May 2010 Selection: The Sunflower

During our May 5, 2010 meeting we will discuss the following book selected by Burk:

The Sunflower – On the Possiblities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal – Revised and Expanded Edition published by Schocken Books.

Burk provides the following information about the book:

This is a book about an incident involving a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. The story is followed by fifty-three responses to Wiesenthal’s questions as to what would you have done in this situation.  The thought provoking responses are from famous and not so famous theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, Hollocust survivors, and victims of attempted genocide in Bosnia, Cambodia, China and Tibet. The  Book Club  members will be challenged to define their beliefs about justice, compassion and human responsibility.


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2010 Selections, The Sunflower and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to May 2010 Selection: The Sunflower

  1. Jim Almy says:

    Three generations of Germans respond to the question of forgiveness

    In preparation for our discussion last week of The Sunflower I had spent a few hours on the phone with my brother, who has lived in Germany for forty years. I talked with him and, through him, his extended family. Mother-in-law, wife and daughter. They represent the last three generations of Germans. I was interested in their perspectives, thought the group might be also.
    Hoped to offer these insights last Wednesday but made the mistake of tossing out an idea that I hadn’t really thought through and was unprepared to defend. When it elicited more derision than discussion i figured it wise to follow that bit of advice that says, when people think you’re a fool, best not to open your mouth and remove any doubt.
    My brother went to Germany with the Air Force, liked it so much after his four-year stint that he stayed. Eventually married a German woman, had a daughter. They all live on the family farm in Bitburg. He achieved total acclimation, he said, when he was hired by that most German of industries, the Bitburg Brewery (Bitte, eine Bitt?). I phone him long enough to say hello, then hang up. He calls back from a country where corporations are still required to compete in the open market and we talk as long as we like for about two Euros an hour.
    Bitburg, a small community in Southern Germany, bobs along in something of a political backwater. Even so he and his neighbors are aware of national issues, problems, the uneven flow of local and national government. He could not recall ever having a discussion about the Holocaust with anyone in his community, but felt most would agree that they carry some genetic responsibility to never let it happen again, some genetic guilt, would not forgive Simon’s SS officer.
    His mother-in-law was a teenager during the war. Her response was curiously similar to Albert Speer’s, the crime against humanity being too wide, deep and dark to allow for even a glimmer of the concept of forgiveness. Germany must never forget. A practicing Catholic all her life, she could not imagine any Jew ever forgiving any German. There was an interesting conversation between her and my mother some twelve years ago when my mother spent the summer visiting in Bitburg. Ironic, I later thought, these two people sitting in a home were one of them, some fifty-five years earlier, had cowered while my father flew 20,000 feet overhead, a B-17 bombardier in the early years of the war. Somehow the conversation led to my brother’s m-i-l explaining that no one in her neighborhood knew anything about what was going on with the Jews and other minorities. My mother, a midwest blind-Baptist who truly believed that the meek will inherit the earth and spent her life living down to that axiom, uncharacteristically responded that she believed none of it, that the responsibility was universal, that Steve’s (my brother) mother-in-law could not so blithely absolve herself of her part, her burden of guilt. No doubt that led to an uneasy silence, the concurrent creaking of chairs, exhalation of held breaths. After the expected painful pause the old lady (sorry, I’ve never asked her name, my brother referring to her as “Oma”, German for grandma) agreed with my mom. Maybe more people knew more than they ever wanted to admit to themselves, helpless guilt being the worst sort.
    Lisa, my sister-in-law, grew up in post-war divided Germany, attending school during a period when the curricula changed often as more history became evident, could not be ignored, had to be taught. Her classmates, as she recalled, included a few whose views were much the same as their pre-war parents, a sense of superiority, contempt for Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, other minorities. That group exists today in Germany, though their perceived cultural, economic and social troubles are now more likely to be blamed on the influx of Turkish Muslims, Russians and East Germans. Lisa could find no forgiveness for Karl, either from herself or from Simon.
    My niece, Annika, has taken advantage of her dual citizenship, coming to the states a couple years ago to enroll in college in New Jersey. Through emails and facebook — someone will invent the proper verb — we communicated. She identifies as a German, but does not use the “we” that are her grandmother’s and mother’s point of reference to the Holocaust. For her it was the “Germans” and “Nazis” who are to blame. People from another world, another country, another time. Still, the scenario as written by Wiesenthal does not offer itself to forgiveness in her view either.
    The other question they all referenced in one manner or another had to do with the issue of even raising the issue. Why ask? After outlining the situation as grimly as Wiesenthal had done, how could he or anyone else have offered forgiveness to the SS officer. As I explained the nature of Wiesenthal’s question and the variety of answers he received they were still unable to understand what sort of convolutions could lead anyone to think otherwise. I suggested, and expect my sister-in-law might, read the book.
    But I was left with a question I had at the discussion group, an inquiry I never raised because I sensed it could be a tangent from which we might not return (and because I was being petulant). Forgiveness is offered as one of the great human cleansing experiences. To genuinely offer it, accept it, is to free ourselves from the burdens we carry by not forgiving. Has anyone in the group had that experience, I wanted to ask. Do you know anyone who has? I don’t, at least not consciously. Some people have done me wrong, as I, in turn, have wronged others. I can accept that, accept what they did, what I did. Not the same as forgiveness. Why forgive? It doesn’t change the facts. Forgiveness is promoted as a way to relieve oneself of the pain of remembrance or the hurt of victimhood, dragging through life an ever growing bag of wrongs that slows one’s growth, impedes our development. Or maybe adding those wrongs to one’s life experiences helps us to grow. Maybe we turn out better because of what we learn from the sins we commit against others. Maybe it’s better not to forgive and thus, not to repeat.
    Had I not already felt that way about human interaction The Sunflower would have clarified it, given it meaning.

  2. Ron Boothe says:

    What a thoughtful, and at the same time, provocative comment! I have ambivalent feelings about the issue personally, although my underlying bias is probably to assume that forgiveness has the power to potentially allow one to move on with a fresh start, whereas refusing to forgive is more likely to leave behind a residue psychological damage in the form of bitterness or other negative emotions.

    There is some evidence from evolutionary psychology suggesting that capacity for forgiveness is a built-in psychological trait that has adaptive value. Frans de Waal has written extensively about these kinds of issues; see for example his book, “PeaceMaking Among Primates”. His argument is that humans evolved within social groups. Conflict is bound to arise within social groups, but if that conflict gets out of hand it will destroy the group. Therefore, there is adaptive value to have psychological mechanisms built-in that work to diffuse the tendencies towards wanting retribution, and lead instead towards reconciliation.

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