Exploring Dimensions of Forgiveness: The Sunflower

Learning Objectives

Wiesenthal's narrative strengthens student knowledge of events during the Holocaust and reinforces the concept that every incident involved individual people who lived through these events, acted, and suffered. In addition, students learn about the contributors who respond to Wiesenthal's question in The Sunflower and analyze their responses. For example, as students learn about Dith Pran's experiences in the Cambodian killing fields, they begin to develop an understanding of the interconnection between people and events.

As students study the Holocaust, there can be a tendency for them to assign "boxes" to people - victim or perpetrator, innocent or guilty, good or evil. This activity encourages them to understand that, in most cases, these designations are too simplistic. It pushes them to think about personal responsibility and the choices people had to make. The lesson also encourages students to consider the possibility of forgiveness when individual choices have horrific consequences. These insights are crucial for students examining the choices they make in their daily lives, as well as what they might have done had they lived during an traumatic historical event such as the Holocaust.


  • Students will understand critical people and events and the primary question of The Sunflower
  • Students will learn about the historical backgrounds of a number of respondents to Wiesenthal's question.
  • In small groups, students will analyze and evaluate the responses of one respondent.
  • In the large class group, students will share their understanding and evaluation these responses, and make connections with their personal answers regarding this question of forgiveness.


Through the use of The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, students will consider themes of responsibility, judgment, reconciliation, and most of all, forgiveness. In small groups, they will examine and discuss these themes from the perspective of a variety of historical figures and from their own perspectives.



This activity is invariably one of the most intensely moving activities of the school year. In seven years of doing this activity, no two classes have focused on the same points, yet each year, students have been engaged and thoughtful, and their full-class discussions have been passionate. One class focused on the "right" of anyone to forgive in someone else's name. Another class delved into the more religious aspects of forgiveness and salvation. And still another group struggled with the (to them) unimaginable idea that the forgiveness of certain events lies in the lessons that future generations learn from those events. The commonalities between all these classes are the involvement and insightfulness of the students and the fact that there has never been consensus on whether Simon Wiesenthal should or should not have forgiven Karl.

  1. Have students read The Sunflower or read aloud excerpts from the text in order to provide them an understanding of, and "feel" for, the people, events, and primary question. (A brief synopsis is available, but a more extensive reading increases student engagement in the activity.)

  2. Assign one contributor from The Sunflower "Symposium" to each small group. Contributors should be chosen based upon the dynamics of the classroom, and their specific historical background. For more information, see List of Contributors and Biographical Notes

  3. As a full-class, provide a brief biographical sketch about each of the contributors. It is crucial for students to consider the responses of contributors in light of those contributors' personal experiences. A list of the contributors and pertinent information can be written on the board, and left there for the duration of the activity. (A sample list of contributors and biographical notes is available.)

  4. Students are divided into groups of 3-4 and asked to discuss, on a personal level, several questions of forgiveness:

    • What does it mean to forgive?
    • Is there power in extending forgiveness?
    • Is there power in withholding forgiveness?
    • Who has the right to forgive?
    • What do you actually "give" when you grant forgiveness?
    • Are there actions that are unforgivable?
    • What would the world be like without forgiveness?
  5. Each group is given the written response of one contributor. The first task of the group is to read and understand the response and be prepared to present the primary focus to the entire class.

  6. The second task of the group is to discuss whether they agree or disagree with the contributor. They do NOT need to come to a group consensus. The goal is for each individual student to express his or her views.

  7. Each group presents to the entire class - explaining what their contributor said and each group member discussing his or her personal reactions and responses.

  8. Class members respond after each group presentation.

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