Some say we do not have the right to offer forgiveness on another’s behalf.

Simon Wiesenthal, premier Nazi-hunter, has been much in the news lately. First he showed up on TV networks to protest President Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery, and then to comment on reports of the death of Josef Mengele. Wiesenthal had a lot at stake in the Mengele question; he has committed much of his life to tracking “the butcher of Auschwitz.” Although Wiesenthal himself survived the German concentration camps, he lost 89 family members to the Nazis.

Wiesenthal is often asked about his obsession: Why hunt down men in their seventies and eighties for crimes committed half a century ago? Is there no forgiveness? No reconciliation with such people? Wiesenthal set down his personal answers to such questions in a slim, powerful book called The Sunflower. It begins with a haunting story, a remembrance of a true event that occurred during his imprisonment.

By chance, Wiesenthal was yanked out of a work detail and taken up a back stairway to a darkened hospital room. A nurse led him into the room, then left him alone with a figure wrapped in white, lying on a bed. The figure was a German soldier, badly wounded, swathed in yellow-stained bandages. Gauze covered his entire face.

In a weakened, trembling voice, the German made a kind of sacramental confession to Wiesenthal. He recounted his boyhood and early days in the Hitler Youth Movement. He told of action along the Russian front, and the increasingly harsh measures his SS unit had taken against the Jewish populace.

And then he told of a terrible atrocity, when all the Jews in one town were herded into a wooden frame building that was then set on fire. Burning bodies fell from the second floor, ...

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