Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Responsibility and Healing at Camp Föhrenwald, Wolfratshausen, Germany

Dr. Dan Booth Cohen, Facilitator
Eve-Marie Schaffer, Co-Facilitator
Alexandra Senfft, Guest Speaker
Brigitta Mahr, Organizer
Dr. Karen Cramer, Translator
February 27 – March 1, 2009


This 3-day seminar near Munich, Germany took place at the former site of Föhrenwald, a Displaced Persons camp for Jewish Holocaust survivors.

Among the 40 participants were several children of Jewish Holocaust survivors and many children of Nazi perpetrators. Each of us came to Föhrenwald in search of healing and understanding for a part of ourselves or the essence of a loved-one who lives inside of us.

Part of us cannot find peace or come to rest. In the silence of our dreams, in our restless thoughts, in the darkest places in our hearts, the terrible experiences that befell our fathers and mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles live on inside us. They appear as nightmares or panic attacks, forgetfulness or sorrow.

These dark influences also motivate our kindness and compassion, propelling us to be healers, peacemakers, and teachers. We honor our ancestors’ losses and soothe their pain by embracing that we are the living fruit of their sacrifices. They grieve when their suffering becomes ours. They bless us when we take our good lives and live well.

Our experiences together gave us what we sought. We began with three images from the Nazi era: a small boy clinging to his mother’s leg in the Jewish Ghetto, a teenage boy at the mouth of his own grave begging for mercy, and a hate-filled, cold-hearted soldier who killed without mercy.

The archetypes of “Silence,” “Terror,” and “Consequences” dominated this bereft landscape. The healing process required everyone and everything that belonged to be seen and named. This allowed unbearable grief to be felt and exchanged.

Mutually shared grief, in the company of “Life,” “Truth,” and “Destiny,” exposed the buried wounds. When we concluded, the children of those who fought and died stood connected by the energy of love and forgiveness.

Friday Night Talk

On the first night, Alexandra Senfft discussed her best-selling book, Schweigen Tut Weg (Silence Hurts). Her grandfather, Hanns Ludin, was a high-ranking member of the Nazi elite. He was executed as a war criminal in 1947.

The family never dared to speak openly about his crimes. Senfft described how the silence surrounding her grandfather's crimes made it impossible for the family to grieve and heal. To this day, most of Alexandra's extended family subscribe to the conspiracy of silence and denial. The repression of the truth and distortion of facts had far-reaching destructive effects. Schweigen is the silence of denial. Events are not spoken of and the truth is shrouded in a fog.

Similar dynamics occur in many German families. One sibling feels compelled to search for hidden facts, holds an affinity for Jewish people and themes, or is troubled by emotions that connect them with the victims of Nazism. They often are alienated from the family-at-large which stands with Silence, claiming their ancestors were not involved in Nazi crimes. These descendants express disinterest or opposition to examining the events of the past, and strive to put a good face on themselves and their families without delving into the messiness of troubling emotions.

In many Jewish families, quite a different dynamic exists. The effects of two millennia of dispersion and persecution, manifested in the 20th century by the Russian pogroms, Nazi Holocaust, and Israeli wars result in a persistent and pervading belief that Jews must survive amidst violent enemies who are determined to exterminate them. “They all want to kill us,” is how one Jewish participant summarized her attitude towards her enemies past, present, and future.

More than 60 years after the end of the Nazi regime, the echoes of that traumatic period continue to affect countless individuals and our global human community. Alexandra’s heartfelt talk sparked the love, compassion, and blessing that can grow from the bond between victims and perpetrators and their descendants.

Opening Introductions

Our group gathered the morning following Alexandra Senfft’s talk to search for healing movements for ourselves, our families, and humanity as a whole. Our tools were compassionate listening, Family Constellations, and Eve-Marie Schaffer's expressive creativity process called Painting-From-the-Inside-Out.

We opened the morning with a round of introductions and sharing where each person was invited to say a bit about themselves and what brought them to Föhrenwald.

Many of the German participants were the one sibling in their families who actively addressed the weight of their family’s Nazi past. Several knew or suspected a secret connection to Jewish lineage. Others were confronted by mysterious events, such as the woman whose uncle survived the War then committed suicide in 1946. Over the years, she asked herself many times, “What had he done or witnessed that drove him to take his life?”

One woman told us her father was a low-level soldier who only followed orders and performed his duties. That was her “truth” until he died. That was when she discovered from hidden papers that he was Commandant of a death camp where tens of thousand of Jews were murdered.

Another woman’s father never uttered a word. She, too, found the secret stash of hidden papers that many former soldiers left behind at their deaths. It contained two envelopes postmarked during the war days. The letters had been discarded and the envelopes saved as relics, holding memories and meanings that died with him. What did they contain? Were there clues to the mystery of her current struggles?

Several participants came by themselves after seeing the workshop announcement. One was a young woman named “Grace” who told us her panic attacks were becoming more frequent. Abstract drawings she made in an art therapy process contained disturbing images. A a series of vivid dreams contained images of a small boy of about 6 years of age who was trapped in a crowed Ghetto scene. In one nightmare, a Nazi soldier kicked the boy in the head.

As we went around, these stories filled the space. A man explained, “My father did not participate in the Holocaust, but he was a virulent Jew-hater.”

A woman who only heard about the event a few days earlier came from a town in eastern Germany near Dresden. “My father was an SS guard. He was unrepentant until he died. His hatred and murderous impulses frighten me. His sister was handicapped. She was taken away and killed. No one spoke about her, but I think she is important to understanding him.”

A woman who leads group workshops said she cannot remember people's names. She feels it relates to silence and her family's unspoken Nazi past. Another said her father was unknown; she suspected he was Jewish.

The Constellation

With the circle of introductions complete, I contemplated how to begin the Constellation. I suggested we start with two abstract elements: the boy and soldier who appeared in the nightmare. I invited anyone to stand in the Constellation representing themselves, another person, or an abstract element. People could join at their own pace (or not), move in or out of the Constellation as they chose and announce who they were standing for.

First, a woman came out of her chair and curled up on the floor. Another moved into the center of the circle. The woman who had difficulty remembering names stood up and threw herself around the leg of the woman in the center, announcing she was representing the 6-year old boy holding tightly to her mother.

The circle filled slowly. Someone stood in for “Silence.” Another for “Consequences.” “Life.” “Truth.”

One of the Jewish women stood for her uncle Motl who at age 16 had been taken by Nazi soldiers from his home. They brought him to the woods where he and the other young men of his neighborhood were forced to dig a ditch, fill it with lime, and stand in front of it. The Nazi firing squad shot the boys into the ditch and covered them over.

Standing in his place, the niece filled with the terror and confusion of his last moments before a Nazi bullet stopped his breath. Motl called out, “Don’t shoot me. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t hurt anyone.” He pleaded, “Please don’t kill me!” Some minutes later, a silent shot rang out. Motl screamed. His representative collapsed to the floor. The emotions that emerged were authentic in their intensity and tenor. (In actuality, this woman’s mother, Motl’s sister, had lived at Föhrenwald in 1946.)

The woman who lived near Dresden stood in for her father the Nazi perpetrator. Grace, the woman who saw the boy and soldier in her dream, stood in for herself. Gradually, the Constellation filled until we had about 25 participants in the circle.

A man stood in for “Terror.” A woman stood for “Hope.”

My role is to give room for the truth to emerge and also to feel for movements that guide the memories of suffering and loss towards healing. We have all encountered terrifying nightmares and moments of unbearable suffering. The Constellation is not for gratuitously recreating these sorrows, but for passing through them en route towards reconnecting with love, growth and acceptance.

At my suggestion, the representative for the 6 year-old boy asked the mother, “Who is that? What is her name?”

The mother asked the representative, “What is your name?” When the representative answered, the mother replied to the son, “She stands for Life.”

The boy said, “You stand for Life. I know your name.” In this way, the mother and boy traveled through the entire Constellation naming everyone and everything that belonged.

“Who is that, mother?”

“Who are you?”

“I am Motl. I am a 16 year-old boy stolen from my house, brought to the woods, shot into a lime-filled ditch that I had dug. Why did they kill me? I never hurt anyone.”

The mother back to the son, “This is Motl.”

Then the boy, “You are Motl. I know your name.”

With these words, Motl was overcome with a wave of sobbing tears, grief for the loss of his life, the grief of the mother and sisters who couldn't save him, bury him, or recite the Kaddish at his grave. The sobs of grief mixed with deep and overwhelming gratitude for being seen, remembered and named.

The boy looked at the woman curled in a ball on the floor. A man had stood in and was kneeling at her back with his hands on her shoulders. “Mother, who is that?”

The mother asked, “What is your name?”

“I am the child who was never born. My mother was shot and killed when she was pregnant with me.”

The representative had been distressed and bereft until that point, but when Motl, the boy and his mother saw her, she was able to cry. She and Motl embraced in tears. Motl spoke Yiddish, offering her words of love and comfort. The sound of grief-stricken Yiddish, rarely heard anymore at Föhrenwald, opened the door towards resolution.

To the man at her back, “Mother who is that? What is his name?”

“What is your name?”

“I am who stays with you. You are not alone or forgotten.”

They continued to move through the circle. Motl and the child not born stood up, took hands and accompanied the boy.

“Who is that?”

“That is Silence....”

“I stand for Hope.”

“I stand for Terror.”

“I stand for the Truth.”

“I stand for the Consequences.”

"I am the energy of Love and Forgiveness."

Before the naming ritual, the representatives for Silence and Consequences occupied central positions, dominating this landscape of Föhrenwald’s soul. Silence was the antithesis of vocalizing the name of everything and everyone who belongs. When Silence stood strong, the Consequences gathered energy. The murdered children were alone in their agony. The soldier stood coldly.

Silence kept the overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame at bay. In hearing Motl’s death scream and feeling the terror of his last moments, one could understand why many survivors of the War, both German and Jewish preferred silence to expression. The truth was too painful, too shameful, too hard to bear. Silence created a dearth of emotion, but it could be understood as an effective coping strategy that serves ordinary life.

A representative stood behind Silence. He said he was both protecting silence and protected by silence. This suggested that while Silence serves the common good in allowing people freedom from overwhelming emotions, it has a negative effect on those family members who resonate with hidden truths.

We felt the many consequences of the silence of denial. Grieving is not complete. The truth is not known or understood. The ones who are responsible are not held to account; their descendants unconsciously carry their guilt. People who belong to the family are forgotten.
By its nature, Silence could not speak or react. As these movements unfolded, Life and Truth and others broke Silence's resolve. When Silence was broken, a flood of emotions came through. Silence then retreated outside the circle, taking on a benign quality of past events that were resolved and forgotten. The quality of the Consequences also shifted. Freed from alignment with Silence, Consequences became more at ease as everything and everyone who belonged was named and acknowledged.

The "Energy of Love and Forgiveness" gained strength as the process unfolded. She moved freely among the others, stopping in several places to exert influence where she felt it was needed.

We continued around the circle. Grace, the woman who first dreamed of the little boy told him her name, adding, “I could not forget you.”

Another representative told the Mother, “I do not know who I am. I am the one who has no name.” This representative appreciated the contact as she was brought into the group that now contained the boy and his mother, the baby never born, Motl, and the others. Something remained unresolved for her.

The boy and his mother, accompanied by the others, continued around the circle learning everyone’s name. The last un-named representative was standing near the edge of the circle. The boy said, “Mother who is that?”

The mother asked, “Who do you stand for?”

“I am the Nazi soldier. I have no regret.” This was spoken by the woman standing in for her father who had been an SS guard during the war. He was the one whose handicapped sister was taken away and killed.

Most of the representatives had gathered around the boy and his mother. They faced the soldier, who stood stiff and cold. I suggested that this soldier incorporated all the Nazi soldiers who belonged to the group. He was part of the firing squad that killed Motl; he was the one who shot the pregnant mother whose baby was unborn; he was the one who appeared in Grace’s dream and kicked the little boy in the head. He stood for all of them.

Only one representative stood between the boy and the soldier. She was Destiny. In was their fate to be cast together as victim and perpetrator by the larger historic and political forces that overtook Germany during the Nazi era. Destiny took each one’s hand linking them through their shared fate. The hands of Destiny joined them in the victim-perpetrator bond.

The representative for Life stood with the larger group aligned with the boy and the other victims. I asked her why she stood on one side and not with the other. She replied that the soldier had lost his connection to life through the many murders he committed.

Another representative said that the soldier was excluded from the circle of love and forgiveness because he was unrepentant. The soldier remained unmoved. He had executed his duties and felt no remorse for the damage done. Rather, his heart was closed to the suffering of others. All he felt was the bitter loneliness of his own pain.

The Constellation slowed to a full stop. Much had been said and many tears shed, tears of both grief and relief. The boy learned the names of everyone who belonged. Motl and the unborn baby, two nearly forgotten victims represented by actual living relatives, were grieved for and taken into the hearts of those who survived. The Nazi soldier faced his victims, confronting the damage he had caused. Yet, he remained apart from the others, linked to them only by their shared destiny.

Recalling the story of the soldier’s handicapped sister, a flash of insight sparked in me. I went to the representative who stood for the one who said, “I do not know who I am. I am the one who has no name.” I asked her, “Could you be the soldier’s handicapped sister?

She answered immediately, “Yes, of course. I am.”

With that recognition, she moved past the others, across the empty divide to face the soldier. She said to him, “I am your handicapped sister who was murdered.”

The soldier agreed. “You were always so happy and creative when we were small children. I loved you very much.” This was his personal tragedy behind his hardened façade.

The social engineers of the Third Reich instituted a policy to destroy the handicapped. Their goal was to cull the weak from the able-bodied to strengthen the Fatherland. After the sister was killed, her brother was put in a uniform, given a weapon, and ordered to kill many others. He fulfilled these orders disconnecting his thoughts and emotions from the place in his heart where his beloved sister survived. This is what alienated him from Life.

When these two came together embracing in tears and whispered yearnings, the larger group was able to cross the divide that had separated the victims from their perpetrator. The soldier confessed his love for his lost sister. Connecting to his grief and personal guilt allowed him to feel remorse for the lives he had taken.

The final movement in the Constellation was to create a single line of representatives for actual people. The boy, his mother, Motl, the unborn baby, the soldier and sister, and “Grace”, who dreamed them found their places together.

The abstract elements moved in around them. Silence retreated and his character changed from the suppression to stillness. The representative for the energy of Love and Forgiveness felt her strength grow with each step in the progression. At the end, her influence felt like a huge balloon that enveloped the whole tapestry.

The boy looked at everyone and everything that belonged to his destiny. He told his mother, “I see them all. I know their names. If I forget, Grace helps me remember.”

The Remainder of the Seminar

During the rest of the seminar, we focused on personal integration and expression. Eve-Marie Schaffer led the group in an experiential process that opened channels of creativity. We had time for a number of personal Constellations which followed the theme of the lingering repercussions of war, trauma, and secrecy.

“Grace” sent me a message afterwards giving me background about her dreams and artwork. She concluded:

“Of course the journey goes on… Yes, it might be nicer for me to not have these images and feelings inside. Still, this is just dipping a toe into the nightmare that a lot of people experienced. If bringing my images into the Constellation helped to foster healing on a larger scale, it is really worth it to see and feel all that.”

“Maybe a real soul came to tell me his story or maybe not – this does not matter. What is real is that the image has its own truth: There is love, blessing and compassion that connects us all.”
(Please read the comments for additional input and reflections from the participants. Feel free to add your own comments as well.)