Review – Fed with Tears — Poisoned with Milk

Lieberman longer version (Volume 13, Issue 34)

by E. James Lieberman, M.D, Aug 2009

This small but powerful book relates the story and outcome of the Group Relations Conferences (GIC) of German and Israeli psychoanalysts and psychotherapists who met to confront issues shared by descendants of both victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust. There were four working GICs, mostly in English, between 1994 and 2000. Since then there have been reports at meetings in the United States and Germany, notably at the International Psychoanalytic Congress in Berlin, 2007, which included three days of experiential group events attended by hundreds. This book is published in German and English editions.

The GIC structure follows the well-known Tavistock group relations model, combining psychoanalytic ideas with systems theory. Desmond Tutu, in his foreword, finds this approach similar to that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he chaired in South Africa. Both “engage the irrational feelings that underpin prejudice.” Written history, he points out, “cannot possibly convey the full, three dimensional texture of these events…it is one’s willingness to be fully involved that carries the potential for healing.”

The authors are supervising and training analysts, the first two from Israel, the third from Germany. H.S. Erhlich was president of the Israel Psychoanalytic Society; H. Berland was president of the German Psychoanalytic Association (DPV) which, with the German Psychoanalytic Society (DPG), co-sponsored this book. M. Ehrlich-Ginor is co-founder and past chair of OFEK, an Israeli organization which conducts Authority and Leadership conferences on the Tavistock model.

They, along with the late Eric J. Miller, director of Tavistock, London, staffed the conferences. The book has many contributors, including 16 of the 65 German and 6 of the 32 Israeli participants. They express themselves vividly at different stages of the working group in a “collage.” Those who contribute had in common a positive experience, albeit with some criticism and disappointment.

This book defies the here-and-now spirit of these working groups. The idea took hold some time after the first (1994) meeting. The collage includes a few poems that brighten the sometimes heavy text. Readers confronting this diverse collection, expressed at various stages of the process, should not choose a particular viewpoint but “reflect on the complexity of what an experience is: how meaning is created out of raw material of information, projections, past experiences, present state of mind, and so on.” (M. Ehrlich-Ginor, p. 30). She goes on: “…reactions become triggers that produce further reactions… Each contribution holds multifarious meanings, according to the beholder and to the focus at a given moment.”

“This is my little victory over what happened there. Destruction does not win in a place where people fight to find the human in the other, and who can be more ‘other’ than Germans and Jews.” (Yoram Hazan, p. 54.)

“This uncertainty is what can allow for a German psychoanalytic identity–neither denying the parents’ guilt, or my own potential involvement, not identifying with it.” (Thea Wittmann, p. 58).

“…the Israeli members had a clear and strong sense of identity, which gave them a vitality in communicating who they were, what they were and their strong loyalty with their parents/grandparents and families as victims which the Germans in the group lacked. [Most] Germans seemed unable to find a narrative about who they were, who their parents were, how they lived, felt, thought… I felt this acutely myself, and it is a typical feeling I have as a German meeting others in the international community.” (Hella Ehlers, p. 61).

One participant, German and Jewish, was bothered by the absence of “Jew” or “Jewish” in the program title; she decided not to attend conferences after the first one. H.S. Ehrlich, who emigrated from Germany to Palestine as a child, refers to a complicated Jewish identity in Israelis, “having tried to disavow it in favor of a newly born and liberated Israeli identity,” and the strain “akin to madness” of being both in and out. (p. 68) Irene Melnick found “the most powerful resistance came from my wish to keep my hatred alive and my enemy focused, clear and unchanged. It was one of the ways to remember the Holocaust and not to feel a traitor to my people and my family.” She recognized in hating “a sense of power that I found hard to renounce.” (p. 71). One German participant thought the exchange was mostly superficial, and was “astonished at the ignorance of the actual history on both sides.” (p. 74) Some German and Israeli parents did not want to know what the conferences were about: a German member’s parents declared, when she asked them for the first time what they did during the War, that “they no longer had a daughter.” (p. 75).

The GICs are structured by time constraints and the presence of supportive, experienced staff. As in therapy sessions, within the structure is a great deal of freedom, including opportunity for surprises within and between participants. Conferences lasted a week, two in Israel, the third in Germany, a fourth in Cyprus. “The ‘other’ in the conferences offers himself to be used so as to check projections–persecutory, idealizing and others–and so to transform them into relationships. It is this work, which happens on the boundary between the inner world and outer reality, that contributes to the power of the conference.” (p. 81).

The decision to participate was a major problem for many, some of whom defied family, friends, and colleagues to join the controversial experiment. Despite the inspiring foreword by Archbishop Tutu, the organizers do not regard the GICs as a bridge to “understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness.” The primary task is “the exploration of fantasies, feelings, and experiences.” (p. 179). In this group project there were, of course, differences within as well as between groups. Unlike therapy, the group provided an “other” who is not neutral, but “the actual counterpart of one’s suffering and pain and one’s burden of guilt and shame.” Working through is not done “with” the other but “in the presence of the other,” and in the here-and-now. (p. 176). A problematic part of the German identity is that of guilty perpetrator; for the Israeli it is that of outsider victim. In the process of identity transformation those inherited burdens proved painfully hard to give up. Therapists know that change means taking risks, e.g., better the devil you know…

There is resistance to all learning that involves change, and that very resistance may be a portal to the unconscious. Here the fear of betrayal loomed large. Risking ties to clan or culture is dangerous. The conferences open a path to constructive engagement where sustained intergroup hostility blocks the way. Dialogue cannot suffice and may trivialize the real conflict. In this experiment the goal was not “talking things out,” but acting and experiencing in the presence of the other. “Dialogue implies the prior recognition of the other’s otherness and right to be what he is” and may lead to denial of aggression and a “false and compliant emotional stance.” (p. 181).

Like strong medicine, this concentrated work is best taken in small doses, making the collage more palatable. Some problems: The names of contributors accompany each segment or entry, but, with no index, the reader cannot easily find entries of a given writer or a particular theme. There are some repetitions, occasional flawed English, and some typographical errors that could be corrected in a future edition, which I hope will come.

The book condenses work extending through over a decade, in different countries, with members at different levels in their professions and their tenure in the GICs. To their great credit the organizers and staff met these challenges well: the groups continued–with some changes of membership–and a vital experience emerged, captured here in a publication probably unique in group dynamics, applied psychoanalysis and Holocaust studies.

This book includes no history of the Holocaust, for which a recent anthology can be recommended. Voices & Views: A History of the Holocaust, Deborah Dwork, ed., New York, 2002.

E. James Lieberman, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Emeritus, George Washington University School of Medicine

Posted on Metapsychology

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