European Victims and Perpetrators Now and Then,
August 27-September 1, 2014 Kliczków Castle, Poland
by Shmuel Erlich
Conference Title and Concept
This conference was conceived in the wake of the previous one and in many way was planned as its continuation. We adopted the same title, albeit with a slight change: Instead of “Perpetrators and Victims” this time it was “Victims and Perpetrators”, and rather than “Then and Now” it was “Now and Then”. These quite subtle changes reflected some of the learning arrived at after the previous conference. It was felt that perhaps the theme of “victimhood” was clouded by that of perpetration, and that the emphasis should be on the present rather than the past. Although it is always questionable to what degree the subtleties of the title influence what actually emerges in the conference, I believe the changes were called for and did provide a clearer focus on the present.
This conference was again one in the evolving series of the “Nazareth Conferences”, yet with a shift of focus to a wider and more current European perspective. The continuity and establishment of this series of conferences may be seen as a source of strength as well as a hindrance. The strength derives from the institutionalization of these conferences, which have certainly become an important entity and presence, perhaps even a “brand”. The hindrance lies in the resulting pull towards repetition, becoming a link in a chain of tradition, and acquiring the character of institutional building. Among other aspects, this finds expression in the number of people who are “repeaters”, some of whom have attended nearly all the conferences. Although their number was relatively very small in this conference, their presence and voices convey the spirit of continuity, comparison with previous events, but also of change and evolution.
Venue: We chose once again Kliczkow Castle in Poland as our venue, for several reasons: it symbolizes continuity; the rates and expenditures offered are very reasonable; it offers a somewhat secluded, yet comfortable and attractive surroundings, and is suitable for our needs; the historical meaning of the geographic-political area, once German and nowadays Polish; the link to the attempt to assassinate Hitler; and so on. The dealings and contact with the hotel personnel (under the new manager) were friendly and very satisfactory: they were very eager to accommodate all our needs and requests promptly and efficiently.
Staff Recruitment: Following my appointment as Director, I invited Dorothee von Tippleskirch-Eissing once again to join me as the Associate Director. Last time she carried most of the administrative burden in the pre-conference stage. This time Dorothee still handled a good portion of the contacts with our pre-conference administration due to its proximity and easy accessibility to her, yet to a considerably lesser degree, which enabled her to take up more fully her Associate Director role. The Conference Administrator was Yael Sharon, an Israeli and member of OFEK, who was a member in the previous conference. Yael filled her role extremely well, functioning both with great efficiency and ease and also as a full member of staff.
Due to the lower registration this time, only nine staff were employed out of the list of 12. This was a rather difficult moment for me as Director, to determine who to let go. I was greatly helped by two listed staff who offered to resign, for various reasons. A third potential staff had to withdraw for health reasons. We were thus left with a group of nine staff, including the Administrator. The group was still quite varied in terms of age, institutional affiliations, citizenship and nationality, and group relations experience. For the first time we had a Polish staff member, which proved to be very important. Five members of staff were also PCCA members.
We continued to work with the office of Geber & Reusch, who handled all the pre- and post-conference administration vis-a-vis the hotel and the participants, including transportation to Klizcków. They functioned most efficiently and made a real contribution to the overall success of the conference.
Membership Recruitment: Considerable effort went again into recruiting members: a conference flier was designed and mailed to many distribution lists: OFEK, Israel Association of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, AMCHA, Tavistock Institute, the DPV, DPG and IPS, IPA web event calendar, and PCCA’s own mailing list. A special conference website, listing all the materials and Registration Form, was constructed and advertised. Staff members engaged in personal recruitment. However, it was reported that for the most part these efforts remained fairly fruitless. On the other hand, we did have inquiries and registrations from unexpected quarters, including South Africa.
Fee Structure: Since it was our declared intention to attract East Europeans in addition to “others”, we maintained the fee structure from the previous conference, with a two-tier fee structure. In view of the fact that even the much reduced fee was still prohibitive for most East Europeans, we lowered their fee to €700 and raised the fee to €1250 for all others. Both fees could be further reduced by €90 for double room occupancy. Most East Europeans took advantage of this option, as well as a few others.
Bursaries: The only support for this conference was provided by the three psychoanalytic sponsoring societies (DPV, DPG, IPS), who together donated about €6,500, which were used for bursaries. There were 13 requests for bursaries, all of which were fulfilled in greatly varying degrees. Funds were allocated on the basis of a written application, as well as a number of pertinent factors, e.g., supporting young persons, students and beginning professionals, as well as the stark economic realities of East Europeans.
Composition of Membership: We ended up with 37 members. This was a much smaller number than last time, but at the same time it represented a wide range of categories: 23 women and 14 men; 21 in the age range of 57 to 74, and 16 aged 25 to 54. The two largest groups were Germans (17) and Israelis (8), with small numbers from a variety of other areas: Italy (1), Netherlands (1), Serbia and Kosovo (2), UK (3), US (1), Australia (2) and Poland (2). The number of “repeaters” was approximately ¼, which is a lower ratio than last time.
As I have mentioned, we received 4 inquiries/reservations from African applicants close to the conference deadline. Three were from a foundation in Sierra Leone who because of great difficulties with financial transactions asked to pay in cash upon arrival. We finally acceded but they never showed up, nor have we heard from them. The fourth was a professor from Durban who heard about us and the conference, but because of the lateness it could not be worked out. I mention these for two reasons: first, the fact that the word about our work has reached people in Africa; and second, to suggest that in the future we should not enter upon such agreements as paying upon arrival. There were two other last minute cancellations, one by a Polish member and the other by a member from the UK.
In terms of professional affiliation, the largest group by far was mental health workers (psychologists, social workers, psychoanalysts). Another group consisted of people in the organizational/institutional area, as well as a couple of theologians and a couple of people in education.
Conference Program and Events:
The program consisted of the following events:
Small Study Groups (SSG) – 5 sessions, 5 groups, 8-9 members with a consultant.
Large Study Group (LSG) – 5 sessions, all members and three consultants.
Review and Application Groups (RAG) – 3 sessions, 7 groups, 3-6 members with a consultant.
Social Dreaming Matrix (SDM) – 4 sessions, all participants (members and staff), 2 staff hosts.
System Event (SE) – 8 sessions, staff as management and offering consultancy.
Plenaries – There were two plenaries: an Opening Plenary at the beginning and a Closing Plenary at the end of the conference.
The Social Dreaming Matrix took place first thing in the morning for one hour. Based on the learning from the previous conference, and given the smaller number of members and staff, the group met as a whole, i.e., all members and staff were invited to participate. Two staff members served as “hosts”. The session was divided in two: 45 minutes for bringing up dreams and associations, and the last 15 minutes for “gathering” and relating the dreams to the conference experience. The SDM was not presented or conceived as a sub-system, and the two staff hosts were from the SSG and LSG teams. It was both very valuable and instructive¸ serving as a channel for creativity and emergent unconscious themes. Themes that emerged in the SDM became part of the imagery and “language” of the conference, such as the image of a butter knife, or the conflict around needing to protect baby pigeons from a predatory eagle. It is also important to point out that the LSG took place next, after breakfast, followed by the SSG, and in this way followed the SDM. I believe these structural changes were instrumental in helping the SDM to be experienced as better integrated.
The SE seemed to proceed in a more “orderly” fashion this time. The breakout into groups was handled with thoughtfulness and deliberation. We provided consultants to some of the territories for the first two sessions as well as territories without consultants. One of the territories with a consultant was ignored, but we could not interpret the meaning of this phenomenon. The management group was not in great demand, although some observers were present and there were a good number of requests for consultancy. The group that called itself first “Outsiders” (they were the leftover group in the opening) and later changed to “Slowness” followed by “From Dependency to Autonomy,” was the one who most interacted with management. It seemed to mirror us and tended to project its internal dynamics on us. They also acted as an alternative management. Other groups dealt with “Confused identities”, “The emotional situation of parents with children in war”, “Reparation and reconciliation” (having to do with constructive and destructive forces), and finally “Ongoing conflicts in Eastern Europe”.
The groups that formed seemed to bear a defensive character: they tended to be same-sexed, to be concerned with issues of children and development. This was reflected in one of our working hypotheses: “Management’s view of the conference institution, based mostly on the composition of the groups that have emerged, is that there is defensive avoidance of sufficient differentiation that may lead to productive intercourse and the creation of something new”. A subsequent hypothesis stated: “Aggression is avoided because it is mistakenly identified with both perpetration and victimhood. This is one reason why the membership is stuck, preferring caring and understanding to dealing with aggression. This wish to avoid aggression in turn hampers contact and interaction, both among members and with management.”
The most remarkable development, however, was the slow arrival of evidence and the realization that there was within the membership a somewhat clandestine group. It has evolved as a group of people who wished to speak Polish, their mother tongue, and its members maintained their “formal” affiliations, while meeting at the boundary for their own needs. This led to our final intervention: “Management notes that the system has evolved an underhanded (not openly straightforward) way of acting. It seems to express strong wishes for having a clear national identity, which at the same time is felt to be prohibited, and can only be expressed in questionable ways. The risk of conducting business in this way is that the response and input from management must be experienced as perpetrating, authoritarian and unresponsive, as if management does not respect the membership.”
In the final session of the SE, when a plenary was organized by members, this theme became most prominent and led to the interpretation that membership has enacted the situation in Europe, where groups seeking to establish and experience their unique identity are unable to do so with the cooperation and support of the authorities and must resort to underhanded and dubious ways of achieving this legitimate goal. It is my sense that this has been one of the most striking unconscious enactments in this conference.
Group Relations Methodology and this conference: The question of the specially adapted GR design and the way this conference proceeds has come up in this conference as well, although in a much more moderate way and tone. I would like to mention one significant distinction we arrived at: since staff were invited to participate in the SDM, the question came up: as what? And what should or could be the nature of staff input in this setting? It was also related to other boundary issues, such as having coffee with members (the staff schedule and coffee arrangements meant coffee could only be taken with the members)? In this connection, we drew a clear distinction between role and identity. Staff always have the identity of being a member of staff, but they are in role only when this is specified in terms of task and role boundaries. I believe this clarification was very helpful to staff.
It must be pointed out and underlined that this conference took place against the background of the war in Gaza, the threat to the Israeli population and the horrendous and well publicized pictures of destruction and casualties. The conference started as a cease fire agreement was finally reached and put into effect. As was to be expected, these political events which galvanized many in the world were very much present in the conference, especially in the beginning stage. Gradually the attacks and self-righteous proclamations of what needs to be done or take place gave way to greater focus on the here and now of the conference, with considerable diminution of the attempts at polarization.
I wish to list some of the themes that came up repeatedly in the conference:
- Hope vs. despair
- The enormous complexity of what we are dealing with
- The pernicious power and phenomenon of repetition
- The need for interdependence, which also creates the need for an enemy
- Damaged trust and what can be done to repair it
- Finally, the experience of perplexity
The Learning: While it is always difficult to make judgments concerning the learning that has taken place, the general feeling in the staff and what was reported by many members was that the conference was a truly significant experience, deeply moving and challenging. This came across powerfully in the final RAG session.
In closing, this has been a valuable conference in which a great many different strands came together to make for a meaningful experience and a good deal of learning. My recommendation to PCCA is to lose no time in planning the next conference of this kind.