Book Matters

Simon Wiesenthal

“Young Girl Reading” Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

By Simon Wiesenthal

Last week, we shared a few of the invited comments on an incident recollected in Wiesenthal’s memoir. Wiesenthal is a prisoner in a succession of concentration camps. He is called to the hospital to witness a dying SS man’s regret. The man’s remorse had this particular focus: he’d participated in forcing a large group of Jews of all ages and conditions into a building that his SS unit then set on fire. Rather than pronounce some formula of absolution, Wiesenthal had listened to the confession in silence and left in silence.

In The Sunflower, about his concentration camp experience, Wiesenthal asked ten thoughtful individuals to comment on the incident. Since the comments (with an additional thirty-two in this edition) were revealing, I shared some last week and will now share a few others.

Here is Erich H. Loewy, M.D., author and Alumni Chair of Bioethics at the University of California at Davis. He points out a feature I hadn’t noticed. Although the positions of the two men appear reversed, with Wiesenthal now the stronger one and the SS man about to lose his life, the reality is still that “at any moment the SS man, although in one sense weakened, can call upon overwhelming forces which could and would crush Wiesenthal.”

What this means is that anything the Jewish prisoner says can still be held against him. Let’s face it. Death might free us from the burdens of human existence but life in a death camp does not. A man whose body fails him while his conscience torments him is not someone to rely on. 

But wait a minute! Don’t we want closure – at least in our ex post facto understanding? Isn’t that asymmetry morally unsatisfying? 


Manes Sperber studied psychology in Vienna with Alfred Adler and wrote literary works in French and German. He brings up another facet of the situation: there is, he says, a bond between victimizer and victim. What sort of bond does he have in mind? Clearly they are linked historically. They would be linked in any courtroom case. But Sperber seems to visualize a psychological link. And here is how he imagines it playing out ideally: “But if that young man had lived and remained true to the convictions that tortured the last hours of his life, and maybe even transfigured him—if he were still among us would Wiesenthal condemn him? I think not.”

Sperber’s counterfactuals may be useful in the setting of a psychotherapist’s office. However, they are not morally useful. The terms for that kind of assessment were set in the context of what wasn’t done and didn’t happen.

What about the psychological aspects, as Sperber sees them? For myself, I don’t see it the way he does. There are people who harmed me, with whom I feel no bond and whom I never think of. Why is that? Because the harm was identified in full and fully thwarted. My present unconcern with those harm doers obtains even if their harm lasted many years and its antidote took effect much more briefly. So far as I am concerned, that situation is cured. By contrast, harms still uncured continue to trouble me, even if their effect was more trivial and briefer. 

So, if I consult my own experience, I must reject Sperber’s effort to replace the moral order with psychology. A moral harm can’t be erased that way.

Eva Fleischner is an author, a Professor Emerita of Religion and is involved in high-level offices dealing with Catholic-Jewish relations. She notes details of Wiesenthal’s behavior with the dying man that reveal compassion and refinement of spirit. She also notes that both traditions, Catholic and Jewish, highlight God’s forgiveness of the truly repentant sinner. What she brings out, overlooked by some Christian commenters, is that Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek refers to “wrong done to me… . Nowhere does he tell us to forgive wrong done to another.”

In the circumstance where Wiesenthal was implicitly asked to do just that, to forgive wrong done to many others, he could not in conscience have done so, and – in the light of his ongoing suffering and peril – the dying SS man was humanly oblivious to ask it of him.

If Eva Fleischner is right about the scope of Christian forgiveness, then the two faiths are not so different after all.

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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