The Sunflower Synopsis

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In The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal writes of an incident that occurred during the time he was a concentration camp inmate. One day, he and his work detail were sent to clean medical waste at a converted army hospital for wounded German soldiers. On the way, "Our column suddenly came to a halt at a crossroads. I could see nothing that might be holding us up but I noticed on the left of the street there was a military cemetery . . . 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."

Simon's work group arrived at the hospital. As they worked, a nurse came up to Simon and asked, "Are you a Jew?" When he answered "Yes," she took him into the hospital building, to the bedside of Karl, a 21-year old dying Nazi soldier. Karl's head was completely covered in bandages, with openings only for his mouth, nose and ears. Karl wanted to tell Simon his story. He began, "I know that at this moment thousands of men are dying. Death is everywhere. It is neither infrequent nor extraordinary. I am resigned to dying soon, but before that I want to talk about an experience which is torturing me. Otherwise I cannot die in peace . . . I must tell you of this horrible deed - tell you because . . . you are a Jew."

Karl talked about his childhood and described himself as a happy, dreamy child. His father was a Social Democrat and his mother brought Karl up as a Catholic. Karl joined the Hitler Youth and later volunteered for the SS. That was the last time his father spoke to him.

Karl went on to tell Simon about being sent to fight in Russia, and about coming, one day, to a village.

"In a large square we got out and looked around us. On the other side of the square there was a group of people under close guard . . . The word went through our group like wildfire: ‘They're Jews' . . . An order was given and we marched toward the huddled mass of Jews. There were a hundred and fifty of them or perhaps two hundred, including many children who stared at us with anxious eyes. A few were quietly crying. There were infants in their mothers' arms, but hardly any young men; mostly women and graybeards . . . A truck arrived with cans of petrol which we unloaded and took into a house . . . Then we began to drive the Jews into the house . . . Then another truck came up full of more Jews and they too were crammed into the house with the others. Then the door was locked and a machine gun was posted opposite . . . When we were told that everything was ready, we went back a few yards, and then received the command to remove safety pins from hand grenades and throw them through the windows of the house . . . Behind the windows of the second floor, I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the mother of the child. With his free hand the man covered the child's eyes . . . then he jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. Then from the other windows fell burning bodies . . . We shot . . . Oh God! I don't know how many tried to jump out of the windows but that one family I shall never forget - least of all the child." 

After that event, Karl's division moved on to the Crimea. One day, in the middle of a fight, Karl climbed out of his trench and he recalled, "in that moment I saw the burning family, the father with the child and behind them the mother - and they came to meet me. ‘No, I cannot shoot at them a second time.' The thought flashed through my mind . . . And then a shell exploded by my side. I lost consciousness . . . It was a miracle that I was still alive - even now I am as good as dead . . . So I lie here waiting for death. The pains in my body are terrible, but worse still is my conscience . . . I cannot die . . . without coming clean . . . In the last hours of my life you are with me. I do not know who you are. I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough . . . In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn't know whether there were any Jews left . . . I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace."

Simon left the room without a word. When his group returned to the hospital the next day, the same nurse came to Simon and told him that Karl had died. 

Over the next years of the war, time and again, through all his suffering, Simon thought of Karl and wondered if he should have forgiven him. 

"Ought I to have forgiven him? Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This is a profound moral question . . . The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition . . ."

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