Confronting Atrocity

A Review of Fed with Tears- Poisoned with Milk by H. Shmuel Erlich, Mira Erlich-Ginor, and Hermann Beland.

by Sandra Buechler, Ph.D.


“Let us be realistic, let us try the impossible.”

Eva Maria Staudinger, quoting Ernesto Che Guevara, p. 153

In a series of conferences, German and Israeli psychoanalysts met with Tavistock trained group leaders to explore how feelings and fantasies about “German-ness” and “”Israeli-ness/Jewish-ness” influenced the ways they related to each other. This book emerged out of their experiences. It is a collage of expressions of what the meetings meant to some of the individual participants. Rather than attempt to summarize, I offer my thoughts about some of the issues these contributors raise.

“I am not my father, but his daughter”

Jutta Matzner-Eicke, p. 146

What do we each believe is the extent, and the limits, of individual responsibility? In our hearts, do we hold ourselves, and each other, accountable for only our own actions and inactions? I think most would agree that a German person born after the war should not be held responsible for the crimes committed during the Holocaust. Similarly it is relatively easy to consciously assert that an Israeli is not responsible for upholding his or her parents’ attitudes toward the German people. But strong feelings can override rational assertions. And we can understand this, when we listen to the report (by Ursula Kreuzer-Haustein, p. 126) that she heard of an Israeli conference participant whose mother implored him not to travel with a friend in Germany, saying, “Don’t do that, don’t trust them, they killed your grandparents!” Some of the conference participants felt powerful shame and guilt, and a sense of being a betrayer, merely because they went to these meetings. Nevertheless, some overcame external pressures and internal barriers and attended.

I imagine making these experiences public, by writing this book, took great courage and a strong sense of purpose. Elsewhere (2004, 2008) I have written about these as two of the values the analyst must embody. This book also manifests the value that the truth is inherently worth pursuing. Surely this, too, must be inculcated in analytic training. So, for me, the book is about responsibility, the power of shame and guilt, the need for the presence of an “other” in arriving at self understanding, and the moral fiber of those who refuse to be dissuaded from pursuing their personal truths.

I think this book has special relevance for the interpersonal analyst. It explores the need for the presence of an “other” in the process of reaching self awareness. In the forward to the book, Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu draws a parallel between these conferences and the work of his own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He suggests (p. 13) that “each group can face its own most deeply held prejudices, assumptions, and beliefs in the presence of the other group” (italics in original). Why would this be so? And, as analysts, what can we learn from this?

It should be noted that the “other” necessary for personal exploration was not at all a neutral party. Many participants express the feeling that they couldn’t have learned as much about themselves without the other group. But some emphasized that this wasn’t so much about dialogue as it was about working on oneself in the presence of the other. In the words of H. Shmuel Erlich, (p. 181) “Dialogue implies the prior recognition of the other’s otherness and right to be what he is. This cannot be a direct goal; it can only emerge as the byproduct of a process which in itself need not be, and is not yet dialogic.”

Elsewhere (2008) I have explored my own belief that in treatment the analyst’s struggle to (re) gain emotional balance in the presence of the patient, is a vital component of the work. By being there each participant provides a necessary backdrop for the other’s self-exploration and emotional re-alignment. I think one reason for this is that in the company of the other we are more likely to discover our own, previously unrecognized, fundamental interpersonal assumptions. Contrast is a powerful teacher. A patient of mine suddenly understood that he had always assumed people are competing with him, when he realized that competition did not (usually) characterize our interchanges. Contrast teaches us who we have always expected others to be.

But Erlich’s point is extremely valuable for us, as analysts. Many of our patients come to us at a point when they are still unready to recognize the “otherness” of the other. Without this fundamental ingredient of a dialogic process, they are, in a sense, pre-dialogic. This means, to me, that a crucial aspect of treatment is each participant’s encounter with his or her own emotions and assumptions. The physical presence of the other facilitates the possibility that this encounter will occur.

We can look at these conferences (as well as all analytic work) as efforts to explore the meaning of prejudicial exclusion. Just as Jews were excluded non-persons in Nazi Germany, the unconscious, or Sullivan’s (1953) “not me” is a personal version of the excluded. What is the relationship between the excluding and the excluded? Or, we might ask, what causes the prejudicial need to exclude? Many volumes have been written on prejudice and the roots of the need to banish the “other.” For example, in a recent contribution, Aviram (2009) has developed an object relational understanding of the origins of prejudice. He focuses on over-identification with one’s own in-group as a key component. It seems clear that our collective and individual lives depend on increasing our understanding of these processes.

Does this mean that we should strive to eliminate hatred? Would we lose something precious if we could accomplish this? As one conference member put it (Irene Melnick, p. 91):

Empathy for their suffering began to emerge in the Israeli group and 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?

As analysts, it seems to me that we should have something to say about the nature of emotional health, and whether or not hatred can play any part in it. I have elsewhere (2008) considered the roles of anger and hatred in providing cohesion in the face of potential self-obliteration. When the existence of the self is profoundly threatened, perhaps by extreme anxiety, mourning, or depression, some turn toward anger and hatred, to provide a center that can hold. Sullivan (1953) considered anger a defense (against anxiety) that we learn early in our lives, from watching our parents use it. Perhaps this approach to self-cohesion is partially a product of limited choices. If other ways to hold the center are made available, would we rely less on anger and hatred?

Limitations of space dictate that I merely mention a few of the fascinating issues raised by this extraordinary book.

1. Do analysts have theories that can shed any light on the concept of the banality of evil? For example, Daniela Cohen (p.62) reported that in one meeting a German participant said, ‘I have an ordinary Nazi mother.” How can we understand this sentence?

2. How can we face our own potential to be a silent bystander to atrocity? Is there anything new that we, as analysts, can contribute to insight into the silent bystander?

3. What is the process by which we can lose sight of the individuality and humanity of another person? For example, Carl Nedelmann, a German participant, poignantly reports (p. 108) that, “Just as I lost my eye for the individuality of the Israelis sitting across from me, their blindness to the present made faceless Nazis of the 11 easily distinguishable men and women from Germany who were sitting across from them.”

4. Are there actions that forfeit a person’s right to be considered an individual and a human being? Jutta Matzner-Eicke, a German conference participant, stated (p.146) “We, the German members of this group, have to face the fact, that after all that the Germans in the time of Nazism made themselves responsible (for, during) the holocaust we can’t expect to be recognized by the Israeli colleagues as individuals.”

5. Another very significant concept explored in this book is the idea that a fear of “false reconciliation” can result in a deadly, stuck, stasis. While many expressed a wish for reconciliation there was also a fear that the conference would promote a pretense of “forgiveness” that was not real. Perhaps the fear of looking like they were reconciling made some of the Israelis stand further apart from the Germans than they otherwise might. I think we can easily recognize clinical versions of this phenomenon. Anyone who has worked with couples (or been in a relationship themselves!) will probably resonate with how a stubborn unwillingness to let the other off the hook can stymie us. Patients and analysts can be similarly trapped.


This book is a testament to the sheer determination of a remarkable group of people. It speaks of something in the human spirit that can’t be extinguished. It deserves more than a place on our library shelves. It should be passed on to our children.


Aviram, R. (2009). The Relational Origins of Prejudice: A Convergence of Psychoanalytic and Social Cognitive Perspectives. Lanham MD: Jason Aronson.

Buechler, S. (2004). Clinical Values: Emotions that Guide Psychoanalytic Treatment. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

__________(2008). Making a Difference in Patients’ Lives. New York: Routledge.

Sullivan, H.S. (1953). The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. New York: W.W. Norton.

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