Can forgiveness overcome the horror?

In the midst of this year’s deluge of news from Bosnia I picked up a book I had read at least ten years before: The Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal. It recounts a small incident that took place during this century’s most successful “ethnic cleansing” campaign, an incident that does much to explain what propelled Wiesenthal to become the world’s foremost Nazi hunter and the most relentless public voice against contemporary hate crimes. The book centers on forgiveness, and I turned to it for insight into what role forgiveness might play in the moral quagmire that once was Yugoslavia.

In 1944 Wiesenthal was a young, Polish prisoner on his way to the concentration camps. He had looked on, helpless, as Nazi soldiers forced his mother into a freight car crammed with elderly Jewish women and as they shot his grandmother to death on the stairway of her home. Altogether, 89 of his Jewish relatives would die at the hands of the Nazis. Wiesenthal himself had tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide when he was first captured.

One bright, sunny day as Wiesenthal’s prison detail was cleaning rubbish out of a hospital for German casualties, a nurse approached him. “Are you a Jew?” she asked hesitantly, then signaled him to follow her. Apprehensive, Wiesenthal followed her up a stairway and down a hall until they reached a dark, musty room where a lone soldier lay, swathed in bandages. White gauze covered the man’s face, with openings cut out for mouth, nose, and ears.

The nurse disappeared, closing the door behind her to leave the young Jewish prisoner alone with the spectral figure. The wounded man was an SS officer, and he had summoned Wiesenthal for a confession. “My name is Karl,” said a strained voice ...

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