The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal
This week I had the wonderful opportunity to read, report and relish about a true global hero who History has powerfully nicknamed “The Nazi Hunter”. THE SUNFLOWER by SIMON WIESENTHAL is a small autobiographical portion of a great man’s enormous life before he had global human rights organizations that bare his namesake. This book was introduced and gifted to me by newly dear friends Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Rabbi Marvin Heir, who actually established and run the Simon Wiesenthal Center Headquarters and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles for the last 43 years. The book was brought to my attention during a conversation about my own personal atonement and “forgiveness” during one of my now infamous Cannon’s Class podcast. In the midst of a passionate rant and healthy discourse I was emphasizing to Rabbi Cooper that I wasn’t apologizing to people because I was instructed to do so, or because I wished to keep one or two of my many “jobs”, nor was I apologizing in fear of being “Cancelled” once more in my career. I personally was apologizing because I hurt people and was seeking genuine atonement. And in all Abrahamic faiths there are steps and levels to atoning. One of the major steps after acknowledging your wrongs, one must seek forgiveness from whom you hurt.
But is the entire Jewish Community obligated to forgive me for my offensive statements? Or what about my own community, who many believe I let them down for actually apologizing, should I seek their forgiveness as well? And what magnitude of forgiveness do I desire? And ultimately, who is the forgiveness truly for? Well in THE SUNFLOWER the main theme is “the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness” so it has quite a few answers, 53 answers to be exact. In a Symposium of responses from various Spiritual Leaders, Psychiatrists, Theologians, Politicians and prominent figures in cultural communities, all seeking to answer the question on the cover of this book… “You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness. What would you do?”
Well we definitely know what the author Simon Wiesenthal would do, because this actually happened to him. All before surviving 4 different concentration camps and losing a collective of 89 family members to the Holocaust, and definitely before Mr. Wiesenthal had his undying determination and revenge to bring over 1000 Nazi criminals to justice, he was presented with this unprecedented dilemma. Born on New Years Eve 1908, a young Simon lived his early life in Buchach Ukraine where he became a building designer and engineer until WWII began. In November 1941 Mr. Wiesenthal and his wife were forcefully placed in the Janowska Concentration Camp. Eventually after being moved from different camps in 1943 Mr. Wiesenthal becomes a forced laborer in the Lemberg Concentration Camp. This is where the Sunflower story begins. The title comes from Wiesenthal’s observation of a German military cemetery, where he saw a sunflower on each grave and wrote, “…and on each grave there was planted a sunflower . . . I stared spellbound . . . Suddenly 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.” This thought is unimaginable for us today but it was a harsh reality for Mr. Wiesenthal and the other prisoners around him. One day Simon is summoned by a nurse to the bedside of a dying Nazi solider named Karl. Mr. Simon Wiesenthal is confused why he is called into the room until Karl begins to confess his horrific sins. Karl describes throwing grenades into a burning building and shooting the people point blank who attempted to escape. Jewish men, women and children, Karl admitted to murdering at least 300 innocent souls. At the end of Karl’s gruesome confession he asks Mr. Wiesenthal as a Jewish man for forgiveness for his mass murderous crimes. Mr. Wiesenthal had a monumental decision to make at that moment, to forgive or not to forgive. He writes, “Well, I kept silent when a young Nazi, on his deathbed begged me to be his confessor..” Then Mr. Wiesenthal just turns and walks out of the room, a passive answer to a complex question. Mr Wiesenthal finally writes, “The question is 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…. What would you have done?” So part 2 of the book is just that, a Symposium of responses to Mr. Wiesenthal’s dilemma with the dying Nazi solider.
A few that stick out, particularly from the Dali Lama who speaks of his own forgiveness and survival tactics as a Tibetan prisoner of war who says his spirituality allows him to forgive All. Another great response was from Desmond TuTu, the South African Apartheid leader who leans on his “Truth and Reconciliation” formula to deal with and offer ultimate forgiveness. One of the other 53 scholars wrote, “Forgiveness happens so the person can free himself from the burden of hate and victimization. The victim is able to move on and heal himself…” But The response that stood out to me the most was from Matthew Fox, the world renowned Spiritual leader, Roman Catholic Priest for 28 years turned Episcopal Priest and President of the University of Creation Spirituality. He writes, “Simon Wiesenthal is a truth-teller who shakes up our conscience. The tale of Nazis lay bare the sins of complicity and the sins of omission and denial. These sins can occur in society when lies and power can be disseminated by propaganda of the press and politicians and commercial interests. Forgiving and Forgetting are to separate acts. One should Ford-not out of altruism to free ones own life. Simon didn’t forget therefore he has gifted us with the greatest of gifts. A lifetime dedicated to justice and compassion.” That his life was, escaping death and his last concentration camp in 1945 Mr. Wiesenthal weighed less than 90 pounds but his spiritual strength was that of a hundred warriors.
Enter his next mission in life, Wiesenthal became a Nazi hunter, bringing justice upon Nazi war criminals until the day he died. Although Wiesenthal passed away in 2005 at the age of 96, the endeavor for justice for crimes committed during the Holocaust continues to this day. His legacy lives on through all of our human rights activism, Mr. Simon Wiesenthal received countless international honors and medals for his courage and diligent work for justice. Such a truthful and inspiring story. Great Read!