Reflecting on repetition – do we really move on?
by Miri Tsadok
(first published in Kav Ofek)
The Primary Task of the conference is defined as providing opportunities for participants to explore the full range of feelings and fantasies about ‘German-ness’, ‘Israeli-ness’, ‘Jewish-ness’, ‘Palestinian-ness’ and ‘Other-ness, how these influence relations within and between the different groups in the conference, and how they affect and influence perceptions of the future.
For many years I have been aware of the workshop taking place, thinking to myself that someday I will perhaps attend it. Every time I have had another good reason why not to take part in it. I am not really fond of what I call “Poland Festivals”, and I don’t like the categories of Holocaust survivors, second generation, and third generation. This is perhaps both owing to and despite my being an undoubtedly typical second generation: a mother who survived Auschwitz, a father who survived a work camp that left him exhausted and famished, and an extended family that was almost entirely wiped out; my name, Miriam, is after an aunt who did not survive the war. Being thus given the identity of ‘second generation’ has always aggravated and repelled me, for how could you make such a vast generalization? I don’t want this label, when my own experience is unique and does not abide by all the narrow, suffocating definitions. My mother, for example, survived the Holocaust thanks to the fact that she belonged to a group of 12 friends who looked out for each other and in the horror of Auschwitz had the resourcefulness and strength that allowed them to stick together. And so, alongside the horrible experience of meeting human evils, my mother had also experienced camaraderie, and encountered, within her and outside of her, humanity at its best, with a courageous force of life, that was victorious over the forces of death.
The registration form I sent via registered mail was lost, along with the cash admission fee. The Israeli Post informed me that the matter was under investigation and they have yet to receive an answer from the German Post regarding the matter. I learned of it through an email sent to me by Mira Erlich, inquiring whether I already registered, because as far as she knew, I was not registered. All this happened while I was sitting ‘Shiv’a’ for the death of my mother. “Haven’t “they” done enough in the past? Now they lose my things in the present?” I have yet to start the workshop, and I am already there.
It is the first time that I experience myself as a minority in a group relations conference, whether as Jewish, as an Israeli and definitely as an Israeli-Jew. Out of 58 participants, 16 are from Israel, eight Jewish, eight Arab. There are 31 Germans and eleven from other places.
Throughout the conference I was feeling the difficulty of being a private and autonomous person. It is a strange and painful experience. I was being projected on and into again and again. Usually they wanted to use me in order to go through a process of confession and catharsis – my pain and personal history were wanted commodities for that. Others, my Arab friends from Israel, wanted to use me as a boundary marker, in order to construct their Arab-Israeli identity, which is so complicated. I met these projections in myself as well, and it was hard for me to meet people as individual persons, even those I had known prior to the conference. Everyone was grouped into categories of national identity. Where did all the people go?
The title of the conference was composed of three actions: repetition, reflection and moving on. I want to describe an event which represents these three movements and the connection between them, although the experience seems at times a contradiction between them. I will describe this in short, admitting that although I tried to stick to a factual description, it was a highly emotionally charged event, and it is described through a subjective reflection.
As part of the system-event the German group politely invited the Jewish-Israeli group to a meeting. Five Jewish women, Israeli and non-Israeli, attended a meeting with a large group of Germans. A terrifying drama of attack was reenacted: one representative of the German group attacked, and in the words of a Jewish-Israeli participant, conducted a sort of a kangaroo court for the group: “Did you discuss the Armenian massacre in your group? If not, how can you complain about the Holocaust? Did any of the Jews do something about the Armenian massacre?” He added that Hitler saw the lack of response and action in the matter (of Jews and non-Jews alike) as a sign that he could also slaughter the Jews. Implicit to his speech was the accusation that the Jews were guilty of the Holocaust and they must not blame the Germans, but only themselves. In saying that, his was the only spokenopinion, and because no one tried to stop him, he became the representative of the German group; no one voiced a different opinion, no one stopped to say, what is going on here? Everyone was paralyzed – both the Germans and the Jewish representatives were helpless. The Jewish representatives came back from that meeting upset, angry and humiliated. The inner tension that existed between the Israelis and the non-Israelis was swept aside; as a result of this incident, the Jewish group experienced inner unity, but throughout the conference, and in the concluding event especially, the traumatic experience was still in effect. During the concluding event I noticed that in the system-event all the languages had place: the Germans spoke German, Arabs – Arabic, only Hebrew was not heard; for a few long moments I stopped understanding English: I heard, but I could not understand what was being said. Later I connected this to the existential threat that was being experienced here and now, and I realized that we can also not-be, and not exist.
The phenomenon of repeating and the compulsion to repeat has already been discussed by Freud, who referred to patients who seemed senselessly persistent in seeking outcomes that led only to unhappiness and suffering as unable to learn from experience and behaving as if “pursued by a malignant fate or possessed by some ‘daemonic’ power”. Freud was pessimistic about the possibility of change in patients with a repetition compulsion, but he also saw hope in this repetition. He suggested that when repetition emerges in the transference process it gives the analyst a chance to understand and “transforming it into a transference repetition which can be cured by the therapeutic work” (Freud, 1914).
We can view this incident as similar to what might happen in an individual’s therapeutic process — a product of an unconscious group-process which seems to have burst out involuntarily and which seems not to fit the conscious way of thinking of the German group. This group wanted to process the heavy ‘baggage’ its people have; as German individuals they came to the conference with a willingness to acknowledge the horrible past, connect and know more about it. But what actually took place in the meeting I described, was a drama of attacking the outside ‘other’ stemming from a wish to get rid of the guilt, and from the inability to bear the inner feeling of evil. The urge to be rid of the memory, the guilt and the history of evil, created a circular reenactment of the offence in the present. Here again, I met with the fascinating dynamics of a group relations conference. The workshop is a safe enough place, while arousing enough anxiety, to allow the demons to rear up their heads, giving us the opportunity to observe them. We were able to process this only thanks to the reenactment of the aggression. The aggression was awakened by the impulse to get rid of the unbearable feelings, and of envy of the other, who seemed to be intact, “whole”, wishing to destroy and ruin his present state.
The morning after the meeting, a German participant said: “Throughout the years I have accused my parents – how could they have been silent? How did they allow themselves to be passive bystanders? And here, I was sitting there, feeling that something bad was happening before me, but I was paralyzed and did nothing”. An Israeli participant said: “How did I not stop this thing? Why did I continue to try and explain and justify myself?” Another participant burst in tears for apparently no reason; if in reality there was no actual physical threat, still, it seems that the experience of being attacked was just as real and tangible as to make her cry.
Hermann Beland, a German consultant who worked with the Jewish-Israeli group in the review and application group, quoted himself (when he was being attacked by the group, in a conference of Israeli and German psychoanalysts) as saying to his Israeli colleagues, who had severely criticized his therapeutic work with a couple who survived the Holocaust – and in essence attacked him for being a German who is treating Holocaust survivors: “you are no better than me”. I think that aside from the courage required to take such a stand in the circumstances he described as well as in the conference we were taking part in – facing the aggression and criticism of a Jewish-Israeli group, it is right to remember and be reminded that there are no guarantees of purity, and that although we wish to get rid of the dangers of evil and cruelty, we are all there. We cannot presume that “it will not happen to us”, not compared to our parents’ generation and not in relation to other nations. We have no way of guaranteeing that we will never be morally numb and will never cooperate with organized evil. We can perhaps give ourselves some chance of moving on if we acknowledge that.