Meeting a Nightmare

by Yehoshua Weiss

I am a Jew, I am an Israeli, I am an American, and for reasons undesired by me, I am also an Austrian. Some members of my family were victims of violence during the Holocaust, and now I have met the son of one of the victimizers. I have been a perpetrator of violence unto others and now I have met some of the victims. And I have also discovered that I even belong, however reluctantly, to those who have victimized my own family.

I am convinced that it was some inner need to put together—or at least to try to come to grips with–some of these various parts myself that made it important to me to participate in the conference for Germans, Jews, Israelis, Palestinians and Others that took place in Cypress in 2008. This conference, initiated by German and Israeli psychoanalysts, was essentially a Tavistock Group Relations week-long workshop which focused on issues of perpetrators and victims.

Soon after the conference had begun, I declared in a large group meeting that I was interested in meeting Germans, and that this was my main motivation for coming. I wanted to meet the people who had victimized my father’s family, my people. As a 12 year old, my father had fled Austria to the United States as his family was being hunted down by Nazis. My grandfather was the rabbi of a city south of Vienna, had a position in the Austrian Ministry of Education, and could not conceive that he would be persecuted. Only after the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Germany in1938), and after S.S. officers showed up at his doorstep, did he realize the imminent danger for him and his family. And, only then did he and they manage to narrowly escape. So why did I want to meet Germans? Perhaps to ask them that overwhelming question: Why? To try and understand how human beings could perform such atrocities. How did they, the sons and daughters of the victimizers, understand the behavior of their parents and country? And maybe, apart from this wish to point an accusing finger was a more positive wish on my part to “move on” and let go of my vengefulness.

Upon the conclusion of that initial meeting, I found myself standing on line for coffee. A strikingly handsome man, somewhat older than me, turned to me and calmly and pleasantly said: “You wanted to meet German people and talk to them. So here I am, let’s drink coffee and talk”. I remember sitting outside with him on asking and listening. He was well-mannered, blue eyed, and with blond hair that had begun to turn grey. A true gentleman. And he indicated that he wanted to assist me by telling me what he could. He explained that his father was an athletic man, with classic German features who had excelled in sports, and as such he had attracted the attention of some members of the Nazi party. His father was invited to join the Nazi party and quickly found a place where he felt accepted and appreciated. My acquaintance speculated that perhaps his father, for psychological reasons, had a particular need for this hearty acceptance. In any case, with the Nazi party’s growing popularity, his father was offered jobs with status and finally was admitted into a special unit—one whose name was vaguely familiar to me. As it happened, a German woman whom I had met earlier in a small group and who was sitting with us at the table offered some words of explanation. She pointed out that this unit was better known as the S.S. Evidently, noticing that her explanation had a disturbing effect on me (after all, to sit and have coffee with a German is one thing, but with the son of an S.S. trooper or officer is quite another), she diplomatically continued to explain that she had studied the history of the S.S., and that actually the S.S. had two separate groups with distinct roles: one group’s role was to protect Hitler; and the other group’s role, was perform the “final solution”, i.e., to hunt out, and kill Jews. She said that she assumed that this man’s father belonged to the former group. The latter group wore a skull and cross bones as part of their attire, and she had understood that my acquaintance’s father wore no such emblem.

Listening to this explanation, my acquaintance did not respond except for a polite, benign smile, and then proceeded to tell me about his father’s life after the war, his father’s depression, and his father’s wish to meet with friends from the war despite his wife’s insistence that he not do so. Then, as we continued to talk, he quietly and candidly revealed that once his father showed him a box hidden in his closet. In the box were memorabilia from the war. Among them was a belt, and on the buckle of that belt he noticed that there was a distinct emblem—a skull with crossbones. The German woman, taken aback, blurted out, “Oh my God!” And I sat there speechless, knowing in that instant that this man’s father was an S.S. officer who had participated in hunting down and killing my people, my family. My acquaintance was the oldest son of a murderer. Whatever else he was, he also was the son of a murderer. A murderer of my great aunts and uncles and cousins, and of countless people I had heard of, whose pictures I had seen. We sat there silent for some moments, and then I noticed that tears were running down my acquaintance’s face. No longer able to control himself, he began sobbing, his whole body shaking, and he was unable to say a word.

It was not until the next day that we met again. It was I who did the talking that next meeting. I told him that only now did I fully realize how as a child I had grown up with something dark in the background of my thoughts, feelings, and dreams. This ominous presence was the Holocaust and the terror of being caught by a Nazi. And specifically—I felt I had to say it—I feared being caught my some S.S. murderer. Yesterday, I felt I had met my nightmare. I told my acquaintance that I could imagine his father probably looked like him, that his father was a regular, normal-looking guy, a guy who was just trying to fit in, make his way, in his own society which, in the end, turned out to be a society that committed the horrors that it did, and that yes, a society that has left me with my nightmares. I felt, in fact, that I could have been sitting at this table and speaking to his father. And in this sense I felt that meeting the son forced me to come directly in touch with how I felt about meeting a Nazi, or ex-Nazi. What is one to do when you meet your nightmare?


I still am trying to make sense and to understand what I felt and thought. I have met my acquaintance —who in an almost unimaginable way now felt like a “friend”— in my home in Israel. I have met his children too. They are not really aware what their grandfather did. So many thoughts, so many experiences. So little understanding. Still, I would like to share a few associations I have to this experience.

Anger is not my experience. I have no conscious wish for revenge. And yet, throughout the conference I had had the feeling that millions of people, from the earth, from their graves, were crying out to me. I couldn’t make out the words or exact meaning but felt they were saying: do not forget, do not forget, do not forgive, do not let us go. During the conference, soon after meeting this remarkable son of an S.S. officer, I went to the sidder, the prayer book, and read a prayer. I am a religious Jew and recite the prayer weekly. It was written hundreds of years ago after the massacre of Jewish communities by the Crusaders. “Father of mercy, dwelling in the heavens, with his abundant mercy he will remember the good and innocent holy communities who died for your name [i.e., because they were Jewish]… He will remember them together with the righteous and will avenge the blood of those who worship Him, as said in the scriptures: All nations will notice because the blood of his servants will be revenged, revenge shall befall those who hurt them and then the land shall be atoned…” Clearly, my wish to remember, the voices shouting to me, is also a wish not to forgive. It seemed to me that as I began to acknowledge the humanity of German people, as I began on the journey of understanding, accepting another part of me pleaded that I not let go of the ingrained anger and hatred and a wish for revenge.

Meeting a real person who acknowledged and accepted the horrors his father had committed was a consolation for me and it caused the wish for revenge to dissipate. It was his ability to listen to my voices, those voices of millions of people shouting out to him, to his father, from the ground: What have you done? And for him to have sat there and confronted his own truth, the fact that his father’s deeds destroyed and hurt so many, including his father’s own humanity, well, that was for me—and him too, no doubt—a healing experience. His compassion and my own automatic compassionate response forced the hatred to a corner. I will not forget, I will mourn but I feel I must move on to build and to live and love. I will move on, remembering and mourning and continuing to struggle to understand how could this happen. How could regular people build a murderous machine and actively participate in it? What does this say about other people? And what does it tell me about who I am, what I have done?

Meeting myself: What do you do when you find out you are part of who you hate?

The voices from the past, thoughts of my family in Europe continued to accompany me during the conference. During a small group meeting, I found myself with three German women, an Austrian woman and a young Palestinian man. The Austrian woman was the only Austrian in the conference. I identified myself as Jewish, Israeli, and American since my mother is very much an American, and I was born in the U.S.A. Although I have been living in Israel for over forty years, I have a slight American accent. As a child in Israel I was branded as the American kid. So, being an American is part of my identity. As I mentioned above, my father was born in Austria but I have absolutely no connection with Austria. Once I went on a trip with my father to visit the town where he was born. I felt uncomfortable buying even coffee and pastry in a coffee stop: to me, I was sitting in the land of death. Enjoying myself in Austria seemed like a betrayal of the memory of my family. The beautiful landscapes of Austria are not to be enjoyed, except to remind me that this is part of the life that was taken away from me. This land threw my people out.

But as much as I would like to have no part of this Austrian baggage in myself, I realized during that conference that I cannot avoid it. I realized this in a curious, and seemingly innocuous, way. A discussion was taking place at one point within our small group and I noticed that, once again, I was speaking quite dramatically about what could have been said plainly and straightforwardly. I am self- conscious about this trait of mine. I made a joke, a sarcastic remark about it. The Austrian woman had some difficulty understanding my English and her friends translated for her, at which point she threw up her hands, laughed and spoke rapidly and loudly in German. She said that in Austria they have a term for this way of talking named after a kind of whipped cream cake, and it is typical of men from Vienna, and from Austria in general. She was amused that I was self-conscious about this mannerism, because after all, it is so common and accepted among Austrian men. Her saying this was not altogether pleasing to my ear, as one might imagine. My Austrian-born father also has this dramatic way about him, and I’ve never liked it, even though I have the same, if slightly diminished. This woman’s remark made me realize that I too had Austrian blood in me, and that my mannerism is a sign of this identity. I am not only a Jew and an Israeli and an American. I am also part Austrian.

Let me try to explain the significance of this realization. My father’s father had been an ordained officer in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I. My grandmother’s father had been an eminent portrait artist, among the court artists of the Kaiser, Franz-Joseph. Both were leaders in different Jewish communities. Yet, strangely, I never thought of myself as Austrian. For me, Austrians were persecutors, betrayers of our family, anti-Semites that allowed Jews to live in Austria until they had the opportunity to get rid of them. So, for me Austrians are actually people from whom I prefer to keep my distance, all the more since they do not acknowledge their part in the atrocities of the Holocaust. And now I find out that I am part Austrian, that I cannot “cut out” this aspect of myself, like it or not. So what do I do now that I have just found out that I am part of a culture I have learned to hate?

As this realization sunk in over the conference, I began to “try on” this new identification, this identification that just returned from repression. I liked toying with the idea of belonging to another culture and another country. I found it refreshing in a way to accept and learn about true parts of myself that had been shoved out of sight and out of mind, stored in some dark, forgotten attic. While trying on this identity I felt that the voices from the past were again not giving me peace, crying out that I should not forget that I am betraying them. I should not shed my vengeful feelings. And yet, I have come to realize now, that hatred boomerangs back and hurts the one who hates. Be careful about hating certain types of people, I now know with certainty, because you just may find out you are one of them in some way.

Meeting my partner to conflict, my victim?

As the conference unfolded I found that dealing with the powerful issues regarding meeting Germans and an Austrian woman was ultimately, and perhaps understandably, easier, less complex, than meeting Palestinians. There is a consensus that the Germans were perpetrators and the Jews, victims. The issue is: How could regular good people create such an atrocity, and how do the second generation of victims and victimizers reconcile and move on to live. In the realm of Israelis and Palestinians, the roles are far from clear-cut—or, so it seems to me. True enough, many Palestinians, Germans and people from other nationalities at the conference seemed to equate the Jewish Holocaust with the Palestinian “Nakba” [Disaster]. But the vast majority of Israelis, including me, do not view Israel’s part in the Jewish-Palestinian conflict similarly.

The blame for the Palestinian plight seemed to shift around the room, falling on all parties depending upon who was speaking. The Israelis, many felt, are to be blamed for solving their problem of persecution and homelessness at the expense of the Palestinians. Others, including Israelis and some Palestinians, blamed the Germans. They had kicked the Jews out of Europe and ultimately solved the Jewish problem by moving them, or allowing them to move, to Palestine. And not only the Germans, of course, but many other countries in the world were happy enough to go along with this solution. At the conference, the Germans seemed ready to accept the blame, almost as readily as they accepted the blame for the Holocaust. In response to this, I felt that the Palestinians and the rest of the world were to be blamed for relating to the Jews as a problem, a hot potato that no-one wanted and was rejected and hated by all. The questions people were asking seemed to be: Who was to blame for the Palestinian plight and thus, who was responsible to make things good? This projection of the “victimizer” was clearly defensive, and I tend to think that what was being projected onto others was the reality of the “perpetrator within” and the extreme difficulty to listen to and understand the pain and trauma of the other with the concomitant feelings of compassion, responsibility and guilt.

The poignant reality that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Palestinian plight are present and currently taking place contributed to the difficulty in discussing and understanding. In a small group I was asked, not by Palestinians, if I served in the army, in a war, and did I kill anyone. I recall the extreme uneasiness which this question aroused in me. I looked at my hands. Was blood dripping from them? I was either an aggressive perpetrator, a murderer, or was in denial. In such a situation, the hatred towards me as an Israeli Jewish male, the projection of blame, was almost tangible. As I sat there, I recalled—not for the first time, of course–sitting in a tank during the first Lebanese war in 1982. I was in the middle of a battle between Syrian and Israeli armor, and I was thinking about the soldier in the Syrian tank, that he probably is a decent fellow that I could get along with, maybe drink some black, “Turkish” coffee with, while knowing that if I did not fire then I would be fired upon by him. He would shoot me, or my friends. I felt the tragedy of that moment: Here we are, two a decent people, finding ourselves in a bloody battle. Doing what I had to do in my role as a soldier was victimizing someone else.

But I must be frank, and I tell you that with regard to the Palestinian plight, I do not see myself solely as a victimizer. At the same time, I am aware of the tragedy of the Palestinian people, be them those living inside or outside Israel. Near my home in central Israel I sometimes walk through the fields. I pass a Muslim cemetery, a sheik’s tomb, and then the ruins of a former Palestinian village. It is clear to me that Palestinian people, decent people, once lived here. It is clear to me that such places exist all over the country, and that I and my fellow Jews have built our houses, have re-built our lives, in so many areas where Palestinians once had their fields and their homes and their lives. Clearly, I do not find myself at peace with this awareness.

Interestingly, the people I came closest too during the conference were Palestinians: a number of Israeli Palestinians, a young fellow from Bethlehem who described the humiliation of going through a checkpoint, a woman from Jerusalem who described what it is like to try to visit her parents and family who live near Nablus. Perhaps we are both Semites. Perhaps the conflict is so old already that there is an intimacy. Perhaps it comes from my understanding that the only way to continue living is to find ways to make amends, and to take responsibility and to compromise and to live together. Maybe this basic understanding attracts.

I work in a prison with criminal felons. As I meet with them and learn of their lives I find my feelings shifting from the wish to avenge the victims to the opposite sense of these criminals as people whose personal tragedies led them to crime and violence. While I may assess them as being dangerous, I also see their problems that contribute to their dangerousness. I have described the kaleidoscope of feelings that accompanies meeting the criminal and understanding him and viewing him not as a monster but as a human being (Weiss 1998). I also am aware that together with my role as a psychologist, I am definitely part of the system and can be viewed as a victimizer of those incarcerated. During this conference I again have come to meet perpetrators of violence: those who have victimized me and my family and those who feel victimized by me and my family. I feel that meeting and understanding perpetrators and victims has altered my vision, and has further altered my nightmares and my dreams. My Nazi “nightmare” turned out to be a decent man, and I find I have an identity with a people I have learned to hate, and, most difficult, I have looked into the faces of those that I have hurt. What meeting Germans, Austrians and Palestinians has taught me is that there are no clear cut monsters, just regular, decent human beings who can commit atrocities. What I need to continue studying are the ways that decent people find themselves doing awful things. And, on a personal level, to replace hatred with understanding and to move on. I feel destiny has placed me in such a place that I can study in the here-and-now perpetrators and victims and change and make a small difference, looking backwards at the Holocaust and forwards at the challenge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Weiss, J. M. (1998). Some reflections on the uses of countertransference in the treatment of criminals. Psychiatry, 61, 172-177.

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