European Perpetrators and Victims Then and Now
September 5-10, 2012
Kliczków Castle, Poland
by Shmuel Erlich
This conference has its own background and developmental stages. On one hand, it is part of a series, variously named “The Nazareth Conferences” or “The Past in the Present”. On the other hand, it represents a significant shift in aim, scope and venue. The tension between these poles, of continuity and innovation, proved a central dynamic in this conference and expressed itself in a number of ways.
Previous conferences in this series gradually expanded from Germans and Israelis to include Diaspora Jews, Others, and eventually Palestinians. For a number of reasons the experience in the last two conferences was problematic. Concurrently, PCCA’s attempts to foster “satellite” European conferences were slow to take hold. The idea emerged to launch an all-European conference on the theme of atrocities and its radiating impact. The conference title: “European Perpetrators and Victims – Then and Now” aimed at the wide scope of atrocities, violence and suffering within Europe as well as its impact beyond Europe.
In line with the title, East Europe seemed a relevant background; the choice fell on Poland as the most meaningful venue. Kliczków Castle, located in former Lower Silesia, was chosen as our venue. It has unique significance due to its location in historical German territory, and the part played by its aristocratic owner in the plot against Hitler and protest against German atrocities.
There were finally 68 members. While there was a significant younger group, the preponderance of the membership was in the older age bracket. There were three large nationality groups: Germans (25), Israelis (including Palestinians/ Israeli Arabs) (16), and Serbs (10). Other nationality groups were small, wide spread and representative: Poland (4), UK (3), Italy (3), Netherlands (2), Bosnia-Herzegovina (2), USA (2), and Canada and Austria 1 each.
The most striking aspect of this membership was undoubtedly the large number of couples, both married and inter-generational (parent-offspring, professor-student, staff-member relative).
There were a few innovations and changes in the design: A Social Dreaming Matrix took place every morning (except for the last day); and the design of the System Event was somewhat different.
This was an unusually rich conference in terms of emergent contents, emotional peaks, conflicts and struggles, rendering it quite difficult to summarize. The following is therefore a rather subjective and selective presentation.
One overarching dynamic was the complexity presented by the membership and flagged by the conference title. It was repeatedly said that it was difficult, perhaps impossible, to get one’s mind around the complexity that emerged. A poignant illustration was the Serbs: In many ways, they represented an unknown, or little known history and reality (one of the groups formed in the SE was “Learning about Serbia”). But they also represented the struggle around being both victims and perpetrators and the enormous difficulty of owning both parts, especially the perpetrator aspect.
Another theme was continuity, development and change, especially in relation to authority, aggression, and ownership. There was a theme of the “injury” inflicted on the Palestinians by changing the conference focus to the more generalized European perspective, thus supposedly neglecting and abandoning the Palestinian issue and cause. The presence of several Palestinians (Israeli Arabs) notwithstanding, there was a complaint about their cause being neglected. It felt like the birth of new siblings being experienced as a rejection and abandonment. But it also related to the question of the “ownership” of the conference: as if the conference “belonged” to the members, and the management (or whoever has the power) wrenched it away from them, without authority to do so. In the SE this found expression in a Palestinian-Israeli led group named “The Fight Club” that served as an alternative management and worked in a confrontational, yet productive manner. It seemed difficult to see the present conference as an evolution and development from previous ones. It was also connected with longings for the past and familiar figures that were absent.
The theme of couples in the conference could be seen to represent an unconscious attempt to preserve the dyadic structure that had characterized these conferences in the mind of members – German-Israeli, Israeli-Palestinian, etc. The dyadic pair is easier to comprehend and deal with than the complexity presented. Perhaps the constitution of the directorate has also contributed to this: it was composed of a threesome, with a male director and two females (associate director and administrator), and a triangle of Israeli-German-Serb. Fantasies about the previous conference and what happened there to the couple of the co-directors were also rampant. Both of the management’s working hypotheses in the SE related to the issue of couples, as an incestuous threatening wish and as a failed mixed marriage, both potentially blocking intercourse and learning.
The theme of trauma was constantly present, either in focus or in the background. It was most vividly expressed by the Serbs and participated in by others. Notably, the younger generation expressed difficulty and uneasiness about identifying with it. The image of the conference as “a sinking ship” came up in the LSG and was quickly denied, but also linked to the Titanic, the Marmara and the Ship of Fools. Trauma was hinted at by such contents as the presence of ghosts, and eventually of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. It was also associated with competition about “the first prize for trauma”. It is an elusive theme and content, suspended between concrete personal injury and some larger, difficult to grasp and define communal experience.
A final theme I wish to flag is the issue of a Group Relations stance as against a more intimate, healing or empathic one. This issue was present throughout, taking such forms as: What sort of conference is this? What is the place and role of authority and role boundaries in it? What is the relation of authority to being on task and learning?
From my perspective as director, this issue is an integral part of this conference design since its inception. My understanding is that this conference design is a significant and valuable variant of the Group Relations tradition. Aspects of authority, role and boundaries are present, as in any organizational structure and dynamics, and it is mandatory to be aware of and implement them as necessary, but they are not the focus of the work and the learning.
In closing, this has been a most valuable conference in which a great many different strands came together to make for a meaningful experience and a good deal of learning. My recommendation to PCCA is to lose no time in planning the next conference of this kind.