The First Austrian Encounter
The Austrian encounter is a unique intensive dialogue between children of Austrian victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust. Our first meeting took place on Saturday-Tuesday, July 1-4, 1995, after 2 years of recruiting by Samson Munn, a Boston radiologist. We had no support from the Austrian government for this project. The Austrian group was an outgrowth of Samson's participation in another group of children of high-ranking Nazis and children of concentration camp survivors created and facilitated by an Israeli professor of behavioral sciences, Dan Bar-On. Our group consisted of 4 Jews, 3 from North America, and one currently living in Vienna, 6 Austrian non-Jews, Samson as facilitator, and 2 interpreters.
We met at the Literatur Haus for 2 days, and at the bookstore of one of the participants for the other 2 days. The meeting place was secret until one hour before the meeting, because of the fears of some Sinti and Romani (gypsies) we had hoped would join us. They still face intense discrimination to this day, were mistrustful, and feared for their safety if this knowledge were public. Unfortunately, they decided at the last minute not to join us.
We Jews were excited but somewhat nervous before the meeting. We were not sure what to expect, or what feelings would be unleashed. To prepare for this encounter, I had done some reading about Austria, and had interviewed my father about his memories. I wanted to get a better understanding of my family history, and of my father's responses to what had happened. He still felt strongly that he had no desire to return to Vienna. He felt it would be a betrayal to his parents and other family members who were killed, and he did not want to meet a contemporary he might have known during that time.
The children of Nazis were also anxious. They, at least, were in their own country, but they did not know what to expect from the Jews, especially those of us from North America. They thought we would yell and scream at them and make them feel guilty. Some said they never expected the Jews would want to talk with them or trust them. While there are about 12,000 Jews currently in Vienna, this was the first opportunity for many to knowingly connect with Jews in a meaningful way.
We told our stories, asked each other questions, and really listened to the answers. The 4 days flew by. We started tentatively with some mistrust, but we were all curious and ready to share and confront the issues. As we talked and listened, we found we had a lot in common. We had compassion for each other as we made connections and heard about the others' struggles. We realized that they and our parents had both been victims of their Nazi fathers. As we shared our hopes and our grief, we started to feel warmth and compassion and real caring towards all of the participants in the group.
I was personally fascinated by the stories of the children of Nazis. I had worked through many of my own issues as a child of refugees and granddaughter of victims of the Holocaust, but had not knowingly encountered and openly talked with children of Austrians on the other side of this story. Here is a description of the 6 Austrian participants:
The oldest participant, H, was 62 and a retired tour guide. His father fled to Germany in '35 after the Dolfus affair and was an officer in Poland and France. He was a manager at the Herman Goering Works (a Reich airplane manufacturing plant), and was in charge of all commercial and propaganda films in Austria. He later deserted, was stripped of his rank, and was forced to dig ditches in Cracow. He was imprisoned for 4 years as a war criminal (so he was gone while H. was 2-16 years old).
H. was 5 on Kristallnacht, in November of 1938. He remembers the fires burning. He lived around the corner from my father. He joined the Hitler Youth at 8 and learned to shoot in a nearby alley, near the high school. It took me a long time to warm up to him; it was all to close to home for me. Our last night together, I stopped with him at my mother's house, where my father had successfully hidden on Kristallnacht. Since my parents were married a few days later, stories of my father's 2 narrow escapes were often told, especially when they celebrated their anniversary and their new lives in the U.S.
In November, 4 months after I left Vienna, I received a phone call from H. He could not sleep, thinking about me. He needed to tell me that he went to the high school his last day in Vienna. He saw the window and the alley as if it were 50 years ago and he went cold. It hurt him so much that my father lived nearby. He wanted me to know that he loves me, and that he is ashamed of the activities that went on at that time.
G, 59, is the chief appeals court judge in one of the Austrian states. It was very important to him that I spoke German, that we North American Jews liked Austria and felt a connection with our Austrian roots.
G's father was also an illegal Nazi in 1934. They immigrated to Germany in '35. He was a prominent journalist and propagandist who wrote articles against Austria and his whole family lost their Austrian citizenship until '53. He was a reserve officer and fought in the last year of the war as a 2nd lieutenant. In 1945 he was hidden for 6 months; he then became a translator for the US Army until 1947, when they realized that he had been a Nazi.
In March he came to Boston to visit his daughter, and I saw him 4 times. He came to my father's piano concert, and he and his daughter came to my father's home for dinner. He invited my father to return to Vienna, and even offered to arrange for him to give a concert there, if he ever decided to return. G. is not sure what we still have to discuss in future meetings, but he enjoys our friendship, and definitely wants to continue with the group.
T., age 47, is a psychotherapist who deals with psychodrama. We had a very special connection during our time together, and corresponded afterwards. He wanted to know more about my grandparents, and to make them real for him. He wanted to see my family tree, which outlines the family members who were killed by the Nazis. He said poignantly, "I will always remember Mizzi and Otto Goldmann (my grandparents, who were killed). My 8-year-old daughter will know about them. They will be remembered."
T's father came from a family of officers - officers and gentlemen. He was an active Nazi Party member, seduced by pride. Towards the end of the war he was disillusioned, especially after meeting a concentration camp guard. He went out of his way to avoid hurting civilians in Italy. A great-uncle was a high-ranking Nazi; another was killed in a concentration camp. Both parents had friends or relatives who were killed; his mother had some Jewish relatives.
After the war, his father volunteered to work in construction, which was a penalty for Nazis, as his own form of penance. He refused to ever be politically active again. T. had a warm, close relationship with his father. He wishes he had asked him more questions before he died, especially "Were you a murderer, Daddy?"
We corresponded and phoned quite a bit. With his permission, I spoke about him and our experience together in a newspaper article. In his last letter, 8 months after that article appeared, he challenged parts of that article, and again questioned whether his father really was a perpetrator of the Holocaust. I wrote a very long 4-page letter in response, and still have not heard back from him.
P, age 36, is a resident in psychology and pediatrics. He was the only Austrian whose father is still alive, but he probably knew the least about his father's participation during that time. His father does not talk about it, and the rest of the family does not want to know anything. P. knows that his father was an illegal member of the Nazi Party, and thinks he was in the SS. His family did not know that he had participated in our encounter. He is sad that he cannot discuss it with him, or with any other members of his family. Despite this, he has a good, warm relationship with his father. At the end of our encounter, P. volunteered to be the European liaison for the group. However, he never responded to our letters, phone calls, or faxes. When he finally met with some of the Austrians in May, he complained that those American Jews write so many letters. He doesn't even read them; he just sticks them into a drawer. But, he also said that he wants to continue with the group, which was a surprise to us.
B, 31, had just completed a graduate degree in psychology the day before we first met. She is still struggling with how much she wants to find out about her father. She knows that he was an officer in the Death's Head Division of the Waffen SS. They were mostly concentration camp guards, or guards of high-level Nazis; others hunted partisans, killed civilians, or fought on the front. After the war, her father was imprisoned for 2 years by the Americans. He never spoke about he war, and did not speak to her for a year, just before he died (she was 14 & 15). She was named after a lover he had during the war. She had been his favorite, but she had very mixed feelings about him because of his silence and general treatment of her, and his questionable activities during the war.
Her mother remarried when B. was 19. Her stepfather is a Holocaust-denier, and her relationship with her family is strained. Her family is wealthy, and she has phoned me quite a few times for some lengthy conversations. Her mother is dying of cancer, as mine did, and I have been supporting her around that and trying to encourage her to ask her mother questions about her father while she still has the opportunity. She says, however, that they do not talk in her family and that she cannot upset her, especially now. She has been the only one who has consistently been eager for the group to continue.
H, age 51, is the owner of a used bookstore. He knows that his father was terrible - a monster. He called him an "echte Nazi Schwein" (a genuine Nazi pig). His father was an illegal Nazi in the early 30's. He and his brother tried to bomb a Jewish coffeehouse in '33, then fled to Germany. From '39 to '45, he was in the Waffen SS on the Eastern front. After the war, he was in an American prison camp from '46 to '48.
H. and his sister were afraid of his father. His mother was warm and loving, but when he was home, they lived in fear and silence. H's only good memory of his father is that he bought him a record when he was 14. His parents finally divorced when he was 17. He did not see his father for 30 years, though his sister did. She convinced H. to see him when he was dying, but he just turned his back and refused to talk with his son. H had a long-term relationship with K, a Jewish daughter of Austrian refugees, who joined our group halfway through. They came and visited Boston a month after the encounter. They have since broken up, but are apparently still good friends.
It was very meaningful for the North American Jews to have this encounter in Vienna, where these historical events that would effect us all had happened. Most of us were quite ambivalent about being in Austria, and specifically, Vienna, and were a bit nervous about encountering some anti-Semitism. One of us was mostly excited to be there, the other had a very difficult time being there, and I was pulled in both directions. It was powerful for us, also, to visit our parents' former homes together. I was actually able to get into my father's last home with 2 other members, one of whom lived a few blocks away. We also went to Friday night services at the Synagogue and went to the Jewish Museum and the Resistance Museum.
We participants noticed a number of common themes. One was silence and secrets. While their parents dealt with more shame and denial, our parents often tried to protect themselves and us from the pain of dealing with the losses. Another was mistrust and betrayal. Many of them felt they could not trust or count on their own families, especially their fathers. We seemed to trust our families more, and had a close circle we trusted more deeply, but were often afraid to trust others and feel safe. Guilt was another common thread. Some of the Austrians felt guilty of their fathers' and grandfathers' participation in the Nazi effort, and even felt some guilt themselves. Some of our parents and other family members dealt with survivor's guilt, or guilt that they did not try hard enough to get family out.
Another common theme was terror. Some of the Austrians had been terrified of their fathers, and were scared that their families would learn that they were participating in this encounter. Many of us felt a sense of terror in our daily lives; one example was feeling that we have to do "it" right, or "they" will come and get us. We joked about our difficulty in making the right decisions, for example, around restaurants. While they spoke of hurt or damaged roots, and worried about future generations, we spoke of missing or scattered relatives, and sometimes not having a sense of home, or of belonging. They felt this isolation from their own families, since they were often the only ones in their families to question their parents' roles in the Holocaust, and rarely had the opportunity to discuss their parents' past with anyone. We often felt like outsiders, different from mainstream Americans, and not part of the main culture, with our European and Jewish identities.
Our families seemed to be quite different. Some of the Austrians spoke of absent or dreadful fathers who were often cold and distant. Many of these fathers used silence or their authority to intimidate them as they were growing up. Many of us had lost extended family, but our families of origin were warm and close. We were often seen as hope for the future, and sometimes we felt the burden of living for those who had died. They also experienced losses during the war. Many parents had Jewish relatives and/or friends who lost their lives. Many had family members who were soldiers who were killed in battle. We had family members who were killed, or who were scattered on various continents, wherever they had found safe havens. For us Jews, issues around our survival were always present, and our parents had often been overprotective, worried about our own safety. The Austrians mostly loved their fathers, and were struggling with whether and how to learn more about their Nazi past, and how to deal with whatever they learned. We all felt the importance of ethics in our lives, and had issues with forgiveness, guilt, revenge, and letting go of hate.
After I returned home, I spoke with my father a lot about my experiences. He was eager to hear all about my experiences, and was very supportive of my involvement in this encounter. He feels it is an important project, and is proud of my involvement in it. He was touched by H's phone call to me, and by my connections with the various Austrian participants. He asks about the Austrians and sends greetings to them, especially to G., whom he met. He is still not ready to go back to Vienna, but he is considering it for the first time, especially if he would know that he would meet people like these new friends. I dream of going to Vienna together with him in the future.
Reflections after the Second Austrian Encounter
The second encounter between children of Austrian victims and of Austrian perpetrators of the Holocaust occurred this summer in Vienna for 3 days, Friday-Sunday, June 13-15th. The first encounter had taken place Saturday-Tuesday, July 1-4, 1995, after 2 years of recruiting by Samson Munn, a Boston physician. The Austrian group was an outgrowth of his participation in another group of children of high-ranking Nazis and children of concentration camp survivors created and facilitated by an Israeli professor of behavioral sciences, Dan Bar-On. Our first group consisted of 4 Jews, 3 from North America, and one currently living in Vienna, 6 Austrian non-Jews, Samson as facilitator, and 2 interpreters.
This year our group consisted of 12 members, 6 from the previous encounter and 6 new members, evenly distributed on each "side", and 2 men and 4 women on each side. We had no formal facilitator and no translators; Samson Munn continued as a group member. New additions to the group included 2 Jews currently living in Vienna, one whose father was a survivor, and one who grew up in Israel, and a Jew from western Mass, who lived in Vienna when she was 2- 6 years old. Her parents were among the 25,000 Jews who had fled to Shanghai, the last place they could go without a visa (until 1941), and she and her family returned to Vienna after the war. The new children (&/or grandchildren) of Nazis were younger (25, 30, and 40), and all were women. Our group remains the first and only such group to meet in Austria.
We missed the 5 previous members who could not or chose not to come, one of whom said he was coming, and still has not contacted anyone. For 2 of the others, money and distance were part of their reason for not coming, and the other 2 chose not to participate again, but spent time with us and were very gracious hosts. Of the 3 Austrian participants who returned, 2 initially said they felt that they should come, rather than feeling they really wanted to come, and the other said that he came because his connection with us was so strong. In fact, this ambivalence seems to be typical of the Austrians, especially of participants from the first group.
Unlike Germans, Austrians have only recently begun to deal with their role in the Holocaust. Austria had the unique role of being the only country to be annexed by Hitler; he did so with very little resistance, and with most of the population eagerly welcoming him and his troops. While only 1/10 of the total size of the new Germany, Austria was even more anti-Semitic than Germany, and about 3/4 of all concentration camp guards were Austrians. Despite this culpability, many Austrians still consider their country to be Hitler's first victim, and the Austrian government has only recently started to make restitution to Jews who survived. However, in the two years since we last met, there have been a number of symposiums and exhibitions on the Holocaust, mostly sponsored by the Austrian Resistance Archives and by ARCHE, The Platform for Intercultural Projects, which was founded in 1995 "to promote the coexistence of majorities, minorities, and individuals".
The two Viennese members of the previous group who did not participate this year were very warm and welcoming; in fact, the 2 other Jews from Boston stayed with one of them (a Jew) for over a week. I stayed with a previous participant whose father had been an illegal member of the Nazi party before the Anschluss in March of 1938. I loved getting to know his wife and 3 daughters, especially his youngest one; in fact, our connection was one of the most meaningful parts of the trip for me. I appreciated the trust that gradually developed between the 3rd generation and me, and the way I was welcomed by his family.
The first day we met from 9 AM (well, 9:30) until 10+ PM, when we finally finished introducing each member of the group. The previous participants brought openness, trust, and enthusiasm, which seemed to help the newcomers to also share their stories and issues honestly and, sometimes, quite painfully. One of the clear themes for everyone was feeling like an outsider, and not belonging. Last time it was mostly the Jews who had talked of feeling like outsiders, as children of refugees who had been forced to leave their homeland and adapt to a new way of life.
This time, the non-Jews also shared how alienated they felt, especially from their families. Some felt they never fit in, though they tried to feel that they belonged; others spoke of their shallow relationships and the taboo subjects in their families. They wondered what kind of anger, shame, or guilt their families felt, but they learned not to ask about the past. Some parents did speak of the past, but "only about the bombings and their own suffering, not about what really happened". One woman shared that when she was 13, her teacher asked the class what their fathers had done during World War II. She proudly told everyone that her father had been a lieutenant in the SS. It was very confusing to her that her mother was horrified that she had talked so openly about this in school, since his role was proudly and frequently discussed at home and they had been raised with Nazi slogans. Another woman said "We have relatives, but we cannot talk with them. They are like shadows from another world; they are dead for me."
Many struggled with the issue of family belongings that may have been taken from Jews, or that were Nazi propaganda or symbols. One person's grandparents had to give 4 houses back to the government as atonement, and had complained that they had to give them to the Jews. Some participants were donating these belongings or records to museums or to other places where their historical value would be appreciated. The Austrian Resistance Archives expressed great interest in the memorabilia and propaganda one member had inherited from his father.
Those currently living in Austria, on both "sides", felt it was very difficult to approach their families about the Holocaust in any way. This silence was very painful for them, and they felt they had to be silent with most of their friends and acquaintances as well. For most of them, only their spouses knew they were participating in our group, very rarely anyone from their family of origin. This encounter was especially intense and meaningful for them, since it was their first opportunity to really face these issues at all, let alone to confront them with Jews.
The non-Jews felt that their parents had lied to them about their roles during the war. Some parents had carried on the lies because they did not want to believe how evil the Nazis were, and to this day, still claim that enemy propaganda exaggerated the stories. One woman's step-father is a Holocaust denier who believes that Auschwitz was built by the Americans after the war.
Many felt their parents should have told them the truth, but had not done so. As a result, they felt no need to tell their parents about their participation in this group, or the way they felt about Anti-Semitism or the Holocaust. One said, "They lied to me and to themselves; now I can lie to them". Another said he felt like a traitor to his family to be participating, but he had to do it for himself and for his children.
Some of the families, or family members, are still quite anti-Semitic. One participant was honest about her own feelings of anti-Semitism. Many had not knowingly met a Jew before participating in this group. (There are currently about 12,000 Jews in Vienna.) Some were overwhelmed by how warm and receptive the Jews were, and did not quite know what to expect from us; others wondered what we wanted from them.
We, too, were not sure what to expect from the participants whose parents had been Nazis, or from our reactions when meeting them. We came mostly with curiosity - and with more and more anxiety as the meetings approached. It was a challenge to mentally separate the participants from their parents before we made personal connections with the children and established some trust. The Viennese Jews had not previously had the opportunity to discuss these issues so openly with other Austrians. One spoke of the way some of her friends reacted to her participation in this encounter with shock and disdain that she was sitting in the same room as "those Nazis".
Many of the children of Nazis grew up with stern or disturbed parents or extended families, and had very difficult lives, which left many deep scars. Coincidentally, only one of their fathers was still alive; the 3 new participants lost their fathers while they were very young. Actually, most of the fathers were
relatively low-ranking Nazis, though a number had extended family members who were more fanatic Nazis. One father was a member of the Death's Head Division of the SS (who often protected high-level Nazis or were guards in the concentration camps); another was a prominent Nazi journalist and propagandist. One father owned an armaments factory and profited from the forced laborers who worked there. The grandparents of another participant lived near Mauthausen; that grandfather worked in a factory that produced tanks along with workers from Mauthausen. Interestingly, 2 of the 3 fathers of the previous participants were much more culpable Nazis who were imprisoned for a few years as war criminals. Most of the fathers were illegal members of the Nazi Party before the Anschluss, and later were members of the SS. Most of the participants had unanswered questions about their parents' roles as Nazis. One member asked the group whether he is allowed to say he loved his parents, despite their attitude and possible deeds.
One of the non-Jews was very hesitant about sharing personal information with the group, or with the outside world. She was fearful of reprisals from neo-Nazis, and from some of her rather prominent relatives. She revealed a particularly moving story about a decision she had made.However, she requested that we not repeat it, because she literally fears for her safety due to the tremendous prejudice against foreigners and Jews that she feels still exists in Austria today. In fact, one of the Viennese Jews, who incidentally interviews survivors for Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, said she already is on a list the Neo-Nazis maintain, but she feels she is not important enough for them to hurt her now.
The 2 Viennese Jews, one with a Christian mother who converted to Judaism, and the other married to a Christian, shared how they are not at all accepted by the official Viennese Jewish community, which is very traditional and unforgiving. The man shared how he has suffered from the intolerance of the organized Viennese Jewish community, and has stopped going to synagogue, where he had been asked weekly to show his passport, like a tourist or occasional visitor. He is a musician who grew up in Israel, where his parents would not let him play the classics, because they felt the German culture had killed the Jews. He became a serious musician, and left Israel for Germany at the age of 17. He also lived in New York City for 2 years, and found it so easy and welcoming to be a Jew there, but he lives in Europe because he has better musical opportunities there. He always wonders where he belongs.
The other Viennese Jew initially shared that she feels she lives out of suitcases, always ready to leave. She has learned to speak Hebrew, French, and English to facilitate her escape, and when she travels to another country, she always wonders whether she would want to live there. A pretty and bright 28-year-old woman, she went to a Jewish ball on the Saturday night of our meetings. She was ignored and rejected most of the evening by the people with whom she grew up and went to synagogue. That night, she came to the painful realization that she cannot stay in Vienna, where she has not been accepted as part of the Jewish community. She said she will have to leave or she will lose all the things that she believes in. She is sad that she does not feel at home in her own country; she always feels like such an outsider in the Jewish community. Since then, she has told her family and close friends about her plans, and is exploring various options.
Some of the non-Jews had difficulty listening to the Jews' stories. At one point, one of them interrupted the story of how a grandfather had been killed in a concentration camp; she just could not bear to hear it, especially on the first day. When one of the Jews commented about that discomfort, another non-Jew asked, "What should I do when I hear your pain? Cry? Feel guilty?"
The Jews spoke of having an added sense of responsibility, of a need to be in control, of the terror we sometimes feel. Many in general trusted less easily, but more deeply when we did trust, and easily felt betrayed when that trust was broken. The majority had grandparents and other family members who were killed by the Nazis, and struggled with that loss. We also struggled with the issue of feeling at home and, for most, the loss of, and our connection to, our parents' homeland. One of the Americans has her parents' remains hidden in her house. She feels she is guarding them, as their protector in a strange land. She likes knowing where they are; she does not know where they belong in life or in death, and has not been able to decide on their permanent resting place.
This year, we related more as friends. As previously mentioned, the 3 Jews from Boston stayed with participants from the first group, which was individually meaningful, and the 4th Jew, from southern Vermont, stayed with family members and had friends in Vienna. We Americans stayed on for the rest of the week, and continued to meet socially in smaller groups. Some of us went to the Austrian Resistance Archives together on two different occasions, and obtained information about how and when some of our family members were deported and subsequently killed. Another group of us met at the Jewish museum, which we toured together, and then went out for lunch.
On Saturday night, the second day of our meetings, we had to leave our meeting place at 7, so most of us went to the Jewish woman's home for pizza (and helped her get ready for her ball). It may have been the first time some of the Austrian participants ever were in a Jewish home. I was very rarely alone those 5 days after the group ended. We Americans were invited for meals, and to people's homes, especially the woman who stayed a week longer than the others. My last night (4 days after the group ended), 9 of the 12 group members went out to dinner together. Someone commented that night that we were all like one big happy family.
This experience affected the participants in many different ways. For some of the Austrians, it was the first time they actually took a close look at these issues, and explored how the Holocaust had affected their own families. Our personal connection was an important part of the process. For some of the non-Jews, it was their first opportunity to get to know Jews in a direct and meaningful way, and to demystify any stereotypes or myths about Jews in general. We all came with a curiosity about the other side, and then felt drawn into the connections we shared as children of the Third Reich. By sharing and listening to each others' stories and struggles, we got a better understanding of each other and of ourselves, but also shared a powerful emotional experience that drew us closer together. It was important that this dialogue took place in Vienna, where our families had lived, and that we managed to speak mostly in German, without outside translators. It certainly helped to break down the walls between "them" and "us", and to work through some of our fears and feelings about the other side. As we got to know and care for each other, we realized that we were all victims of our shared legacy and, at least symbolically, of their Nazi fathers.
On a more personal note, before my participation in these encounters, my father had adamantly refused to return to Vienna, where he might meet a contemporary he had known during those times. He also felt strongly that he would be betraying his parents and other family members who were killed by the Nazis. However, as a result of these connections I have made, my father may not only return to Vienna after 60 years next July, but also give a piano recital there, hopefully with the Jewish participant who is a renowned professional violist.
It was also very powerful for me to find out more specifically from the Archives exactly when and to where my grandparents, great-grandmother, and various other relatives were transported, and to deal with that information with other members of the group, especially since some of it was new to me. These computerized records have just recently been established in Vienna, through a project of DÖW, the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance.
Our group meetings were intense, and there were many deeply touching personal stories. But we also enjoyed laughing and joking together, and really like each other as individuals. We want to meet again next June, probably for 5 days. Everyone was rather enthusiastic about participating again next year. There was some discussion and disagreement about whether we would invite others to join us (Sinti and Romani? Slovenians?). We decided on a maximum of 14 participants, in order to preserve the quality of our group interaction. Priority will be given to anyone who has already participated in either encounter. At the end, we each shared what the 3 days had meant for us. Since we met, I have been in touch with everyone, and hope to continue to be in frequent contact. The participants living in Austria will have meetings on their own over the next year, which will probably include participants from both years, as well as both sides. I am looking forward to our next gathering in June and to deepening our connections in the years to come.
The Third Austrian Encounter
The Austrian encounter met in Vienna for the third time for the four days from June 19-22, 1998. We started with 13 members, which included all of last year's participants, and one additional child of a Nazi from our first encounter. However, three people left after the first hour because of a personal conflict, saying that they did not feel safe in the group. One returned to the group for the second and fourth day. We also had contact with two other previous participants during those four days.
Over the past year, the Austrians had met every few months; some developed rather close friendships. Unfortunately, however, there was also some friction, which led to hurt feelings and tensions that escalated as the date of our encounter approached. Prior to the first meeting, both Austrian Jews were involved in a conflict with a child of Nazis, and considered dropping out of the group. However, eventually they agreed to attend the first meeting, with the hope of resolving their conflicts within the context of the group.
One conflict was never resolved, partly because the Jewish woman who had felt betrayed by one of the children of Nazis left the group and stopped all contact and dialogue about the issue. She said that she had received a sexually harassing phone call a few weeks before, and that it had been from this other participant. The two other younger women, both children of Nazis, had become her friends over the last year, and also left in support of her, though one later returned. This issue between two group members was very polarizing, and consumed the first 1_ days of the meetings. The conflict eventually led to a discussion of larger related issues of trust, mistrust, betrayal, boundaries, and feelings of alienation. We also addressed what actions would be considered unforgivable, what would be required to be forgiven, and how we can get beyond blame. It had clearly felt unforgivable to this woman to abuse a trust. On the other hand, the other person involved questioned how she could mistrust him so much that she would jump to the conclusion that he was the person who had been inappropriate with her.
The other conflict was resolved nicely within the group, and was very relevant to our issues. It involved two participants who were members of an orchestra. One had been suddenly dismissed as the conductor of the orchestra, in which the other, a judge, had played the viola for over 25 years. The Jewish conductor felt that his dismissal had numerous anti-Semitic overtones, and he was hurt and disappointed that his friend had acted more as a judge than as a friend, and had not supported him more vocally.
This musician shared a great deal about his continued exclusion from the mainstream, as both a foreigner and a Jew. This orchestra had been very important for him as the only musical connection with Austrians, rather than with other foreigners. Talking about this hurtful event led to a discussion of when and how to stand up to anti-Semitism. Moreover, the judge resolved not only to quit the orchestra, but also to speak up to the others about the anti-Semitism he had observed. It was important to the group, and especially to these two members, that this conflict could be resolved and healed within the group. Their friendship and support of each other were reaffirmed repeatedly during the following week.
In addition to the reaffirmation of this and other friendships, we heard a number of moving stories during our four days about the way we had grown up in our families. Some of the Jews shared how confused they had been when they were told as young children that they, as Jews, were responsible for killing Jesus. Others talked about the various degrees of Jewish identity and traditions that were passed on in their families, some of which felt confusing. A few Jewish family members had internalized the anti-Semitism they had experienced and expressed this anti-Semitism in various ways. Some of the Jews, or their parents, had purposely acted in ways that contradicted stereotypes about Jews. Others kept Kosher and felt very connected to their Jewish traditions and religion.
A number of the Austrian Gentiles shared more deeply than at prior meetings about the attitudes and beliefs their parents conveyed during their childhoods. It was sometimes difficult for the Jews to hear these comments, and to get a glimpse of the anti-Semitism to which our families had been subjected. Some of the Austrians were able to admit that they had grown up with a picture of Jews being dirty and ugly, and with words like "scum" and "vermin", rather than using the word "Jew" directly. They usually were allowed to have Jewish friends, but were told negative things about Jews in general. Some had heard only negative things about Simon Wiesenthal, who, they were told, was after the poor old Nazis. Someone shared that he heard comments like "you didn't know the Jews then; they had all the money then". Others had grown up hearing the Jews had it much better in America or England anyway. Many heard that Hitler only made two mistakes, the Holocaust and the war. One participant shared about what he perceived as his mother's sexual attraction toward Hitler. She apparently often raved that he was a fascinating man who spoke so well.
Some of the children of Nazis still expressed ambivalence towards their fathers. A few still found it difficult to deal with their fathers and to discuss these feelings in the group. One said that he has to live with the shame of his father. A common theme was trust, mistrust, loyalty, and betrayal among family members. A number of participants had worked hard to separate themselves from their parents or other family members. One suggested that we have to accept our parents as they are, but do not have to take everything they offer. He felt it is not his duty to judge or defend them; it is their responsibility to acknowledge their guilt and to defend themselves. But he still struggled with feeling that he was betraying his parents by discussing them within the group. He also had noticed when growing up that many Nazi fathers were mean to their children. He decided then that he did not want to be like that, and that he did not want to grow up.
Others had fathers who eventually left their families, and these participants were generally less ambivalent about their fathers. One man was never told any details about his father's role as an SS member who served in the East, but he believes that his father could have done the worst possible things. He referred to him as a real Nazi pig (echte Nazi Schwein). A number shared that they are still working through their relationships with their fathers.
Some, but not all, of the Jews felt they could imagine killing a high-level Nazi who had committed some really heinous crimes. The children of Nazis generally acknowledged that they might have similar feelings if their roles had been reversed, but they would protect and defend their own families, especially their parents, if they had to make a choice. A discussion followed about loyalty, revenge, justice, and forgiveness.
One of the children of Nazis wondered whether we expected them to confront their parents more about their past. In response, one of the Jews expressed more surprise that they had asked so little. While some of the Jews might have wished for more confrontation of their parents about their roles during the war and of their anti-Semitic attitudes, we had learned from earlier meetings not to push too much in this sensitive area, and probably did not answer this question honestly. Or maybe we just did not expect very much, since Austrians in general have done so little to confront and acknowledge their past.
Moreover, the Gentiles had generally shared very little with their families of origin about their participation in this group. While one was very open with her 5-year-old daughter, as well as with her mother and sister, others did not even mention the nature of our group, except to their spouses. I personally expressed my desire to discuss our group with the daughters of the participant with whom I stayed, but felt it was up to him to bring it up with them. On the other hand, another participant proudly tells everyone about his involvement in our group. He is frustrated that the Holocaust has been a taboo subject in Austria for so long, and actively seeks dialogue on the subject.
Again, some of the American Jews were ambivalent about being in Austria, with its past and current trends of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. It was painful to hear the proverbs and slurs that the Viennese participants had been exposed to in their own families. One of the American Jews had a negative experience after the group, during a trip to the Austrian mountains. She heard a group of rowdies under her window one evening, singing very loudly. The last song they sang ended with the words, "Sieg,Sieg, Heil,Heil,Heil" shouted with great gusto and volume. The Jew who lives in Vienna is not at all ambivalent about Austrians. He feels that they are two-faced, and that the best liars he ever met are in Vienna. He is tired of being such an outsider, and wants to leave Austria, though it is a challenge to figure out where he and his family can start a new life.
This year, we were able to talk on a deeper level than in past meetings about how we perceived each other's inter-actions with us. Even the smallest non-verbal gestures - whether or not we wanted to share our food, or where or how we sat - could be interpreted as showing acceptance and trust, or exclusion and mistrust. We could see on a more personal level what is involved in really trusting each other, especially when we were honest about our gut reactions. We all still had many issues at various times around trust and mistrust, and feeling like outsiders.
As a result of my participation in the group over the past 3 years, my father has also taken an active interest in our encounter. He has interacted with some of the participants, both in person and through my own correspondence, often helping me with German translations. Two years ago, the judge who plays the viola visited Boston and happened to attend one of my father's piano concerts. At a subsequent evening in my father's home, he encouraged my father to consider returning to Vienna for the first time since he had fled, and offered to arrange for him to give a concert there. Previously, my father had refused to return to Vienna because he felt that he would be betraying his parents and other family members who were killed by the Nazis, and he did not want to meet someone he might have known during that time. Probably, he also was not eager to stir up a lot of painful memories.
After many months of thoughtful consideration, my father finally agreed to return to Vienna, if a public concert could be arranged. He felt that he needed to make a public statement of reconciliation with his past, and to express his feelings through the vehicle of music, which is the language he speaks best. Undaunted, the judge went to the Jewish Museum, introduced himself as a child of a Nazi, and said he wanted to arrange a concert for my father, a Jewish refugee who had not returned to Vienna for 60 years. After some negotiation, the Jewish Museum agreed to sponsor the concert and, together with an organization in Krems, also agreed to fund the renting of a Bösendorfer grand piano for the event. Plans for the concert became even more exciting when the professional violist in our group was available to perform with my father. It was very moving to have this concert at the Jewish Museum, just a few doors down from the church where my father's parents had been married. It was also a few blocks from Helden Platz, where Hitler held his rallies, and where the pope had also spoken just a few days earlier.
The group was very supportive of this concert, helped with details such as taping and videotaping, and welcomed my father, stepmother, and sister, as well as some Bavarian relatives, to Vienna. One member took great pains to find the most appropriate restaurant for our dinner after the concert, and said it was an honor to be able to pick up my family from the airport. I shared in the group how important the judge had been to my father and to my family in establishing such a warm relationship with my father, encouraging him to return to Vienna after all this time, and arranging this concert. He in turn spoke of how my father had greatly influenced him as well, and had touched his soul. He expressed great pride in having arranged this concert; in fact, more so than of his many professional accomplishments.
The whole group came to the concert and to a dinner afterwards. Many were gracious about helping my family, and wanting to make this a special occasion. It was clearly a high point for many, not just for my family. My father was thrilled with the enthusiastic response to the concert, and enjoyed being back in Vienna. After the concert, he was interviewed by women from two different organizations that are documenting musicians and other artists forced to flee from the Nazis. It was also exciting for him to reconnect with some former schoolmates from his high school and University days for the first time in over 60 years, and to remember some of the good times he had experienced in Vienna.
Next year, the group will meet in Boston for the first time. Everyone expressed interest in coming here in June, though some wanted less of a self-awareness group. I hope that all of the Austrians can afford the time and money to come. Again, priority will be given to any previous members, and we will limit the group to 15 participants. The Austrians are hoping to have the opportunity to dialogue with a variety of other groups as well while they are here. The professional violist and my father would like to give some concerts before the group begins, and possibly even record a CD. Hopefully, we Americans will be able to continue our dialogue and friendships with the Austrians, and to return the gracious hospitality we have experienced over the past three years.
The Fourth Austrian Encounter
The Fourth Austrian encounter met August 27-31, 1999 in Vienna. It was planned to occur just before the 3-day ARCHE conference at the University of Vienna for descendants of both sides of the Holocaust. The conference was called The Presence of the Absence, or Die Lebendigkeit der Geschichte.
We had 10 participants, 4 from the original group, 3 from the second meeting, and 3 new participants. The new members included a Jewish woman from Vienna, a Sinti (Gypsy) woman from Vienna, and an Austrian-American woman who is the daughter of a resistance fighter. Although we had only 3 men, and only 2 children of perpetrators this time, this imbalance did not seem to get in the way of having many interesting discussions.
This year's 10 participants all expressed great interest in continuing with the group. Next year, we will meet in Massachusetts for five days, probably the first week of July. Two previous participants, both children of perpetrators, have indicated that they want to join us next year, and we have a number of people who have expressed an interest in the encounter as a result of the ARCHE conference.
We had great difficulty in scheduling this year's encounter. We took some group time to try to sort out some of our difficulties in communicating in two languages, between two continents, and dealing with both cultures. Both sides were extremely frustrated about some of our misunderstandings. Some felt that they had not been listened to or understood by some of the others, or had been excluded from some of the group meetings. We Americans were often frustrated by not getting responses to our phone calls, faxes, or e-mails.
We had originally talked of meeting in Boston, but we in the US understood that not many were planning on coming, and scheduling the group so that everyone could participate seemed almost impossible. We finally decided to have the group just before the ARCHE conference, so that those of us from the US could combine both events in one trip. However, at the last minute, this conflicted with a number of the Austrians' summer vacations. It was very helpful to look at issues of sense of time, male/female perspectives, expectations, and assumptions, as well as problems with the mechanics of e-mail.
While we missed some of the previous members, our three new members added some unique perspectives. We finally had the opportunity to get to know a Sinti woman, and hear about the discrimination she and her family, and her people still face in Austria and Germany. L has a mixed identity, since her father was a German SS soldier. As she put it, it's her luck that she looks German. She told stories of her mother staying home from her daughter's ballet lessons because she did not want L to have to endure any suspicions. A shopkeeper once warned her that a Gypsy woman (her mother) was stealing her child, when her mother had stayed outside the store to watch her. People really expect her to have a horse and a trailer and live in filth. I was invited to her home, which is actually a quite modern, roomy, and clean penthouse apartment.
L's mother survived the camps, though most of her family did not. She is still quite disturbed and fearful and only really trusts L. She does not even always trust L's siblings or children. L goes to visit her every day and listens to her so that her fear does not build up. She herself grew up with little self-esteem, but after much therapy, has found her place in the world. She came to the group quite distrustful, defensive, and wary, and was sometimes not sure that she wanted to continue. She often needed to be reassured that we wanted her to be there, and finally was able to feel that she was a part of the group. An important first step for her is for the "Gatchi" (non-Gypsies) to recognize Gypsies as humans.
A number of the Austrians had prejudices about Gypsies, and none knew any Roma or Sinti personally. Likewise, our Sinti participant did not knowingly have any Jewish friends, either. One Austrian later admitted to having some fears about having a Gypsy participate, and wondered if he would have accepted her as easily if she were as dark as her mother. He had been relieved in previous meetings that he did not have to experience the hate he assumes the Gypsies would have, or to encounter his own fears.
Another great addition was a Jewish woman who had grown up in an assimilated Viennese family and whose parents had returned to Vienna a few years after the end of the war to rebuild their lives. Her father had been in a Swiss labor camp and met her mother, also a Viennese refugee, in New York City. Her father had looked so blond and "Aryan" at the time, that he had been examined by a racial specialist, who said that sometimes there are exceptions.
L feels that Anti-Semitism in Austria has gotten worse in the past fifteen years. She recently asked her daughter's principal where Jewish afterschool educational classes are being held, and her response was "is there still Jewish education?" L hears comments like "Jews always find a good way for themselves", and grumblings about returning artwork to Jews, or the restitution funds. Another comment mentioned was, "If you give a Jew your hand, you must count your fingers afterwards to make sure they're still there." Her middle daughter has great fears because of the strength of Joerg Heider's political following. On the other hand, her oldest son could not tolerate his mother's anti-Nazi feelings.
L has a good life here, and has no problems with her husband and friends as long as she does not mention Jewish subjects. If she does, she admits to feeling like an outsider. She always struggled to be accepted by her classmates. She remembers her younger sister coming home at the age of 6 and saying that she didn't want to be Jewish. True to her wishes, her sister has tried hard to assimilate into the Austrian culture. L's husband is a Gentile. She realizes on retrospect that she probably thought that he would protect her and make her life easier. His family believes that Austria was the first victim of the war, and that they suffered too from all the bombing. Also, Jews can get a good position and they have it easier than we Austrians do. A deep hurt for her occurred when her husband's only comment after seeing Schindler's List was that Jews are also bad; they also killed people.
The other new member still feels that there is no place for her; that she does not belong to the perpetrator nor to the victim side, but somewhere in between. Her father formed an underground resistance group, was betrayed and arrested in late 1938, and spent most of the war in a prison. However, he was a monarchist and was fighting to save the Austria he knew, not specifically the Jews or Gypsies, though he did help some of his Jewish friends get false papers. E's maternal grandfather, also an Anti-Semite, was among the first Austrian political prisoners to be deported to Dachau, where he was killed a few weeks later. To complicate matters, her paternal grandfather was an early member of the Nazi party. Her father's youngest uncle, just two years his senior, became a vicious SS Officer who committed suicide in Berlin in May of 1945. E also feels at home both in Austria and in the US, since she lived in Austria until she was 33, and has lived in New York City for the past 15 years, so she has a good understanding of both cultures.
One challenge we had to face on our first day was the need to decide whether two previous participants could join us on the last two days of the encounter. We spent about 2 hours going around and around the group. We had great difficulty with issues of selecting and excluding, but finally agreed that their coming would interfere with our group process. I happened to answer the telephone when one of these members, who had been particularly helpful to my family last year, called my host. I was unable to tell him that he could not join us.
Fitting in and feeling like outsiders continued to be a central theme for everyone. Some of the Austrians had felt excluded from group meetings that were arranged at times that they were unable to attend. Various group members had issues about not feeling accepted or included, or of being discounted during the group meetings. All 3 new members spoke quite a bit about feeling like outsiders throughout their lives.
Some of us still had difficulty being in Vienna, where there is still such denial about the Holocaust. We Jews would occasionally make assumptions about some of the people we encountered, sometimes feeling they were typical Nazis. Two Jewish participants returned from lunch one day with a story of a man they had encountered at the restaurant, whom they thought was a typical aged Nazi; instead, he had turned out to be a Viennese Jew. We asked what they had learned about how he had survived the war. As his story unfolded, L, our new Jewish participant, said that this man could be her father. After more elaboration of his story, we all realized that it had indeed been her father! We simultaneously broke into a wonderful long group laugh that brought us all closer together.
One member talked of shadows in the past and family secrets. She, like many others, acknowledged that there were some gaps in her family stories, but she had never pushed to ask questions, since she felt that her parents clearly had not wanted to tell her and her sister. Her father spoke of his family, especially during Sunday dinner, but her mother's family was never discussed. Even her father's visits to the cemetery to visit his parents' graves was done alone and not mentioned.
Another member had just visited the town in the Czech Republic from which her family had originally come, and discovered a Jewish cemetery there with the graves of a number of her ancestors. She found great peace there and wants to bury her parents' ashes there. Others talked of the pain of not having a cemetery where they could grieve. I also tried, after the group, to locate the grave of my maternal grandfather, who had died in Vienna in 1926. While he might have been buried in the Jewish cemetery in the 19th district, where he lived, these graves were all recently exhumed in the past few years and buried in the Central Cemetery. In any case, there was no record of his grave there or anywhere else. It was frustrating to me that the Austrians had "lost" his remains, especially since there is no cemetery for my father's parents, who were deported East and killed.
On the other hand, one of the Austrians spoke of the legacy of getting family property through the work of forced laborers. The other child of a Nazi explained that he feels that it is not up to him to judge his parents, since he does not know what he would have done given the same circumstances. He does not feel responsible for their actions. Still, he felt that the group helped him to figure out more about his parents, about himself, and about what happened during the war. What is important for them is to accept their past and not run away from it. Both group members shared more details about family members' attitudes towards the Nazis, including their own siblings. One brother was a Neo-Nazi. One father felt brave to be an idealist, and an illegal Nazi when it was forbidden.
We touched on various other topics, such as issues of control, and how difficult it is to see ourselves as possible perpetrators. We sorted out our anger or frustration with each other. We had to reach a level of trust before admitting to aggressive feelings toward some other group members. We discussed forms of discipline in our families. One member shared that when her mother grew up, if one of the children spoke during a meal, they were hit with a whip. We also spoke of what we got from our parents, and what we have passed on to our children. We spoke of our struggles to establish our own identities apart from our parents. We discussed reconciliation, trust, and courage.
We asked and answered some difficult and very personal questions, some very honestly and quite painfully, because of the level of trust that was established. One person talked about crying behind our masks. Many felt freer to share in this group than anywhere else in their lives - to be totally themselves, and to ask or say anything that came up. We developed an openness and caring for each other, especially when we shared our pain and understood more about who we are and how we view the world and ourselves. Each person participated with honesty and openness, and was important to the group. Most of us learned something new about ourselves in relation to our own family histories.
We met for four days in a lovely bright exhibit room belonging to a group member who was a wonderful host. Food kept appearing, and all of the Austrians were so happy to have us as their guests. Most of us attended the conference directly after the group, and many continued to visit afterwards. We are looking forward to extending the same hospitality next year in Massachusetts, hopefully in a setting where we can all live together.
The Fifth Austrian Encounter
The Austrian encounter met in the U.S. for the first time, rather than in Vienna, from July 1-5, 2000, at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. This was the fifth such gathering. There were 10 participants, 9 of whom had participated in previous encounters. There were 3 men and 7 women, 5 of whom were Jews. Half of the members live in Vienna, the rest in the US. We met for 5 days, and stayed at a college campus so that we could spend time together without having to travel to and from the meetings. For some this was too intense, especially since the location was rather isolated. For others, it was great to have this opportunity to spend this uninterrupted time together.
Our new participant, H., age 63, was born in 1937 near Linz. His father was a "convinced" Nazi who was a civil servant. He died of tuberculosis in 1943 when H was almost 6. He had volunteered in the army because he believed so strongly in Nazism, even though he was already sick and could have been excused from serving. He was a soldier a messenger - in Poland for 1_ years. H hopes that his father didn't hurt anyone. He remembers his paternal grandmother commenting during the war about still having so many Jews in their neighborhood, even though they were being gassed. His mother is 91. While she said she was against the Nazis killing the Jews, she was and still is very anti-Semitic. She said that it was a crime to kill the Jews, but it was OK to have them wash the streets because they're lazy and don't want to do physical work. Moreover, she believed that Jews became doctors and learned people because they don't want to do any physical work. H was a truck driver and a bookkeeper, then a priest for years. He left the church to marry his wife in 1968. He became a social worker and a lawyer, and worked in probation. He always liked outsiders and marginalized people. As a priest he put himself in that position. As a young child, he experienced a Jew being thrown off the streetcar in Vienna. Recently, he offered an orthodox Jew a seat to symbolically try to make up for it, but this man did not want to sit down.
Again, we missed the previous participants who were unable to join us, though they were often present in our thoughts and interactions. This was especially so this year because various group members have gotten together in Vienna over the past year, some getting closer, others getting into conflicts. Some of these interactions needed to be addressed in the group, especially those relating to the political situation in Austria today.
We addressed many of the same issues as in previous years, but each year we seem to reach a new level of intimacy and trust. Even so, the same story brings up different perceptions and associations, depending on where we are at any particular moment. This year, in particular, we met for the longest time ever, and were living together and sharing our meals. Sometimes our discussions went on long into the night; other times we needed a break from all the intensity. Of course this need for some distance varied among the different participants. Still, we did make a point of relaxing and having some fun, too. For example, many of us enjoyed picnicking in a local state forest, and seeing fireworks together on the Fourth of July.
We had much discussion this time about the purpose of our group, and of our own personal goals for it. Some wanted more political action, and some more intellectual discussion (mostly some of the newer members). Others were pleased that it has become a Selbst-Ehrfahrungsgruppe, or a sensitivity/encounter group that is more introspective about how the Holocaust has affected us very personally. Many felt that we talk deeper in this group than in any other group, and that finally we have found a place where at least one other person in the group understands and shares some of our experiences and feelings. However, the needs and desires of this year's participants were quite varied, and there was no real resolution to this question, even though some said they would only return if it were one way or the other. Since this is such an integral part of our histories, it is difficult for me to understand the desire to talk about these issues without being personal.
Again, there were problems with communications and planning for the meeting. We had offered to find housing for the Austrians, and to meet them at the airport. However, some waited until the last minute to make their plans, and others never let us know their plans until many e-mails and phonecalls later, leaving the organizers here in Boston quite frustrated, especially because there were lots of details to work out on this end. We also were responsible for our own meals the first 2 days, and a lot of that responsibility fell on the two organizers. Most of the Austrians were surprised at the amount of work we had done to organize the encounter, especially another woman and I, but the attitude was that it was not expected, and they would not have done that much work in our place. This lack of organization, commitment, and communication was very frustrating for me and for the other organizer.
One of the first issues we addressed this year was various group members' responses to Haider's rise in power in Austria, and the terror this brings up as a kneejerk response for many of the Jews. One of the Jews living in Austria felt they were in real danger, and felt it was a matter of trust and support for the rest of the group to feel the same way. One of the Austrians responded that as this person's friend, he wanted to assure them that they were not in danger, but that if it ever came to sending Jews or anyone off to concentration camps, that he would be the first to protest. The Holocaust was then and this is now, and Jews are safe in Vienna today. His disagreement that Jews were in danger was perceived as a betrayal. The Jew wondered how the non-Jews can be in this group for so long and not understand our fear of these elements of the government.
One woman spoke of how she lives with fear as a Jew in Vienna. We also addressed the questions of how to decide what is tolerated, when does "it" start, when is it too late to protest? That question of how far the apple falls from the tree was always in the room. Some of the Jews needed to hear specifically "even though my father was a Nazi, I am not". It was important to note that there were also some non-Jews who are fearful of what Haider's rise to power means for Austria. We had a powerful role exchange between 2 people in conflict over this issue, which was very courageous on their parts, and fruitful for everyone.
A related struggle was around the theme of nationalism, or support of Austria and Austrians, and some of the Jews' disappointment with and generalizations around Austrians from the ones they had met. One of the Jews was confronted by the others, including other Jews, about the generalizations she was making, which seemed inflammatory and caused a more nationalistic response. Still, some of the Jews were struck by the nationalism they witnessed in some of the Austrians. On the other hand, the Austrian now living in NYC feels that she has to hide the fact that she is an Austrian.
We also addressed how it feels to be a Jew in such a Catholic country and to be a Jew first and an Austrian second. For many Jews, it is still difficult to justify living in Austria today. We wondered, though, what it would have been like for us if our families had stayed or returned to Vienna, and if we had grown up there. We noticed that in Austria, it's a challenge to be proud to be a Jew. The Jewish woman living in Vienna told a story of an interaction when her son, David, was a young child. When she introduced him to a new acquaintance, she said he's such a lovely child, but you punished him with a Jewish name. It never occurred to our participant to say she was proud, not ashamed, of his Jewish name.
We looked at the taboo subjects in our families, and in this group, and started to discuss some as we listed them. Some felt it might be better if Austrian politics were taboo for us, since it caused such conflict and deep hurt feelings from unmet expectations. We dealt directly with conflicts between group members, criticized each other, and expressed envy of each other. We looked at what's comfortable and what's taboo, and our assumptions about each other, like from where "their" money came. One group member refused to discuss it, and was hurt that anyone would even pose the question. A Jew described how she wondered whether every old lady she met was wearing her grandmother's jewelry, but she realized that her grandmother never could have owned that much jewelry to begin with. We discussed Jewish racism directed against "the Schwarze" and punishment in our homes growing up. We looked at what we consider to be good enough and bad enough, in terms of our own feelings and behaviors, and the political situation in Austria today. We raised a number of issues we thought we couldn't address with each other, and then dealt with them, some in greater detail than others, often showing our vulnerabilities to each other.
Another theme of the group again this year was how we play out the perpetrator and victim roles, and how these roles change between victims and attackers. Some expressed a feeling of competition to be the "best" Nazi child. They felt an unspoken pressure to hate their Nazi fathers, which was difficult for those who felt loyal to their fathers. One woman was relieved to have at least one other "Nazi Kind" (child) who is still loyal and close to his family. She felt she could not compete with those who had totally rejected their families, because they were too "good". She also had difficulty when my father joined us for dinner at my home, since he symbolized for her the good father for the group. She felt that we wouldn't have wanted to talk with her father, or with any of her family, for that matter. Everyone else enjoyed spending time with my father, and they spoke of wanting to "borrow" him as their father, but for her it was too painful to compare him with her own father. She felt that other group members had expectations of how she should behave, that she had to explain herself, and prove that she's good. So, we looked at the question of who is considered good, bad, better, or worse. It's clearly much more difficult to face being a child of a Nazi than a child or grandchild of victims within our group.
As always, trust and broken trust was a big issue. Nazi Kinder also had issues with broken trust. We addressed the issue of whether we can trust each other, and when we know that we are safe. A Jew shared that he feels a sense of betrayal that his brother-in-law is married to a Christian and is raising their children as Christians the children that he feels could and should be raised as Jews. A Jew spoke of the wonder and guilt they experienced in a beautiful church in Sicily on Easter Sunday. We often spoke of the concept of the "other" and the "tribe": "If you're not part of my tribe, then you're the enemy." Some of us are always seeking those who will accept us unconditionally - that longing for family with total acceptance, and that constant search for belonging, and for relatives who look like us. We revisited the question of to whom do we belong, and who can kick you out. We addressed the issue of insider/outsider, and feeling a part of this group, but at times also feeling very alone within the group when we were misunderstood or alone in our points of view. At one point, I proposed a group toast to feeling less alone.
We discussed how our relationships are our security. This is why we each feel so personally threatened when a relationship is threatened. We recognized how important our existing family relationships are to us, and the importance our close friends take on, especially for those who lost so many family members, and/or whose family is scattered far away. There is a feeling that our own family is there for you. Many of us tend to have high expectations of our friends and families, and loyalty becomes a key issue. We spoke of how trust and broken trust can change a relationship forever; that it is really hard to regain that relationship once trust is broken. In fact, some questioned whether broken trust can ever be repaired. Some Jews spoke of allowing non-Jews to get only so close. Once trust is established, when others disagree, or don't understand or share the same feelings, it can feel invalidating, like taking away our home, or our base. Throughout our time together, we were constantly testing whether we could trust each other.
Food was a big issue for many of our families after the war, and for some of us it still is. In one family, every Sunday became a battleground, because her sister would not eat, and after unsuccessfully being cajoled, she would always end up being beaten. Violence in our families was another issue we began to address. We also took a look at how it was for our parents when they first came, and how it was for our group member who came at the age of 6 in the early 50's. It was not viewed as "good" to speak German then, and she had to have speech therapy to learn to speak "right".
We got less and less polite, and more and more direct as the days passed. We got closer to each other by being honest and vulnerable, and sometimes disagreeing with each other. Some felt embarrassed afterwards, though, after being so exposed and sharing such painful feelings. Some wondered whether it is difficult for some of the others to hear the depth of our emotions. It was sometimes difficult for a man in the group who reminded some of the women of their "bad" fathers. He also spoke of sometimes feeling like a nice Nazi child pet that could sit on someone's lap. We needed to talk about the difference between reality and fantasy about each other.
Whatever our feelings about this year's group, we all chipped away another layer of the baggage we carry related to the Holocaust, and most realized how much more work we each still have to do. Basically, most of the participants liked being deep and personal rather than superficial. This year many of us spoke up when we felt hurt by another's words or actions. We saw over and over again how difficult it is for Jews and non-Jews to trust each other, and that the trust we worked so hard to build in our group is such a fragile trust. We spent more time this year within the group on interpersonal issues and disputes. Sometimes these conflicts were difficult to be around.
Most conflicts, though, were resolved well in creative and helpful ways. It was interesting that what often felt like a digression turned out to be very much related to the Holocaust and to our parents' and thus our own experiences. Some of the issues we raised warranted further exploration, such as where our personal issues and our Holocaust issues start and end, how neurotic and too easily offended we all are, and how we deal with each other and with our families. While the interpersonal conflicts were difficult for the group, we also acknowledged that we don't have to care equally about each other. But we do need to acknowledge each others' vulnerabilities and work at not losing the trust we have worked hard to build.
Next year was left open. Most expressed a desire to meet again, and the group decided that the next meeting should take place in Israel or in Vienna, but no specific date was set. We also did not address how much the focus would be theoretical, political, or introspective. So it is not clear who will really participate again in the future, or who will organize the next meeting. After the group ended, a number of people expressed quite serious hesitation about continuing. For the first time I am questioning whether I want to continue to participate in this group, though it has been extremely important to me in the past. For me, it depends on whether we are able to recruit new people, what stories and expectations they would bring to the group, and how personal participants want to get. At least we finally met in the US, and returned the hospitality shown to us in Vienna in the past. We'll just have to wait and see what the future will bring
The Sixth Austrian Encounter
The 6th Austrian encounter met in Vienna from July 12th to 15th, 2001. We had 10 participants, and 2 who cancelled, one who chose to go out of town, and one former member showed her ambivalence by canceling by email just before a social gathering at a new member's home the evening before we met. We had 5 Jews, 3 from the US and 2 from Vienna, and 5 Gentile Austrians, 2 of whose fathers had been in the resistance. We had 3 men and 7 women, not so unusual for our kind of encounter. It was very balanced this year, almost too balanced, without the more extreme personalities and backgrounds from the past. Thus, the group was less explosive and confrontational than last year.
None of the members dominated or stayed silent; we all participated relatively equally. Some previous members shared more of themselves this time than they had in the past, possibly as a result of the trust that had been established, as well as from the available emotional space. We started by introducing ourselves. We completed 6 members the first day, and 2 each of the next days, with members asking questions and drawing parallels with their own lives. We took time to establish more trust, but ran out of time to address general issues. Our discussion was the most intense on the 3rd day. A relatively new member questioned our purpose frequently (political, intellectual, or more personal sharing), which was the main cause of tension within the group this year. The last day was less intense, though we spoke about sex at length for the first time.
One new member, S., a Jew living in Vienna, spoke of having roots in a various places, and of being a combination of cultures. She has a son who has married a religious Iranian woman. Her mother went to Holland from Germany with her mother, step-father, and step-sister. They left in ‘33 after Hitler came to power and were hidden by a German woman and then a Dutch streetcar driver. Her parents met after the war and married 3 months later. She lived in a German household in Holland, so she lived in 2 worlds. She was deeply connected to her father, but he died when she was 10. Her mother was split about her Judaism. Her father was not a Jew, but her mother and step-father were Jewish. Her mother was a hero in the war. She was young and pretty, and had some false papers. The Vermacht lived in the house where she and her family stayed, and knew that Jews were hidden there, but they said they didn't want to know more; that wasn't their job. She stood up to the Gestapo and to the SS, so she saved the rest of her family. Her mother was painfully German for her in liberal Holland, and S. never accepted her. They seemed to be scared of each other.
Our other new member, M, was born in ‘33. Her father was in the resistance. First he was in the army and was wounded in Poland. He was the only principal in their area who was not in the Nazi Party, and she was 1 of 4 children of the 800 in her school who was not in the Hitler Youth Movement. The 4 of them were considered unworthy to even sit in the auditorium while the others sang Horst Vessel songs, and they had to sit in a small windowless room. She was 12 at the end of the war, and was buried for a few hours in a house that was bombed, and lost her hearing in her right ear. Thirteen resisters, many of whom were friends of her fathers, were killed in the Stadtpark 2 days before the Russians came. He was in the hospital with a gall bladder attack at the time, or he might have been killed as well, along with 3 of his closest friends. For 3 weeks, the front changed back and forth between the Germans and Russians. The Russians raped women and girls in front of them. She had to grow up quickly. Even in her family, her mother made racist comments against the Gypsies, but not the Jews. She had a strong Catholic background. She became a teacher of handicapped children, and since retiring at 60, she has worked with street kids in Bucharest, financially and emotionally supporting them. She has encountered a lot of prejudice against Gypsies there, especially when anything is stolen, along with a denial of the severity of the Holocaust. Her father died 25 years ago; her mother was never happy that her sisters married foreigners, and never asks her about Romania. Her father never told them what he did during the war, because he didn't want to burden his children, and she never asked. Her father's brother was imprisoned in St Pölten for a year after the war. M. has 2 step-children and 2 children; all have married into a variety of cultures. One daughter is married to the son of Jewish refugees from Holland, whose grandmother was killed in Bergen Belsen. She is pleased that his family has totally accepted her.
A number of the Austrians were struggling with the fact that their mothers, more than their fathers, are still anti-Semitic and/or anti–foreigner. One mother still insists that she didn't notice people being deported during that time. We asked each other what they and we want from these mothers. We also acknowledged that to see what you're not allowed to see can be dangerous.
One of the Austrians wants her mother to admit that she saw bad things, but her mother can't give that to her. E. wants a mother who was a hero in the Resistance. Many of us wanted parents who think more like we do. Most of the fathers were illegal Nazis before the Anschluss. Someone asked, “how could a good family man be such a good Nazi?”
We addressed the issue of whether or not to search for answers about what the Nazi fathers did during that time. One of the Austrians doesn't want to find out about his father. He was an illegal party member and had to pay a fine after the war. He had difficulty finding a job as a doctor afterwards, so he became a dentist, just like many Nazis did. Our participant feels that his father supported a criminal regime, but probably didn't commit a crime himself. He never asked his mother about her family in the war. Someone pointed out that it takes courage to say “I don't know, I never asked” in our group. He acknowledged that he feels pressure and disappointment from the Jews, and again asked each of the Jews whether it is OK to love his Nazi father? Would we rather he didn't love him? Would we be more comfortable if he went to the Archives? We actually all said that we would expect and want him to love his father, and that we would want him to want to search for answers about his father's past, but it does not matter what the answer is.
We tried to sort out how to figure out what some of the fathers really did during the war if they had to pay a fine. Can we trust the information we gather, especially from our parents? How much is real, and what do we trust? We only know what they wanted to let us know. We also questioned what the members' children know about their grandfathers' activities and beliefs during the war.
These questions were complicated by the fact that all of our parents are aging, especially our fathers. One father recently had a stroke and wants to die. Others have various stages of Alzheimers. One of the Austrians had to leave the group to help find his father, who had wandered off again. This was especially painful because it was his parents' 47th wedding anniversary.
Coincidentally, many of the Jews were closer with our fathers and struggled with our mothers. We discussed how our relationships with our fathers affect our relationship with men in general. We discussed our Jewish identity, and what it means to us. Some family members claimed it and were quite religious; other chose to leave it behind. We also spoke about what it means for Jews to have children, and that they be raised as Jewish children, and what it means for some of us to have the family name die out with us. Some of our parents didn't want to have children after this horrible experience, others felt a need to have them. Many of us felt the need or desire to have children, and some were sorry that we hadn't been able to give that to our parents, or to have that experience for ourselves.
Many of us used the group to sort out family relationships, roles, and values. At times we even acknowledged when group members reminded us of people in our families, and how we sometimes reconstruct our families in the group. We talked about perfectionism and our expectations of ourselves and others, as well as criticism, and how some of us are intimidated by other group members. We acknowledged how some of our interests, fears, or dislikes come from our parents' stories and their response to their histories. Some told funny or painful anecdotes about our parents. We shared more about our extended families, and our efforts to make meaningful connections with them. We also acknowledged how we often unconsciously copy our parents' stories in our lives. One of the Austrian members, whose father was in the Resistance, but whose other paternal relatives were staunch Nazis, will be attending a family gathering of the estranged members of these Nazi families, now consisting only of the next generations, since the Nazis have all died out now. She has also recently reconnected with some schoolmates from Linz, where she felt like such an outsider, and will be going back to her class reunion in the fall.
Another familiar issue was selection and exclusion, and how uncomfortable we are with that concept. How do we feel about selection and feeling like an outsider? We addressed the issue of feeling excluded or wanting to purposely exclude ourselves from groups. We struggled with the question of who belongs to this group – and how to select who is in or out of the group. What happens when previous members are no longer present and new participants want to change the group? Do the original members or the newer ones leave the group? Our newer member who wanted a less personal interaction decided that he would not participate next year. Some had difficulty with his wanting to leave; others were relieved because his protest had taken so much time and emotional energy and was rather divisive. Often, when he raised this issue, it lowered the level of intensity, which seemed to be too much for him. In any case, we saw that it is hard for the group when a member chooses to leave.
Another issue we revisited was that of trust and mistrust. Each time we meet, we have to build up our trust to share on a deeper and more personal level. Most of the participants said they feel incredibly safe in this group, often safer than in any other group. Still, we constantly dealt with issues of trust, fear of each other, as well as of caring for each other. We still encounter areas of misunderstanding and sensitive areas where we have to be careful, especially in our relationships outside of the group. The Viennese Jews pointed out that this group is safe for them, but life in Wien generally is not safe. Someone said that trust means relinquishing control.
We acknowledged that we had some unresolved issues of trust from last year. Some of the previous members apparently still don't trust us enough to come back to the group. There were some assumptions, too, that if we trusted each other, we would share things without having to be asked, or that we wouldn't have to ask certain questions. We often got confused by assumptions and interpretations of behavior and silence from our own experiences, sometimes leading to some feelings of distrust or possible betrayal.
One question that often came up, was what would we have done during that time? Would we Jews have survived the war or the camps? How ethically would we all have responded to these times, especially if it meant putting our friends and families and ourselves at risk? We were struck by the coincidences throughout our family stories: some were captured on the last day, or escaped just in time. We saw how important a day or a chance encounter could be.
We addressed the issue of language – those who spoke German in their homes, or whose parents spoke German, and those who refused to speak it. Our new member spoke of losing her Dutch, which was her mother tongue, so she has no real first language. Many felt burdened by the silence in our families.
We touched on the topic of money, and how that has affected us in our lives today. One member didn't want to be like her rich Nazi relatives, and her father was not good in financial dealings. She realized how much she has taken on that history in her own life. Others struggle with having or wanting – or not wanting - possessions. Money in Austria is a big issue, and we did not really take it on. An underlying issue for many of the Jews is wondering where any Austrian money comes from. This was one of our many conflicts last year. We did look at the question of how Austria in general is dealing with its history, and how we all deal with racist and Anti-Semitic statements. One of the Austrians talked about understanding the whole process of Anti-Semitism better as a result of participating in this group.
The four days went by very quickly, especially since we spent so long on introductions. Some said they would like to be able to start next time where we ended, with the same composition so that we don't need to reintroduce ourselves and build up trust again. We tried to define for ourselves what we want from the group throughout the four days, and whether and how we want to continue to participate. From the start we asked whether our goal is working out our past, or dealing with racism today. Some had a need to look at how this horror could have happened and how we can prevent similar discrimination today. We struggled with the issue of how to integrate new people; some bring new perspectives and enrich the group, others have other goals for the group and hold it back. We talked of possibly meeting in Northern Ireland or in Israel next year, and meeting part of the time with others who are on both sides of a present-day conflict, learning from listening to each others' stories.
Most found the experience interesting in terms of what we learn about each other and from each other. Many were touched by how personal we were with each other this time. We appreciate making connections with others who are also sorting out how the legacy of the Holocaust has affected us and our families, and figuring out our various connections with each other. By learning about and trying to understand ourselves and each other better, hopefully we will make changes in our perspectives and in our lives as a result of what we've learned.