...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Jewish-German Reconciliation

This story begins when I was nineteen years old, with a seemingly minor event. I was living in a farming community called a Kibbutz, on a stunningly beautiful piece of land near Jerusalem. This Kibbutz is famous for its archeological ruins going back to the Kings period, 3000 years ago – the biblical first Temple of Kings David and Solomon.

One evening I was at a favorite spot – on the ruins of a Crusader castle from the 1100’s, watching a beautiful sunset. At one point I looked down the trail and saw a very pleasant looking middle-aged man, walking slowly up to the castle. I knew that he was doing just what I was doing…coming up to watch the sunset.

The moment I realized this man was Palestinian my cave-man brain kicked in and adrenaline flooded my body. I raced back to my little cabin on the kibbutz as if being chased by murderers.

Until this point, my image of myself was of an open-minded young woman. I didn’t consider Palestinians my enemy – that’s not how I had been educated at all. I wanted to understand how this fear came to lodge inside of me.

During the next ten years I engaged in my own personal reconciliation work with Palestinians. I returned to Jerusalem to attend University – I lived and worked with Palestinians, I visited their homes and villages, I began to learn their language. Most important, I listened and acknowledged their narrative. Those of you who have delved into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict know that the narratives of the two sides have very few points of connection. So it was important to learn both narratives.

Then, when I was 30, I began to develop and lead reconciliation programs to guide others in this work. One of the most meaningful parts of my work continues to be bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for reconciliation work, which is how I met Ester Golan.

In 1999 Ester came to a Compassionate Listening training in Jerusalem that my colleague Carol Hwoschinsky and I were facilitating. Ester was orphaned as a teenager – her parents were murdered in the Holocaust. But she told us that her mother had taught her not to hate - that she was not even allowed to hate spinach at home. And it bothered her terribly that she had no personal relationships with Palestinians, and so she came to our training. Ester, and a young Palestinian Christian woman who had lost many friends, ended up listening to each others’ stories and they cried together. For both of them, this was their first human encounter with the other side. Ester held her like her own granddaughter.

In 2001, I brought a large delegation from N. America to Ester’s home in Jerusalem to listen to her story, and to my great surprise, I discovered that Ester had reconciled with Germany and Germans and had been traveling there for years already, to dialogue and tell her story to German school-children. Esters’ German friends even come to visit her in Jerusalem.

As I looked at photos of her parents, I simply could not understand how she had come to find peace with Germany. I come from a family who lost a lot of relatives in the Holocaust. My mother never knew most of her Aunts and Uncles because most of her father’s siblings were murdered with their families.

I confided to Ester that I did not have the courage to visit Germany. Ester forced me to face this very strange contradiction that I was living. I had devoted my entire adult life to helping Jews and Palestinians discover their common humanity, but somehow I could not extend this thinking – this faith – to the Jewish-German wound. Ester told me with a kind but firmly, that it was time for me to go to Germany.

Three months after Ester confronted me, I was invited to speak at a conference in Germany. I think it was at this time when I stopped believing in the word “coincidence.” I dreamt about saying no and decided to say no, but when they called a second time, I heard myself saying “yes.”

My nightmares started weeks before my departure. By the time I arrived at the airport in Hamburg, I knew I was in for a rough ride. I realized I couldn’t look at anyone I thought was 75 or older, since they might have been a Nazi and I knew so many went free after the war.

I had many opportunities at the conference and afterwards for open dialogue with Germans. People were willing to speak with me but I could also see it wasn’t easy. Many new friends told me about the silence in their families – that the Holocaust was not discussed at home, not when they were children and not today. It was very similar to Jewish families who were affected by the Holocaust – something we shared in common.

The kindness I experienced from Germans on that first trip touched me very deeply. One new friend took me to her village to meet her father, who was in his eighties and had actually spent years in American POW camps during WWII. He took me to the rebuilt synagogue in their village, now a museum. In the photo display, he pointed out all of his Jewish childhood friends and told me their names and stories about their families. Almost all of the Jewish children in the photos were killed in the war – which clearly pained him. He took me to the old Jewish cemetery in back of the village, abandoned since before WW11. For our entire walk in the cemetery, this elderly man held my hand tightly.

It was so clear to me on this trip how much Germans were still suffering, and how much we needed each other to heal the pain.

Towards the end of my first visit in Germany, my friend Beate and I hatched the idea of bringing Jews and Germans together to deal with this collective wound. I came home and put out an international invitation to Jews to join us in German the following year for Jewish-German Compassionate Listening. Most of the emails that I received back were from Jews congratulating me on the new project and saying things like, “maybe in my next life I’ll be able to go to Germany.”

After one year and much effort, our first group of 34 Jews and Germans came together in an intentional community in Germany. During those 10 days, we listened to each other’s stories, we listened to “witnesses” – Jews and Germans who experienced the war firsthand, we toured Berlin – what used to be the Jewish areas, that is now filled with memorials, and we visited a concentration camp together.

The first year of the project we listened to a former SS soldier named Otto. He was not able to face his past until he began having nightmares at age 60, at which time he began to talk openly with his men’s group at church. We listened to Otto one day in Berlin, and his story was beyond painful – it was excruciating to hear. He thanked us for listening – he said he had never felt such a powerful field of love before in his life.

Afterward, a Jewish woman in our group, whose parents are both survivors of Auschwitz, began to wail. A group of us gathered around her. Otto remained across the room, a respectful distance away. But gradually he moved closer, and finally into the circle, where he knelt on the floor in front of her with great humility. They looked at one another, and Otto lowered his forehead to the ground. He said to her, very quietly, and with tears in his eyes, “I bow to your pain.”

The next day the Jewish woman seemed transformed, light-hearted even. She told the group she had been to Auschwitz twice in an effort to heal the pain she had carried her whole life. On a note of particularly black humor, she told us that this experience with Jewish-German Compassionate Listening was “better than Auschwitz.” This speaks to this critical ingredient in healing: The very people we believe are our enemies are the very ones who can help us the most in our own healing. She had gone to Auschwitz, but she did not find Otto there. Doing this work with a former member of the Nazi SS was the missing ingredient.

Prior to these trips to Germany, I had cast Germany outside the framework of “humanity.” But as I listened to more and more stories told by the Germans, about the gradual erosion of their civil liberties that came with the Nazi regime, and the horrible consequences for speaking out – how you could be arrested and lose your children or be sent to a concentration camp or even executed—I realized that had I been in their shoes, I probably would not have done anything heroic. In fact I’m quite convinced I would have done anything to protect my family and my children.

My experience with the Germans gave me a sense of humility. I now understand that the potential for human insanity is present within all of us. And that it's up to us to inoculate ourselves.

I also believe that what remains unhealed in our families gets passed down through the generations. I think this is some of what was playing out in me when I was nineteen and ran from the Palestinian man, and that it’s part of what’s playing out today in Israel – that the Nazi genocide still casts its shadow over the Jews. The fear that still exists collectively in Jews is enormous - especially in Israel where it's practically institutionalized. I never would have believed how much fear still lives in Jewish people had I not witnessed it over and over in my trainings.

Sometimes it's not easy for me to hold compassion for all sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do not condone violence or human rights abuses in any form. Yet, I see this conflict as being between victims, and the victims of victims. After all these years, there is still a tremendous need for healing.

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