Shaping the Future by Confronting the Past Germans, Jews, and Affected Others

by Shmuel Erlich back to Panel, International Psychoanalytic Congress, Berlin 2007

"I am so disappointed - why are there so few Israelis here?" This question of a German analyst opened the first Nazareth Conference. An immediate answer came from an elderly Israeli woman: "If you had not killed so many of us, there would have been more here." This painful dramatic exchange launched a series of working conferences in which German analysts met with their Israeli counterparts. These conferences evolved to have a life of their own: they have a historical past, an intense present that is different for each one, and an as yet unknown future.

We felt strongly, as did the Program Committee, that the work done in these conferences is especially pertinent to this Congress - a Congress in Berlin, under the banner of "Remembering, Repeating and Working Through." This phrase is usually meant as a technical principle for individual psychoanalytic work. An international psychoanalytic Congress in Berlin cannot avoid being in the shadow of the Holocaust, and therefore must also deal with the collective meaning of remembering, repeating and working through.

I will not provide a picture of what transpired and surfaced in these working conferences. My colleagues on this panel will describe the resistances, the experiences, and their ramifications. What I would like to do in the next few minutes is to give you an overall idea of the background, history and special methodology that characterize these conferences.

I should make it clear at the outset that this effort, sincere and serious as it may be in trying to communicate, cannot be wholly successful. What we describe is both experiential and personal. Just as in analysis, it has to do with learning through and from one's own personal experience. In a very deep sense, each participant has had her/his own different and unique conference. It is nearly impossible, and to an extent even misleading, to generalize about it. And yet, it is precisely the point where the individual, the group and the larger collectivities - nationality, culture, religion, politics and ideologies - all meet. Historically, there were five conferences so far: 1994 and 1996 in Nazareth, 2000 in Bad Segeberg, and 2004 and 2006 in Cyprus. A sixth conference is now being planned for 2008 in Cyprus.

How and why did it all begin? In the post-War period there were some renewed contacts between Jewish analysts who fled, mainly to England, and German analysts (Michael Balint, Herbert Rosenfeld). There were also a few contacts between Israeli and German analysts (Hillel Klein, Rafael Moses). These contacts were unquestionably enormously meaningful to the German analysts, but almost totally ignored in Israel. In 1988 Rafael Moses organized a conference in Jerusalem, "The meaning of the Holocaust for Those Not Directly Affected by It". Several German analysts took part in it, and many Israeli analysts and psychotherapists. For most of them it was the first time they actually sat with a German in the same room. The experience was powerful, moving and significant. But the framework of the conference - scientific papers and small discussion groups - could not accommodate or explore what was stirred up. In the same years, several Israeli analysts - including myself, Rafael Moses and Mira - created OFEK, The Israel Association for the Study of Group and Organizational Processes, to introduce the Tavistock Group Relations methodology to Israel. The personal experience Mira and I had for three years with the Ulm Ski Seminar (will hear more about this later) brought us face to face with German analysts and their Holocaust-related unresolved difficulties, both personal and psychoanalytic. Our awareness of the difficulties on both the German and Israeli sides led to the motivation to arrange a suitable format for the two groups to meet and to work on their similar and dissimilar, parallel and juxtaposed issues.

From the start, the most difficult point was the question of containment: the fantasies of the enormity of aggression and guilt such a meeting might unleash were simply overwhelming. A second issue, of particular sensitivity and importance for the Israelis, was the notion of forgiveness and rapprochement. We looked for a solution - a container strong enough to hold whatever comes up, and a method of working that does not allow being sidetracked into simplistic emotional upheaval and discharge. Our acquaintance with and expertise in the Tavistock Group Relations method pointed us in this direction. We saw in this a vehicle and a container both powerful enough and directed towards learning through and from one's own experience. Group Relations methodology developed out of a unique combination of open systems theory with psychoanalytic insights and ways of working - the importance of the setting and the interpretative stance. Like psychoanalysis, it is experiential and investigating - one's personal experience is constantly open for examination but also provides the only source of data; it is also like psychoanalysis in its constant pursuit of Truth as an evolving, both subjective and objective, point of reference and goal. These conferences are not about reconciliation, atonement or forgiveness. The underlying principle and main lesson of these conferences is: The presence of the other is a necessary condition for being able to do your own internal work.

Normal intrapsychic capacities shrink under the impact of the traumatic and horrendous nature of the Holocaust. This severely limits one's ability to work on one's internal state in isolation. The line that divides Germans and Israelis also joins them as distinct and unmistakably different partners in the traumatic historical events and their aftermath. In analysis, we require the presence of an Other to do our own work, although, and precisely because, this Other had no connection with our own history. In the attempt to deal with what happened in the aftermath of the Holocaust within both Germans and Jews, however, we must also deal with what transpired between them. It makes all the difference in the world whether this work is performed exclusively at the level of internal fantasy, or in the presence of the Other. It is especially telling if that Other represents the psychic and historical reality in question. This work is therefore not about pious absolution or phony exoneration. It is rather about one's personal and national identity and relationships - with parents and grandparents, friends and neighbors, culture and history. Indeed, identity is a key issue in this work.

Structure and Design: The usual structure of a Group Relations conference was not exactly suitable for our purpose: it is entirely based on individuals signing up and becoming members or participants. In our projected conference, which came to be called "Germans and Israelis, The Past in the Present", there were two pre-defined nationality groups coming together, and this had to be accounted for in the structure of the conference. The design gradually evolved, with the help of Dr. Eric Miller, Director of the Tavistock Group Relations Program, who directed the first three conferences.

The conference lasts for six days, and it offers several kinds of groups to participants: An Opening and a Closing Plenary; a Large Group, for all participants and 3-4 consultants; mixed-nationality Small Groups (9-12 members) and one consultant; a System Event, in which all participants and all staff take part; and small (4-8) single-nationality Review and Application Groups with one consultant. One indication of the tremendous anxiety that existed at the outset is the fact that instead of a Large Group, which was deemed too explosive and dangerous, there were five Plenaries - a more contained, but less workable structure. This was changed to a LG beginning with the fourth conference.

A highly significant component is the role of staff in these conferences, which is a dual one: Staff has the responsibility as management for the entire conference, maintaining the boundaries of task, time and role; and staff members take on interpretative-consultant roles, based on their own experience, in the here-and-now events. The ability and capacity of staff to remain in role during the events is a pivotal factor in the evolution and progress of the work. A special aspect of staff selection and participation in these conferences has been the "balancing" of staff to include both German and Israeli members, but also a representation of "others" - British, American, and South African. This was at first an aspect of the containing function - the fearful fantasies about the meeting of Germans and Israelis/Jews without a "third" on hand. In time, it has also become an aspect of enlarging and opening up of the conference scope.

These conferences would not have been realized without two elements: Sponsorship and a dedicated working group. From its inception, the conference was sponsored by a number of established organizational entities: The two German psychoanalytic societies (DPV & DPG) and the Israel Psychoanalytic Society. These societies have informed their members about the conference and have provided generous and much needed financial support, which helped reduce costs for participants. The Israel Association of Psychotherapy, OFEK, and the Sigmund Freud Center at the Hebrew University have provided sponsorship and assistance. The IPA sponsored the last conference through its Committee on Prejudice and Anti-Semitism.

As important and significant as this support has been, it is fair to say that without the existence of a core group of dedicated enthusiasts these conferences would never have taken place and certainly not continued. This group consisted mainly of the German and Israeli analysts who have started this together and have served on the staff of almost all the conferences, with the significant addition of "Others". It has acted as a brain trust and action group, and took responsibility for initiating and actualizing each conference, on a voluntary and informal basis. I am happy to tell you that after the last conference we have decided to put a skin around this group, and we are now formally incorporated as the PCCA: "Partners in Confronting Collective Atrocities," with a website, Board and constitution. It also reflects a development towards enlarging the scope and relevance of the conferences and offering the learning and experience they can provide to other conflict ridden groups, of which there is no lack. Our next conference, September 2008 in Cyprus, is titled: "Repeating, Reflecting, Moving On: Germans, Jews, Palestinians & Others Today". We experience and acknowledge the tension between the need to maintain the focus on the Holocaust and its aftermaths, and the equally important need to address contemporary conflicts and atrocities, whether or not directly related to the Holocaust.

I now want to mention our forthcoming book, "Fed with Tears, Poisoned with Milk", which describes the work of these conferences with contributions by many of the members, which is to be published in 2008 in both German and English. I will now invite my colleagues to give you their impressions and reflections, from the German and Israeli sides.