The Sunflower II--On Forgiveness
Bill Long 10/2/05
Responding to the Request/A Visit to the Soldier's Mother
After Wiesenthal head the story narrated in the previous essay, he hesitated. He noticed the "uncanny silence" in the room. It was as if a sunflower had already been placed between the folded hands of the soldier. Then, without a word he left the room. He didn't offer his forgiveness to the soldier.
The story, of course, haunted him. Well, both things assailed him--the soldier's tale of the incineration of the Jews and his dying request for forgiveness from Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal narrated it to his comrades back in the camp, and their conflicting responses showed that he was not the only one who shared the dilemma. But then, the next day, he was called back to the hospital. The nurse who had admitted Wiesenthal to the soldier's room the day before was beckoning to him. "Please," she said, "come with me" (73). Not knowing whether the soldier had yet died, Wiesenthal followed along, fearing perhaps that the soldier would renew his request for forgiveness, maybe even more insistently this time. Instead of being led to the room where the soldier had been convalescing, he was taken to a storage room. The nurse disappeared and the reappeared with a bundle tied up in a green ground sheet. Sewn to it was a piece of linen with an address.
Now it was her turn to make a request. She said:
"The man with whom you spoke yesterday died in the night. I had to promise to give you all his possessions. Except for his confirmation watch, which I am to send to his mother" (74).
She held out the bundle to Wiesenthal, but he refused to take it. Again she tried to press it on him. Again he refused and walked away.
Meeting the Mother
But, he did remember the address. After the War was over, in 1946, he took the opportunity to visit Stuttgart, where the soldier's mother lived. Stuttgart had been almost completely leveled by the allied bombing, but still he managed to find the address. The mother was there, submerged in her grief because she had lost both her husband and her son, her only child, in the war. Wiesenthal made up a story about how it was that he knew of her son, and the conversation continued. She said:
"So I am left all alone. I live only for the memories of my husband and my son. I might move to my sister's, but I don't want to give up this house. My parents lived here and my son was born here. Everything reminds me of the happy times, and if I went away I feel I should be denying the past" (89).
"Ah, if you only knew what a fine young fellow our son was. He was always ready to help without being asked. At school he was really a model pupil--till he joined the Hitler Youth, and that completely altered him" (90).
Wiesenthal narrates the poignant story of the woman's loss, her confusion, her lingering regrets and the unescapable fact that everything she held dear--husband, son, family home--had been taken from her. In the midst of this symphony of loss, she still clung to one thing--the goodness of her son. Even though he had made a choice that "completely altered him" by joining the Hitler Youth, at least she knew in her heart of hearts that he was a good boy and that he never would have perpetrated any of the atrocities that she had heard about. Wiesenthal then shares his feelings he had at that moment:
"I looked at the old lady who was clearly kindhearted, a good mother and a good wife. Without doubt she must often have shown sympathy for the oppressed, but the happiness of her own family was of paramount importance to her. There were millions of such families anxious only for peace and quiet in their own little nests" (91).
A Final Resolution and the Problem to Us
Wiesenthal felt that the issue lay squarely in his court now. Should he tell the mother about her son's confession? Here she was, with her whole world shattered but, like the shattered windshield that is still held in place by some tape and glue, she was trying to hold together the shards of her life with the "glue" of the story of her son's goodness. Should Wiesenthal "come clean" and tell the truth to her about her son? Or, should he let her live in her mistaken state? He said something sharp to the woman on another subject and saw her sad visage. "She was not the person with whom one could debate about the sins and the guilt of the Germans" (93). And so he concluded, "This broken woman, so deeply immersed in grief, was no recipient for my reproaches. I was sorry for her" (93).
And so he said nothing to the mother about her son's confession to him. But Wiesenthal's silence in these two instances began to torment him. Hadn't indeed the Jews been led away with docility to the gas chambers and extermination rooms because they remained in silence? Hadn't the ones who remained behind been similarly silent? On what basis could he defend his silence in these two instances? What was the right thing to have done?
Before giving us our challenge and question, Wiesenthal frames the issue this way:
"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, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision" (97-98).
And so he leaves us with the question, which became the basis of the "symposium"--if we were in his place, what would we have done?
The next essay provides my answer to this question.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long