Fed with Tears – Poisoned with Milk: The “Nazareth”Group-Relations Conferences. Germans and Israelis – the Past in the Present Giessen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2009

by Erlich, H. Shmuel, Erlich-Ginor, Mira, and Beland, Hermann back to Book Reviews of Fed with Tears, Poisoned with Milk

Edward R. Shapiro, M.D.

Entering a Tavistock Group Relations Conference is an invitation to regress among a group of strangers held together by a common task. Within the spare framework of the conference task -- with the staff’s continued focus on the group -- each member inevitably begins, over time, to see aspects of the self that are reflected in others. We unconsciously spread ourselves around in the membership and staff of these conferences in the service of learning about social and organizational life. And, if we take the risk to engage those members whom we find ourselves hating, we inevitably discover aspects of ourselves that we have wished to avoid. This is an unparalleled learning opportunity.

But what if the task framework of the conference becomes the study of hatred itself – and the historical roles of Germans and Jews in the Holocaust are at the forefront of that study? And what if members, selected for their sophistication about the study of unconscious dynamics, are the children from both sides of that trauma -- a generation removed?

This is the challenge the organizers of the Nazareth Conferences took up when they brought Israeli and German psychoanalysts to examine how feelings and fantasies about “German-ness, Israeli-ness and Jewish-ness” affected relations between these two groups. The organizers assumed the exploration would illuminate how these aspects of historically influenced and trauma-based identity related to the roles of citizens and analysts. They were right – and this extraordinary book brings the reader directly into the awesome confrontation of the trans-generational transmission of trauma, in the presence of the Other.

The authors, one German and two Israeli analysts, took care to invite the participants to speak for themselves. The resultant book condenses in multiple voices the history of the conference, a summary of the structure, a collage of powerful comments by participants, and a stimulating exploration of the significance of these events. Archbishop Tutu’s introduction links this book to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission experience of South Africa.

The experience of these conferences was agonizing. Many Israeli participants felt that exploring their own identities in the presence of Germans was a betrayal of themselves and their parents’ generation. A German analyst writes, “I have had the experience of looking at myself as German through Jewish eyes.” Even the words had impact – the German word for Jew (“Jude”) had re-traumatizing links to generational memories of social horror.  A German staff member, in talking about tough meat, suggested it needed berries or would taste like beech wood (“Buchenwald” in German) and was horrified at his own evocation of the past in the present. Prior to the conference, a German analyst took the risk to ask her parents what they had done during the war. Their response was to declare that they no longer had a daughter.

In the conference, stereotypes dissolved. An Israeli analyst says, “There is no way to touch the bedrock without being in contact with our inner ‘Nazi part’ and try to understand how it was to be a citizen in Germany in those times, how difficult it was to think, not to say – to stand up against.” Another says. “The question remained what to do with our hatred. Is it useful or is it just a poison to our minds and to the minds of our children. With no hatred, how do we remember or prevent it from happening again?”

The Germans struggled with how to give their children a sense of pride in themselves, their ancestors and their country when they felt ashamed, guilty and unforgiven. The Israelis wondered how they could keep the memory of the Holocaust alive without poisoning their children with terrible feelings of hatred and the inability to forgive. And they spoke passionately in public to one another: “My wife’s father was an SS guard in a concentration camp.” “The father of (my patient) was a member of a firing squad.” “I am not my father, but his daughter.”

Inter-group engagement within the spare conference structure produced regressive reenactments.  A group of German delegates entered a room of Israelis who experienced it as the unprepared-for and brutal German invasion, with resultant, chaos, panic and the wish to escape.  But there was no place to hide in the life of the conference.

The authors are clear that these experiences, recounted in personal and painful detail, have no synthesis. The stories leave the reader filled with more than can be integrated – it is too much. One has to leave off reading periodically to integrate the painful efforts of these psychoanalytically sophisticated children of the Holocaust. 

This book makes an important contribution to the study of society. The authors suggest convincingly that the structure of Group Relations conferences can be used apart from a focus on authority to begin the awesome work of moving unresolved and massive social trauma into a grieving process. Though the more usual forms of understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness are foreign to the work of Group Relations Conferences, the opportunity to reflect in the presence of the other opens pathways to intra-group, inter-group and individual reflections on otherwise unconscious projective life. The book illuminates the significance of perpetrators and victims confronting their own internalizations in sight of and in interaction with those who inevitably carry their projections of internalized trauma. 

The authors describe the psychological disruption that ensues when the image of the other is changed through reflection in the other’s presence. It is the cornerstone of character change -- when the previously secure place in the world, which has withstood untouched the vicissitudes of maturation, is undermined and the world becomes unfamiliar. The authors suggest that this painful, collective process may be a central building block of social change.