The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal


I picked this book because it inspired Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller. I read the 1998 paperback version of this book; that was the edition available at my public library.

From Goodreads: While imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Wiesenthal was taken one day from his work detail to the bedside of a dying SS man. Haunted by the crimes in which he’d participated, the soldier wanted to confess to—and obtain absolution from—a Jew. Faced with the choice between compassion and justice, silence and truth, Wiesenthal said nothing. But even years after the war had ended, he wondered: Had he done the right thing? What would you have done in his place?

☺ ☺ ☺

The book starts with the author’s personal story. While at a concentration camp—faced with daily death and horror—he is one day called to the bedside of a dying SS officer. The soldier is haunted by the atrocities in which he has anticipated. He knows he is dying and wants to confess his sins to a Jew in the hopes of gaining forgiveness. Wiesenthal listens despite his repulsion. When faced with the choice between compassion and justice, silence and truth, he says nothing when the Nazi is done confessing. After the war, Wiesenthal visits the mother of the Nazi and listens to her stories about “her good boy.” He does not tell her the details of his meeting with her son or her son’s confession. Even years after the end of the war, Wiesenthal wonders whether he has done the right thing. And what would you have done in his place?

After Wiesenthal’s story, the book presents 53 responses to his questions. Most are new, some are reprinted from the first edition published in 1976, and a few are translated into English for the first time. It was interesting to see on which detail of Wiesenthal’s experience the contributors based their response. Some focused on the SS man and his possible motifs. Others focused on Wiesenthal and aspects of the Jewish religion. For others still, the circumstances of the situation were most important. I also found it interesting that even without looking at the short biography of each contributor, you could usually tell whether the response was written in the seventies or in the nineties.

There were a number of interesting analyses of Wiesenthal’s situation and response, and I thought the book was well-balanced. It is definitely thought-provoking. I am giving it three smileys because of the format, rather than the content. I have a hard time comparing a collection of “essays” to a work of fiction, so I decided to stick with a neutral number.

Many of the contributors to this book have written other books, both fiction and non-fiction. After reading plenty of summaries and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, I’ve decided to read Harry Wu’s biography Troublemaker: One Man’s Crusade Against China’s Cruelty next.


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