Book Matters

Limits of Forgiveness

“Young Girl Reading” Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

By Simon Wiesenthal

The author was a young Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, in conditions of near starvation, slated for death by heavy labor. Other, mostly Jewish prisoners had been separated from the work details at the outset and immediately murdered.

One day, an unusual incident interrupted the ghastly routine. A nurse appeared, ordering Wiesenthal out of the line of workers and leading him to the bedside of a dying SS man. The dying man wanted to confess to a Jew one atrocity that weighed on his conscience. His unit had forced a large number of Jews, young and old, into a building to which the SS then set fire, killing them all. Among those who perished, he especially remembered a father and his very young son.

If the dying man expected Wiesenthal to express forgiveness, his wish must have been frustrated. Our author heard him out reluctantly, kept silent and left the room as soon as the man finished his confession. Once back in the camp, Wiesenthal shared the same scene with his emaciated, doomed friends. When, having by chance survived the war, he wrote this memoir, he invited thoughtful comments from ten contributors. 

In my previous week’s column, “The Color of the Sky,” I volunteered my own comments on the deathbed confession scene. Now, I’ll share some of the invited comments reproduced in the 1997 Schocken edition. In all, the book has 42 comments, 10 from the 1969 (in English 1970) original edition and 32 from this expanded second edition. Since most of the assembled comments are of the greatest interest, the three I describe here have been picked out nearly at random. 

First, we hear from Primo Levi, a notable writer and Auschwitz survivor. Wiesenthal’s tale unfolded, Levi comments, “in an atmosphere impregnated with crime.” All questions of right and wrong were obscured in the concentration camp, deeply and deliberately. In that context above all, Levi is emphatic in his conviction that Wiesenthal did right to refrain from bestowing any verbal absolution. It would have given the illusion of salvation to the dying SS man but burdened Wiesenthal with “an empty formula and consequently a lie.” Like other Jewish contributors, Primo Levi doesn’t miss the fact that Wiesenthal is being used to stand in for all Jews, thus replicating in another guise the Jew of Nazi propaganda: “an abnormal being – half-devil, half-miracle worker, capable in any case of supernatural deeds.” For Levi, what’s at risk in this deathbed test is truth. As he sees it, Wiesenthal has passed the test.

Next we hear from Cynthia Ozick, award-wining novelist, essayist and writer of short stories. Her central point concerns pity. Here I quote it in full. “Every idol is a shadow of [Biblical idol] Moloch, demanding human flesh to feed on. The deeper the devotion to the idol, the more pitiless in tossing it its meal will be the devotee. The Commandment against idols is above all a Commandment against victimization, and in behalf of pity.” The quick forgiver, in haste to wash the murderer clean, has washed away the victim. By contrast, the person who steadily seeks the Law’s just retribution keeps the victims constantly in view and gives them back their forgotten faces. Some might reproach Cynthia Ozick for her refusal to accept a dying murderer’s remorse, but to me she seems rather tender.

Our last comment comes from award-winning writer Harry Wu, a witness of an entirely different kind. Wu spent nineteen years in one of China’s prison labor camps, sent there for “rightist tendencies.” In plain words, he committed the crime of voicing his personal opinion in the midst of a group indoctrination session. What stands out in Hu’s account of brutal imprisonment is that no one who enforced that punishment ever took the slightest personal responsibility for it. Not even later, after his condemnation had been retroactively lifted! The Party Line giveth and the Party Line taketh away.

So we learn that there’s one thing even worse – more erasing of the human face – than evil. 

Even worse

is pretending that 

evil does not exist.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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