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Dialogue with the Enemy

Israeli psychologist Dan Bar-On
develops the TRT-Process

[Hebräisch / German / Arabic]

Applause breaks out. Two men shake hands. Almost two thousand listeners in the congress centre in Würzburg give a standing ovation honouring the two speakers, Sami Adwan and Dan Bar-On. The Israeli and Palestinian embrace one another. A unbelievable gesture in May 2001: There, where both come from, war rages. People are dying daily on the streets and in their homes. The cycle of violence and retaliation in Israel and Palestine already spans three generations. The applause will not stop. Then, an older man in the second row goes forward and puts his arms around both. It is Martin Bormann whose father, Reichsleiter Martin Bormann, was a high-ranking Nazi and close associate of Hitler.

What so touches the audience, the majority of which are therapists, is the sincerity of the reconciliation gesture which they are witnessing. They have just heard two life-stories describing how enemy images could be altered and how co-operation and friendship had developed. The Israeli and Palestinian had each fought the other’s nation in defence of their own rights. Meanwhile both men work for PRIME – the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East of which they are the founders and co-directors, for peace between the two nations. Dan Bar-On, born in 1938 in Haifa, son of a Jewish doctor who had emigrated from Hamburg and former Israeli army officer during three Middle East wars. Sami Adwan, today Professor of Education at Bethlehem University, fought as Palestinian against occupying forces in the West Bank during the first Intifada. For this, he served a sentence in a special Israeli prison in the Negev desert. The path from hostility to reconciliation in an environment where the cycle of violence, revenge and retaliation seems irresolvable, was a long, slow and difficult one. It has been called "TRT – to Reflect and Trust" by those who have taken it. Martin Bormann was one of them.

Initiator of the TRT process is Dan Bar-On, today Professor for clinical psychology at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. The beginnings of TRT go back decades. TRT is not a new form of therapy. It is a process of dialogue, the versatility and complexity of which can only be grasped by tracing it back to it’s roots. One of the beginnings was in June 1992. Eighteen people met at Wuppertal University for a dialogue lasting over several days. All shared the same fate: the silence of their parents about a central part of their own individual biography. The parents of everyone in the Wuppertal group were either Holocaust victims and survivors or organisers and perpetrators of the genocide. Children of Nazi victims were to encounter the children of Nazi perpetrators. The mere fact of meeting one another, spending several days together, sitting opposite one another in a room and talking, had meant a difficult step for most of them. Nearly everyone went to Wuppertal full of fear and anxiety. They had taken this step, in the hope it could be a way of breaking out of this prison of silence in which they lived.

Most Holocaust survivors are badly traumatised. Concealment of the degradations they had suffered was also a strategy for returning to a normal way of life. The Israel of the fifties and sixties was a nation of the strong and the victorious and, with the exception of the official remembrance rituals, there was no place for this kind of suffering. Consequently their pain and grief never received the proper consideration and attention it deserved. For Nazi perpetrators too, concealment of their actions and denial of any responsibility for the mass murder was fundamental in order to continue life as normal citizens. Suppression was also part of the official culture in the country of the perpetrators. It was only at the beginning of the sixties, almost two decades after the war had ended, through the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, that the effects of the Holocaust were addressed in public for the first time. Hertha B., who was also in Wuppertal in 1992, was twenty when she first learned, following the arrest of her father and the subsequent trial, that he had been a Nazi officer and had taken part in the mass murder in the Ukraine. The realisation of having a mass murderer as father was to effect her for the rest of her life.

Suppression and concealment eventually lead to illness, physical or mental, whatever the social causes or context may be. During the course of his therapeutic work with traumatised Holocaust survivors and their families in the sixties and seventies, he discovered one of the structural similarities between the after-affects of the Holocaust on survivors and descendants.

He began to ask himself, how the grown children of the Nazi perpetrators had coped. Since there had been no interest shown in this area before, he decided to make it his research theme. Coming as he did from a nation born of the Holocaust, he was never the "independent scientist" or "objective observer", but because of his biographical background, was always very personally involved in the research he was doing: Due to his father’s foresight, close family members of Dan Bar-On had survived: Hans Bruno, originally from Heidelberg, was a doctor in Hamburg. In 1933, after his practice had been destroyed by the Nazis, he emigrated to Palestine, which at that time was governed by the British. Dan was born here, as second son in 1938: "I grew up in a German culture in Haifa", said the Israeli. He speaks German without accent, because German was the language always spoken at home with his grandparents. During the early fifties, while still a young man, he broke his German ties, adopted his Hebrew name and joined a Kibbuz. In the wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973 he fought as officer in reconnaissance unit of the army.

However, suppression and denial of his own origins took it’s toll. While in therapy, following a breakdown after the October war of 1973, he reflected deeply on his German origins: For a long time, he had tried to ignore this part of his identity and banished any images of the Nazi enemy from his consciousness. In 1983, meanwhile a trained psychologist and university professor, and while on field-work in the USA, he began to question, what had happened to the descendants of the perpetrators. He came to Germany for the first time in 1985 and in the following three years held more than ninety qualitative interviews with grown children of Nazi perpetrators with the purpose of finding out, what psychological effects the Holocaust had had on them. (In 1989 he published "Legacy of Silence: Encounter with Children of the Third Reich", Harvard University Press, which was also translated into French, German, Japanese and Hebrew). During his research, he also contacted Martin Bormann and met him personally. "It was a hard piece of work and a difficult path", said Dan Bar-On. "For almost three and a half years we had written and telephoned, and I faced our first personal meeting with anxiety and uncertainty. His counterpart suffered from similar fears. The fact that both men could admit these feelings to one another, formed the basis for a personal relationship.

It was due to this healing experience through the personal dialogue between a child of a victim and a child of a perpetrator, that Dan Bar-On initiated the first encounter in Wuppertal in 1992. The group called itself TRT and met annually until 1997 in Germany, Israel or the USA. They worked with a method of story-telling: Each member of the group told his personal life-story while the others listened and reflected. In Wuppertal, Lena, Jewish wife of Dirk, son of a Gestapo commander, was the first to begin: She told, how in 1942, at the age pf three, she had survived the massacre of the Jewish peasants in the Ukraine, how her Christian grandmother had dragged her from a line of people in front of the Jewish ghetto and begged the Gestapo commander for her granddaughter’s life and how she had hidden her in the attic until liberation by the Red Army in 1944. Lena reported how she found her mother again later in Israel, returned to Germany and got married. Afterwards Martin Bormann told his life-story: He was born in 1930, Hitler was his godfather. Martin Bormann attended NAPOLA, an elite school for Nazi children. By the end of the war, he was living in Austria and from this point on, lived away from his family. He became a Catholic, joined a monastery and worked in the sixties as missionary in Africa. He gave up missionary work due to health problems. Later, he left the monastery, married and taught Catholic religion and theology until he retired.

This first encounter in Wuppertal lasted three and a half days, until all members of the group had told their stories. "There was a feeling of openness and energy which an outsider would probably not have understood", remembered one member. After such a positive beginning, everyone wanted to continue working together, and decided to organise another meeting. As a result of the Wuppertal encounter, the German descendants formed a self-help group which met regularly for several years.

The second encounter, which took place in 1993 in Israel, was much more difficult for several reasons: for the first time they were officiating in the country of survivors of the Holocaust and special security measures were necessary, especially for Martin Bormann. Because the BBC was making a documentary on the proceedings, a hierarchy arose in the group. This was a contradiction to the symmetrical structure of the original meeting. Also, there was the difficult decision of whether or not to continue with the group in it’s present form: After the euphoric beginning, everyone had returned to their own lives and social environment. Nearly all of them, both Jewish and German members, had felt rejected and misunderstood by their families and friends for what they were trying to do.

The TRT-group was faced with a dilemma: they could resist the pressure, isolate themselves and carry on, or break up the group all together. The group decided to endure the pressure, and neither give up the trust and positive feeling on which the group was founded, nor the relationships outside the group. Not all of them, however, could face the dilemma: some members left the group and others joined. Martin Bormann did not take part in the group’s third meeting because he was afraid that American Nazis would use his participation for propaganda purposes. Here is an indication of how history was still, even after almost half a century, affecting the lives of individual members of the TRT-group.

During the course of this long-standing dialogue process which Dan Bar-On accompanied, the Israeli researcher identified several structural similarities between the lives of both grown children of victims and perpetrators. For the members of both groups the Holocaust was always a presence in their lives. They felt alienated and rootless and had experienced separation from their own parents as extremely difficult. The dialogue was, for all of them, a liberating but also painful process, enabling them to find a new way of living with the past. For some it meant giving up part of their own identity, giving up the hate which they considered a victim’s towards the wrong-doer. "My hate was instinctive and boundless, it grew with every book, film or article I had read about the Holocaust" said Miriam K. as she spoke about her feelings before the TRT-process. "In the group, however, I understood that there were honest and decent German people who felt terribly ashamed and guilty for the crimes committed by their own people during the Second World War, even though they themselves were innocent. I realised it was extremely helpful to listen to the stories of others and to be able to talk about my own past in an environment which offered security. This healing process can only happen when people from both sides come together. When you are in your own family or in a group where you are all victims, it is so easy to persist with the pain, anger and even the hate you feel and to get used to the victim role. The biggest hurdle for those in the perpetrator group seems to be freeing themselves from the immense feelings of guilt. It was because of my three daughters that I had to confront these problems. On no account do I want them to hate a whole nation because of something that happened in the past", said the American Jew summing up her reasons for going through the difficult process.

According to Dan Bar-On, the Holocaust will always be a presence for the descendants of perpetrators and victims, but its negative impact on their lives can be reduced through the conscious working-through process which occurs in the TRT-Dialogue. The consequences become less threatening and self-destructive because through the dialogue, it is possible for all of them to find new and more bearable ways to live with it.

During their sixth meeting in 1997, the TRT-Group decided to give their work a new dimension. They wanted to share their own positive experience with the dialogue, in coping with their own personal trauma, which is part of a collective trauma, with people living in present conflict situations. The Hamburger Koerber Stiftung offered support for this step. So, in early summer of 1998 in Hamburg the TRT-Group met "multipliers", invited from three countries which were experiencing decades of on-going conflict: Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland, black and white South Africans as well as Palestinians and Israelis. This time the participants experienced the difference between holding a dialogue on a past conflict or a present one. Miriam K. remembered how she very much wanted to take part in the South African group, but then realized, that she had to confront the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For Miriam K., listening to the Palestinian stories was almost unbearable: "When the first Palestinian talked about his life, his past and the painful reality of his present life in the West Bank, I noticed I was defensive. I felt embarrassed, shocked and annoyed. It was difficult for me to believe that this was no exception and it was therefore unfair to behave as if this was normality for all Palestinians. Naturally, I didn’t dare say, what I was thinking".

Miriam K., as descendent of Holocaust victims, told her story again, but this time she felt her identity as victim beginning to crumble: "When the next Palestinian spoke, something in me changed. It was another story about persecution, fear and unbearable degradation. I could not believe what I heard. How could this happen? The more I heard, the more I shocked I became. I was ashamed to be a Jew. I could not bear the thought that my Jewish countrymen inflicted so much pain and were so gruesome to these people. I wanted to defend their actions, to explain that it was part of the Israeli need for security to protect themselves against terrorism. But I could not even convince myself that these reasons were good enough. I was exhausted and wished I were somewhere else."

Miriam K. and her partners in the dialogue, one of whom was Sami Adwan, experienced, by listening to one another, expressing and enduring one’s own pain together, the growth of a new mutual understanding. "As the days passed and we heard more and more terrible stories from both sides, I felt that the walls beginning to tumble. We cried together, comforted one another, and it felt as though we were building bridges."

However, this understanding was still extremely fragile, and it seemed threatened when a Palestinian woman questioned whether the Holocaust had ever happened. Then Martin Bormann, a believable witness, told his story: "The Palestinians were evidently spell-bound. The whole situation seemed unreal: Jews tried convincing Palestinians about the meaning and truth of the Holocaust while the son of a notorious Nazi perpetrator gave the facts". More than a year after the TRT-dialogue in Hamburg, Miriam K. describes what she had felt at the time: "Once again my view of the world was shattered. In my opinion, Jews were always the victims, but I don’t believe this any longer. The workshop in Hamburg had catapulted me out of this victim category and I had to find a new place for myself. I am grateful to our conflict group for the courage and openness it showed in sharing it’s pain. They were dealing with uncomfortable facts, were open for new information which meant a challenge for them".

The most difficult encounter in Hamburg was definitely the Palestine-Israeli group. However, the practical consequences which arose from it, continue to exist today: The personal meeting between Sami Adwan and Dan Bar-On gave birth to the idea of PRIME – Peace Research Institute for the Middle East. The research projects of this institute serve to prepare the joint future of Palestinians and Israelis in the region. Even under the difficult, warlike conditions, they continue to work on joint projects and keep in contact with one another. Sami Adwan was granted permission to leave the country again for the first time to attend the congress in Würzburg. He told the listeners, how during the first Intifada, while in an Israeli prison, he began to see the human faces behind the enemy mask for the first time, and how realised that violence was not the way to solve conflict.

Dan Bar-On sees the TRT-Process as a possibility for achieving long-term solutions for ethnic, national and religious conflicts. Also, even those for which political and legal solutions seem to have been found, for example in Northern Ireland or South Africa, the effects of decades of violence go deeper: "Conflicts may change at an obvious level, but this does not necessarily mean that they have disappeared altogether; conflicts, believed to be forgotten, can flare up again at any moment". The researcher gives the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans as an example. Outwardly, it seemed that ethnic tension in Communist Jugoslavia was eradicated, which a mixed-marriage rate of 46 percent seemed to confirm. However, the decentralisation of power in Jugoslavia following the collapse of the Communist system, allowed former hostilities surface again, causing extreme bloodshed - even among close neighbours and friends. It is clear from this, says Dan Bar-On, that these conflicts were merely suppressed, and that from a psychological point of view, no working-through process had taken place. "A reconciliation process such as the TRT-process has to deal with this hidden aspect before there can be a lasting and successful resolution of conflict".

Elisabeth Gruendler

Dan Bar-On:
Furcht und Hoffnung
Europaeische Verlagsanstalt, Hamburg 1997

Dan Bar-On -Hg.-:
Den Abgrund ueberbruecken
Mit persoenlichen Geschichten politischen Feindschaften begegnen. Edition Koerber-Stiftung, Hamburg 2000

Die 'Anderen' in uns
Dialog als Modell der interkulturellen Konfliktbewaeltigung
Da ist etwas kaputtgegangen an den Wurzeln

hagalil.com / 18-02-02

haGalil onLine 18-02-2002

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