Interview with Anton Obholzer

by Fakhry Davids back to Newsletter 1-2016

As successor to Eric Miller, who directed the first three conferences, Anton played an important part in the development of the “Nazareth” conferences. Fakhry Davids asked him to share something of his own background and interest in the project:

There are two different angles to this: first, my relationship to Eric, and second, my interest in the work itself.

As far as the first is concerned, I was close to Eric and respected him greatly. He had clearly done an outstanding job in helping to conceive and then to direct the first three conferences, and he had a close working relationship with his colleagues on the project. I had tremendous respect for Eric, whom I knew from the Leicester conferences, where I had worked on the staff of several conferences directed by him – once as deputy director – and then I went on to direct several Leicester conferences myself.  This is where my path first crossed with colleagues involved in the Nazareth conferences.

I think it was the background of involvement with Leicester, alongside my work as Chief Executive of the Tavistock Clinic for some 17 years, that lay behind the invitation to me to succeed Eric in the Nazareth project.  Eric was neither German nor Israeli/Jewish and I think this neutrality was important to the organisers.  I too am neither German nor Jewish/Israeli – as a British psychoanalyst I was seen, like Eric, as neutral with respect to the post-Holocaust conflict that was the focus of the work.  However, given that the symbolic meaning of individuals’ national identities plays an important role within the project, I found the notion of the British as neutral with respect to the Holocaust in the past, and the Middle East in the present, somewhat questionable.  If one considers the history of Palestine prior to the events of 1947, the British role was certainly not that of a neutral party.  For me, the fact that the British Director was seen in this way raised the question, was something being covered up?

For me, however, the Nazareth project had another appeal.  My parents were Austrian immigrants to South Africa, where I grew up in a German-speaking home, in a country divided between white and black/coloured communities, with very little communication or real contact between them.  However, I was aware of the injustices meted out to indigenous people in that country – how could one not be?  How could one not know that were on the opposite side of a divide and thus deprived of a more privileged lifestyle that we took from granted?  Straddling such divides became a long-standing interest of mine.  Yet, a recent experience of mine showed me again just how difficult this can be, and how easy it is to turn a blind eye to the way things really are. At an [50th?] anniversary get-together of my medical school year I was shocked to discover, for the first time, that so-called “nonwhite” students were not allowed to attend a post-mortem examination if the deceased person was “white”.  As a white student, I had been completely unaware of a situation that affected so strongly the education of my fellow-students, some of whom I considered myself close to.  This underlines the extent to which one can get into states of mind where one is completely blind to what is actually going on.  Knowing something of these dynamics form my own background increased the respect I had for those involved in the Nazareth project since they succeeded in bringing together Germans and Israelis and helped to find a meaningful way of examining what kept them apart.  Based on the above experience I could understand fully how easy it is for one supposedly “analysed” nonetheless to remain unaware of the situation of the other – shocking as that may be.  The emphasis on this project on trying to speak the unspeakable was therefore very welcome, and something that I wanted to be part of.  I wondered, though, whether restricting itself to speaking exclusively about the past in the present might be defensive and an attempt to evade painful present-day realities – a link perhaps with my earlier observation about about how the British were viewed as neutral.

One situation that struck me at the outset was how immobilised the group had become following the death of Eric.  Eric was an important and significant figure for the group, and his death led to a period of mourning that left to group immobilised and in a powerfully dependent state.  From a group relations perspective, at that stage I had little sense of the group as feeling authorised to continue, and I wondered whether I was also being approached to address this issue, given the history of my leadership of the Tavistock Clinic.  In the event, I think establishing PCCA as a viable organisation with the authority to continue this work was one of our important achievements; it addressed the problem of excessive dependency on the person of the conference director.

There were three issues that mattered greatly to me as we set about establishing PCCA.  First, that we should broaden out and include younger people.  Second, that the organising group should move from being a group of friends who shared a very moving personal journey, to becoming more of a recognisable organisation, with explicit aims and objectives that moved beyond the interests and immediate concerns of the organising group.  I saw in the work a great potential for applying the GR model to other areas of division and conflict, and felt that restricting the focus of the work to the aftermath of the Holocaust – important and worthy a cause as that is – limited the benefits and learning that could flow from the work that this courageous group of colleagues had set in motion.