It's been awhile since I delved deeply into German-Jewish (Israeli) relationships in the shadow of the Holocaust. I thought that I had pretty much heard it all, thought about it all.
The weekend in Bad Honnef taught me otherwise.
We were 22 people - 14 Christian Germans and 8 Jews (1 German and 7 Israelis). The topic of our Friendship across Borders (FAB) seminar was Memory and Forgetting, in the context of the Shoah, and we looked at these two sides of the coin from many different ways. I won't go into the different group exercises and discussions that we had - many with words, others using 2 black boxes (one a shoebox, another just a small carton colored black for effect) that represented the harsh memories that we try to forget when thinking about the Holocaust. We also used our bodies in some of these exercises, in order to move beyond words, that can't always express deep inner feelings and knowings.
I do not go into detail since if you weren't there, I am pretty sure that the meaning of what we did will really come through. I will just say that the exercises and discussions were so meaningful, and jolting, that, at times, they not only brought tears to my eyes (not a hard thing to elicit in my case), but touched something so deep inside, that I surprised myself with how deeply I (re)connected to the topic, and to all of the participants.
For over 20 years I have been engaged in the psycho-social significance of the Holocaust in the lives of the victims, their children and grandchildren, and sometimes the perpetrators as well, and their children and grandchildren. My PhD dissertation was on this topic (from the side of the victims). I have written a lot about this in academic articles and in my books. I have interviewed hundreds of survivors, children and grandchildren, and run seminars for the 2nd and 3rd generations in Israel, and also with German colleagues in Germany. I thought that I had pretty much heard it all, thought about it all.
The Germans in our group tended to talk about the ghosts (Nazi perpetrators) of their past, that often haunt them, leaving an inner darkness that never quite dissipates. We Jews spoke more about the voices of the victims from the past that accompany us at different times through life. These voices cause sadness and loss, and they sometimes warn us about putting our trust in other peoples, that is, in non-Jews.
Schade, חבל, what a shame, that one people is haunted by demon-like terrifying ghosts, and one people (the group to which I belong) is fraught with existential fear about potential enemies just waiting to annihilate us. These are not such good ways to live.
I thought I had pretty much heard it all, thought about it all. But I learned during these three and a half days that the demons and the fears of the past still linger in all of us, even if they have become more and more faint, at least on the conscious level. I (re)learned that we can never be completely free of our traumatic past, and that there will most likely always be a part of us Jews that see Germans and think 'Nazi', for a fleeting moment, and that there will most likely always be a part of the Germans who see a Jew and think 'stay away - danger', for a fleeting moment. But we also (re)learned that by facing our connected pasts together, we Jews and Germans can look these demons and fears in the eye and not succumb to their hatred, nor feel lost in an endless black hole of total loss.
This seminar in this picturesque town, situated on the Rhine, surrounded by woods filled with trees changing colors, touched me deeper than I anticipated. I thought that I had pretty much heard it all, thought about it all. It was good to be proven wrong. It was good, even it was very, very difficult, to reconnect to this topic of the Holocaust, to the meaning it has for me in my life, and the way I perceive the German 'others'. It was deeply moving to rediscover the goodness of humankind that exists in people who refuse to let their dark collective past turn them into angry and frightened people.
It's not completely true, but after this weekend seminar, we/I can more honestly say:
I/We ain't afraid of no ghosts...