can be forgiven – not even God – for these heinous crimes against humanity.  To do otherwise, is to diminish the value of each life.   Crimes against millions begin with a crime against one.






1. The Heart of God, Prayers of Rabindranath Tagore, Selected and edited by Herbert F. Vetter, Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., Vermont, First published 1997, copyright.

2. Cynthia Ozick, p. 216, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Book Two – the Symposium, Revised and Expanded Version, Schocken Books, New York, 1997.

3. Harold S. Kushner, p. 184, ibid.