Coming Home – From Silencing to Dialogue

The following text is the outcome of a 3 years training program “Dialogue in Conflict” facilitated by the late Prof. Dan Bar On 2006 – 2008 in Hamburg. It was a unique experience, and I will be forever grateful to have been part of it.



In April 2001 I attended a conference for systemic work in Wuerzburg, Germany. I sat in the auditorium of the congress center for a lecture. Two men were taking their places on the podium: the Israeli professor Dan Bar-On and his Palestinian colleague Sami Adwan. A gesture of affection, care and mutual respect between them touched me very much: Dan was first pouring a glass of water for Sami and then for himself, before he started to speak. I listened to their speech like I had never listened before in my life.

They talked about the story of their friendship, how they got to know each other and how they and their families became friends. Both are the founders and co-directors of PRIME, the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East which supports dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis in various projects. PRIME meetings took place under extremely difficult conditions. Both, Sami and Dan and their families were always worried about the wellbeing of the other when suicide attacks or military actions were happening again on either side. Dan told a story about his son: he wanted to join the Israeli army out of an attitude of patriotism. He faced the possibility of having to shoot at a son of Sami. Both families were searching for a solution together. They found one: Dan’s son was joining the rescue unit of the airforce. I remember that tears were running down my face listening to this. I felt all kinds of emotions, deep affection, compassion and connection to both of them and their people. And a question arose inside of me: “What can I do?”

I joined their workshop in the afternoon. It took place in a room big enough for about 30 people but almost 100 came and squeezed into it, and more were waiting outside. Again I noticed a quality in both Sami and Dan which moved me. They made it possible that everybody got a place. There was an energy of “togetherness” when the workshop started.

Bert Hellinger (founder of the “Family Constellation” method) was also participating in the workshop. Dan asked him if his method might be helpful to take a look at the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Bert suggested a constellation with representatives for both sides of the conflict. He chose representatives of Jewish origin for the Palestinians and of Palestinian origin for the Israelis and asked them to stand opposite facing each other. Two lines with about 10 people on each side were formed. Bert asked the representatives to look into each other’s eyes and follow the inner movement that would arise in them. The movements and emotional expressions were incredibly intense and were felt by all the observing participants.

I cried. I felt as if I was one of them; it did not even matter which side. This was a key experience which even now I cannot really explain. It became the foundation of my motivation to move into a new direction in my life. At the end of the workshop I approached Sami and Dan and we hugged. I said to Dan that I felt a longing to do something and he smiled and answered: “Your compassion is more than enough”. His words touched me but they did not relieve me.

May 2003. Another conference for systemic constellation work in Wuerzburg, another lecture of Sami and Dan. I met both on their way to the podium and introduced myself again. A friendly smile, and then I sat in the auditorium. Two years full of terrible events had passed, and it was a miracle that Sami had been allowed to travel. They had kept doing their work under extremely difficult conditions, never giving up. I participated again in their workshop. This time they did a role-play. The participants were divided into 6 groups, 3 Israeli and 3 Palestinian. Each group had to discuss one of 3 different periods of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, first in each national group, then meeting the others from the other side and listening to their version. I was in a Palestinian group for the period of 1948, and I immediately felt I was “becoming” an old Palestinian woman, upset, hurt and full of hate. In the encounter with the Israeli group I exploded, I felt the cruelty of the situation, the pain of all the humiliations over the decades and an incredible feeling of helplessness and rage: “It is more than enough.” For the first time I was really able to feel and understand the Palestinian side.

After the workshop I went to Sami and we hugged each other without words. I also approached Dan; I knew that from now on we were connected. I had no clue yet that I would also have to face unresolved personal issues, but I felt a certainty and a trust which I pursued throughout the coming weeks, months and years, and which has led me to where I am now.

In July 2003 I attended a seminar with Dan in Hamburg, where he was introducing his approach of storytelling to master students of the “Institut für Friedensforschung und Sicherheitspolitik.” He had invited one of the participants of the TRT group (“To Reflect and Trust”, a group of descendants of Nazi perpetrators and holocaust survivors who met under his guidance over many years, listening to each other’s life stories).She shared her life story in the group. Her father, a physician, had been responsible for the killing of thousands of Jews in the Third Reich. She never met him (he was executed in 1946). She talked about the silencing in her family concerning her father and the Nazi time. The way she was sharing her story awoke memories of silencing in my own family: “It is over, no need to talk about it.” Even the expressions that were used in our family seemed to be the same.

After the seminar I phoned my only living aunt (the same one whom I interviewed later) and asked her if she knew something about my father’s war experiences. Her answer was: “No. Those who have had heavy experiences don’t talk about it.” I remember this phrase so well because I could feel that she really meant it, and I remember the sadness in her voice which touched me. (In the interview a couple of years later she said the same thing again)

The sharing of the TRT woman upset me deeply. In the following night I woke up crying. I went through a very strong emotional process which I related to her story. It had obviously brought to surface all the suppressed memories of my father and his past.

In the following months and years I searched for my father’s story, which in a certain sense is mine too. It is a slow, intense process. I approach it with a lot of patience and acceptance of my own emotional and physical limits. The more I am searching and finding, the more I become quiet. I understand now that not knowing drives one crazy; knowing helps to find inner peace, even if what is found is atrocious and horrible. I have not found many facts about my father himself. I found facts about the things which happened in the area where he was stationed, which he might have been involved in or witnessed or known about. Those facts were very hard to digest. Sometimes I came almost to the point of giving up because I could not handle the information. In addition to this personal search, I read many books by people who were soldiers in the war and wrote about their experiences, or whose fathers were involved in war activities, Nazis, perpetrators or bystanders. I have a longing to understand, no matter how difficult it might be.

I contacted the woman from the TRT group. The phone calls and e-mails were helpful in this painful process of searching, because she understood how I felt.

In January 2006 I joined the “Storytelling in Conflicts Dialogue Training,” led by Dan BarOn. I wanted to learn and understand more, both myself and others.

In the following chapter I will describe my own process during this training, the development of my project and how both relate with each other. My research has led me to a multi-–approach study. I will describe each of the approaches, how they progressed and how they interconnect .

1. The Power of Silencing
1.1. Set up of the project – first steps

The issues for me are silencing and breaking the silence, excluding and including painful life issues, dealing with the past, dialogue between contradictory fragments within myself and with others.

The following quotation from Dan’s speech at his retirement celebration at the university in Beer Sheva in January 2007 expresses in a very complex way what I experience as the “core” subject of what we are trying to do:

“… in the Levinas tradition, the otherness of others is an infinity, while we are a closed totality, and we therefore never can represent in ourselves the full spectrum of that infinity. I learned through my studies that we developed different strategies of dealing with the others within us: In the case of former Jewish others, we mostly try to distance ourselves from them, creating an illusion that this will give us larger space, within ourselves, as Israelis. In the case of Nazism, we demonized them and excluded them from humanity. In the case of the Palestinians, we looked mostly through them, as if they did not exist. Such strategies may be helpful, as long (as) they corresponded with some aspect of reality, but at some point using them only creates an illusion of a bigger space for us in our social environment. Usually, the next step is that we try to recognize some of these others, at the price of firmly excluding others. This is short sighted, as recognition does not function that way, psychologically speaking. As long as exclusion is at work, dialogue cannot work into the deeper levels of our self.

“My work was designed to recognize several others within us and around us, trying to find ways to enter into dialogue with them, internally and externally. Perhaps you could listen here today, that this can be a very painful process, as at first we suddenly seem in our eyes to be small, soft and weak. Social reality may also be unfavourable and antagonistic. One needs support to work through these difficulties. Some of the people who spoke here today found ways to enlarge themselves by developing some forms of dialogue with their others, internally and externally. I do not fool myself; we are at the very beginning of this kind of approach…”

Reading this and other of Dan’s writings encouraged me to open up a dialogue inside and also outside myself about how silencing and exclusion were part of my life, and how I am starting to allow dialogue to happen. The first step in that process was the realization that I had excluded an important part of my biography: my father’s war experiences, his involvement in the Nazi regime as a bystander, what he did or witnessed. All this was silenced in our family and also inside myself. How did I live with such a “black hole” for so many years? How was it possible, that in all my own therapies this theme was never touched? How could I work with people in therapeutic settings and exclude this theme all together?

The next step was the research about my father’s involvement during the war. This led to the question: how was silencing transferred inside our family? What was the role of my mother, the women? How were they transferring the silencing into the next generation? Are the women different today? Which things are silenced today? Which parts in my life have I been silencing?

My parents are not living any more and my siblings were unwilling to go with me this way, so I decided to inquire in my larger family. As a starting point for my project I interviewed my aunt, my cousin and her daughter. I analyzed the interviews; and I did a micro-analysis of a key part of the interview with my aunt.

As a parallel step I tried to form a group of women together with my cousin in the countryside area close to where I grew up. The aim was to tell and listen to each other’s life stories, as a step towards breaking the silence.

Another part of my research took place in the area where I was born and raised, which is in the North German countryside, in a Catholic village. I wanted to find out about its involvement in the Nazi regime.

I will describe each of the steps and try to analyse how I see their interrelatedness.

1.2. Inner struggles

I am the second born, the first daughter of ten children. The first child, a son, died an hour after birth, the last child, another son, was born dead. So I am the oldest living of eight children. We lived in the countryside in a Catholic village in North Germany. Religion ruled our daily life in every detail. Prayers and service were important rituals. We were very poor. Food came mostly from the garden and meat from the pigs and rabbits and chicken which my parents were raising. We lived in my father’s parents’ house, which my grandfather had built.

My father was the youngest son of eight children. His father died from diabetes during WWI in Berlin, while my grandmother was pregnant with my father.

My mother was the fifth child of six. Her mother died when she was seven years old. Her father married for the second time, and she has two siblings from that marriage. During my childhood my mother was pregnant, ill, or busy with a new born baby most of the time. So I had many duties from an early age. My father was often drunk and violent towards us children. I think I survived because I learned to escape very early, first into stories, fantasies, and later in reality when I went to a high school located in the neighboring city. My mother died in 1979 at the age of 62, from an aneurysm in the brain.

WWII was never mentioned at home; my father became furious when someone asked him about it. Through papers which I found in a small suitcase and research in archives, I discovered that my father had joined the NSDAP in 1941. He was a soldier in the war and stationed in White Russia/Minsk from May 1943 till the end. At this time the military was involved in the extermination of Jewish residents in and around Minsk. He never talked about this; it seemed to be normal to forget, not to talk about it. – I was not even aware for a long time that this was not normal. In 1985 my father committed suicide by hanging himself.

To find out in my research that I am the daughter of a family of bystanders and perpetrators was not easy to digest. My father and also my uncle were involved in the Nazi regime. There may be more members of my family who I do not know about, for instance an uncle who had a Nazi uniform in his closet (which my aunt mentioned in the interview). Or there may be more that my father or my uncles or other members of my family have done which I do not know about.

For a long time, even while I was researching, I wanted to believe that my family was not involved, and it was painful to realise how much I tried to deny the fact that they were. I wanted them to be “innocent” which, as I know now, is impossible because no one in Germany was innocent.

Ralph Giordano describes it in a book title: Die zweite Schuld: die Verdrängung und Verleugnung der ersten nach 1945. (The Second Guilt: The repression and denial of the first one after 1945). In that sense I felt guilty because for a long time I avoided looking at my family’s heritage.

I also became aware how I have been a bystander or an unconscious participator in this suppression and denial in some of my own life situations, probably in similar ways as my family . I will describe these situations as well.

1.3. Silencing, avoiding, escaping

Since I became involved in the theme of my father’s past, I have been watching contradictory tendencies inside myself: I want to know and I don’t want to know.

The earliest memory starts in my teenage time. I asked my father what he did in the war. The answer was usually rude and violent. First he used to scream at me: “It is over, nothing to be said about it.” If I insisted, he would beat me. My mother would say: “Do not provoke him, you know what happens.” I did not understand why my questions were provoking him. I also did not understand why my mother was reacting like that. What did she know? What did she want to hide? Why did she not protect me from his violence?Now I understand that these questions were dangerous for him, because they were touching painful and terrible memories which he and my mother were trying to suppress. Later as a young adult, in 1968 and the 70’s, when I became politically left-wing, I attacked him with my remarks: “You must have done things, it cannot be that you were not involved.” When I reflect about this now, I can see that this was a way of not really wanting to know, but rather condemning him. This way I could stay at a distance and not get involved. I wanted to be different from him, better. He was bad; I wanted to be the good one. I had the right political opinion, he was wrong. I wanted to demonize and exclude him. On the other hand, distancing myself from my father’s violent actions was also saving my life. Turning my back to him made it possible for me to create my own life. For a long time I withdrew my attention from my father, my home village and all that was connected with it, and focused on other things. I turned to what I would call now “obsessive occupation.” I studied psychology, sociology, pedagogy, in order to help other people. I was not aware that I needed help also. I led an intense social life, engaged in several projects, spent every minute “doing.” This certainly helped to avoid the parts which were frightening.

My work as a psychologist started with handicapped children. I was talented in reaching out to children who were severely inhibited in their social abilities, e.g. autistic children. I found ways to relate to them which were unusual, but very successful.

When I did the interview with Lisa, the daughter of my cousin, she told me about her work with handicapped children. She was asking herself if that choice could be related to the exclusion of those people in the Third Reich. I became aware of a connection to the themes of the Third Reich in my own professional choice. Did I choose to work with the “excluded ones” because of the “heritage” of my father?

I still have a special attraction to people who are “different”: individuals, often outsiders. Am I choosing this because I want to make up for what “they” did?

Shortly after my mother died in 1979 I got very ill with tuberculosis. I think this was not only a physical illness, but a way of mourning the loss. I could not cry when she died. I was in shock. To be sick and unable and isolated in the sanatorium gave me the space to be with myself. I reflected about my life and the extremely exploitative lifestyle I was leading. I decided to go into therapy and look at myself.  At the same time I was looking for a safe place and people who I could trust, feel at home with and just be myself. This led me to a spiritual master. I joined his movement and lived in the community for almost five years. I thought that I had found my home and my family. I learned to meditate and find a place inside where I could be silent and at peace.

When I look at it from today’s perspective, there was also another part in this: I separated myself from the painful sides of my family story by distancing myself on the ground (Oregon, India), as well as culturally and spiritually (from the Catholic church to Eastern philosophies). I was engaged in therapy, meditation, exploring and experiencing myself in all possible ways. I was looking for a strong structure which would give me the support that I needed. I had left one rigid structure – the Catholic church – and chosen another one, the spiritual community. At the time I was not aware of this. I was so engaged in enjoying a lifestyle which I had never experienced before, that I avoided looking at those parts of the community which were not so beautiful; in fact, they were destructive. We understood ourselves as the “better” humans. To be a member of the movement meant to belong to the “chosen few.” Everyone who was not a member was looked at as being less worthy. We felt like missionaries and we distanced ourselves from others. I sacrificed my family relations and close friendships for the commune, and was not scrutinizing any of the values we were taught. I was certainly a follower, a devotee. I thought I was free, but in reality I was giving up my critical spirit and my individuality. We wore uniforms, had no personal possessions, and our thinking was monolithic. We were right, the others were wrong, misled, not enlightened. I saw people with machineguns guarding the commune property. I did not doubt the given explanations. It was easier not to look. It could have disturbed my childlike pleasure. I could have lost my home again. This was my biggest fear. I did not dare to face that fear, but rather coped with the system in order to feel safe.

In her interview, my aunt Luise said something very similar, about “coping with the system” in order to be safe in the Nazi time.  During the research about my father I realized that I was behaving in the same way in my commune time as he did in the Nazi times. It was easier to look away, to be a bystander.  Today I allow myself to also think or talk about the community in a critical way. It is still not easy for me. I have tried for so long to keep a good image, both inside myself as a way to justify my membership, and outside in order not to get into trouble with close friends who are still involved.  I could only look at the benefits I gained. Confronting the other side would probably mean to distance myself from the community altogether. How can any good be possible in the presence of evil acts? How can a human being be good and bad, both? How can I accept being good and also being bad, myself?

Allowing this inner dialogue enables me to open up a dialogue with friends about this issue. I am starting to interview some of them about their life stories, especially in regard to their spiritual identity and the commune times. It enables me to find my place, my home, inside myself rather than in an organisation of any kind.  When my father committed suicide in 1985, I felt extremely guilty. I thought that I had abandoned him after my mother’s death because I was not willing to move into his house with him. He had strokes and was very unhappy living by himself with only the company of his eldest sister. None of us children wanted to be near him because of his unpredictable and violent character and his alcoholism. It never occurred to me that his suicide could be related to his war experiences. We were searching for all kinds of reasons. None of them made any sense. At some point I gave up searching.  Now I ask myself: Did I want to protect him by feeling guilty instead of asking what had he done or witnessed? What caused him to commit suicide?

Shortly after his death I got involved with a therapeutic institution specialized in therapy with drug addicts. Again I thought I had found my home, a family. The difference to the community before was that I experienced more honesty among us.  But certain issues were not addressed either. It was again a “monolithic” community with a strong leadership and orientation.

During those years I experimented with all kinds of substances, and I was often either high or subdued. It seems to me that I wanted to suppress the incredible pain about the loss of my father. I worked all the time, little sleep, no breaks, no thinking. I thought if I live totally in the here and now and dedicate myself to our vision everything will be all right.  But deep inside I was unhappy. I did not allow myself to feel the struggle of my contradictory feelings towards my father. I loved him and I hated him at the same time for his cruel, manipulative and abusive behaviour towards me and my siblings. I did not know how to handle these contradictory feelings. Was I allowed to mourn? How can love and hate exist together? Can a person be good and at the same time do cruel deeds?

My relationship with my mother had always been distant. Confrontations mostly didn’t happen. I avoided them because it made me feel guilty to see her suffer.  Maybe one of the unconscious reasons to choose my project with the women could be to include my mother and get closer to her…?

My mother was seen in our family as the “good one,” my father was the “bad one.” Through my behaviour I was often more on the side of my father; I was “the bad one” in the family. I behaved “wrongly” according to the family values. I left the church, left my home village, studied psychology, lived unmarried with a man, later I joined a “sect,” I was unreliable in family matters, I tend to be compulsive or addictive. And on the other hand I try to be “good” or “nice,” do things “right,” just like my mother.  This struggle was very often creating burn out, exhaustion and sometimes resentments which I was acting out in destructive ways towards myself and others. It was very difficult for me to include all my parts, instead of distancing, demonizing or ignoring.

Sometimes I find a double force inside myself: a part of me wants to know and research, understand, listen. Another part wants to run away, escape into daily life and forget all about everything (like my parent’s generation did?)  Working through these themes needs a strong support system, because alone it can be too much. I am very thankful that we have created this together in the Dialogue Training.

2. Breaking the silence

When I joined the “Dialogue in Conflict Training,” I chose the research of my family’s involvement in the Nazi time as my project. I found this a very valuable subject because in my understanding dialogue starts within oneself and within one’s family, as well as in one’s own society. I had been confronted with silencing about important matters all my life.

First I wanted to do research about the memories of war veterans of my father’s unit. But due to the fact that it was difficult to find them, I turned to another aspect related to my mother which I found just as important: What did she know? How was she protecting him? How was she silencing? What was the role of the women then? In what ways were they protecting the silencing of the men? What is the role of women now? How is silencing transferred into the next generation? Are we, and how are women in general silencing today?

As my mother is not available any more, I decided to do research in my larger family, to interview my aunt, my cousin, and the daughter of my cousin. I was surprised about their willingness to talk with me. But during the interviews I saw that they were only open on the surface.  My aunt was very reluctant to address the war. In the main narrative she did not mention it at all. Only after I emphasized about the war in the questions, did she start talking about it. But she tried to minimize it: “He did not tell much.”  When she told the particular story which will be revealed in chapter 4.5., about the gold and the bread,] I think she was shocked about her revelation. This disclosure seemed be the tip of the iceberg of her silencing. For quite some time I also did not really let this information enter my consciousness. This became very obvious in June 2007 – during my project presentation in the seminar I did not even mention it at all. My mechanisms of avoidance and denial went really deep.

In order to work through these mechanisms I decided to do a microanalysis of this key part of the interview. I looked at every word, tried to find meaning, looked at what she said, how she said it, what she didn’t say, what my reactions are.

As a second part of my research I tried to get a group of second generation (my generation) women of the area together for storytelling. I wanted to find out what stories were told in the families about the NS time, the family’s involvement and how the women deal with their parents’ involvement as perpetrators, bystanders or helpers.

The third part of my research took place in the area of my family’s home. I got in contact with people who are engaged in researching and remembering the NS time. Presently (until this date 2014) I am trying to create some lectures, seminars in a local memorial place and in the Adult Education system

3. How does the environment respond?

3.1. Family and friends

When I started the research about my father, none of my siblings was interested in the subject. On the contrary: Only two out of seven responded at all, and the responses were: “Good that you’re doing it; for me it is too much.” “Aren’t there more important things to turn your attention to nowadays?” “If you need it for yourself, go ahead.”

In autumn 2007 one of my sisters said when we were lying in the bed in the dark: “I cannot handle it, therefore I never ask what you are doing about that. I am happy that I have made my peace with him.” It seemed symbolic to me that she could only talk about it when it was dark. The next morning she said: “I did not dream about him last night; I am relieved.” I never dream about my father. I guess it is because I deal with him while I am awake.  My impression is that it is easier for them to exclude him than to confront themselves with his heritage. I understand this, because it is not easy. It also has put me into a position of aloneness inside my family, part of which is hard to bear. We seemed to have had an “alliance” against our parents. This has now disappeared. I had to find my support system outside the primary family again. I found it to a certain extend in my cousin, but more in friendships with seminar participants, and later with some of the IDC members.

Later on I found a shift in my family’s response to what I was doing.  My sister in law, the wife of my youngest brother, attended one meeting of the women in October 2008.  One of my nieces asked me about my visit to the memorial near my home village, where she is living. Her comment was: “It is a shame that we are living so close and never have been there.” I could feel that she wanted to get closer to me. Maybe she wants to get closer to her grandfather, my father, who she never met.

My husband was irritated in the beginning; later he seemed to have come to terms with the fact that I am deeply involved in this work.  He himself started researching the Jewish roots of his mother, in his own way and at his own pace.  At this moment, in January 2014, I am facing the end of my marriage in 2010. I think that a major reason for the end of my relationship was my deep and unconditional involvement in the theme of dialogue.

My closest friends support what I am doing, by asking how I feel and accepting my absence at many social events. With some of them I can share my research. One agreed to do an interview with me.

3.2. My home village/area

I left home at an early age in order to distance myself from it. Slowly I am starting to come back in a new and different way. The first step was to do my research project in that area, in my larger family.

About the same time I have contacted several people who are involved in research about the Nazi time in that area. One is a historian who keeps sending information.  Another one is the main creator of a memorial for mandatory workers, a place about five km from where I was born. It was an “Arbeitslager” with the character of a concentration camp. He had the idea that I could contribute to the place with an exhibition and/or lecture about my research.  I met a professor of social psychology who was very supportive of my project. He suggested an interview in the local newspaper, and a lecture in the Volkshochschule. He offered support with contacting people he knows.  I have connected with the manager of the Volkshochschule in that area, and we created several storytelling workshops .

3.3. My profession

In my therapeutic work I get more and more confronted with issues related to the subject of the Nazi time. I use storytelling in biography seminars as well as in my constellation and trauma therapy work. It has brought much deeper understanding, and my work has become much more sensitive.

 4. My project – Part One: The interviews
4.1 Genogram of family N. and G. (not included)
4.2. Conducting and transcribing the interviews
The interviews took place in my aunt’s house . I interviewed my aunt and my cousin in March 2006, the interview with my cousin’s daughter took place in September 2006.

In preparation I had phoned my cousin and aunt and asked if they were willing to talk about their lives and also about their experiences and memories of the Third Reich. To my surprise, my aunt and also my cousin were very willing to talk with me, although they both said that their lives were not interesting, and they did not really know what to talk about. I think their willingness has to do with the good connection we have had all our life.  We arranged a whole weekend for my first visit. I felt very excited and moved. Memories came up about childhood experiences with this part of my family. My aunt’s husband was the my mother’s older brother. They were very close to each other. My parents met through him. We spent a lot of time together when we were children, mostly at my grandfather’s (mother’s father) house. My uncle and his wife were our favourite relatives, and my cousin was my closest cousin. Also as adults we invited each other for family festivities like weddings, birthdays, memorial days and so on. I arrived Friday evening, and was very heartfully received and taken care of.

My cousin had prepared a light dinner and we were all sitting till 2am, talking about family and memories. I could have put the microphone on the table, because so many stories were told already. My 91 year old aunt Luise was sitting with us all the time, very attentive and awake, bearing the heavy chain-smoking of her children and son in law. During the weekend the two sisters and the brother of my cousin came to visit with his wife, which was quite unusual. The whole weekend was story after story, accompanied by excellent food cooked by my cousin and late night hang-outs. Some of the information about my family was new to me: e.g. my great-grandfather, the father of my mother’s father, escaped to America and left his wife and six children behind. My grandfather was so angry at him that he never mentioned him. The reason for his escape was that he had an enormous debt due to the fact that he had stood guarantee for someone who never paid back his debts. So he “had” to escape in order to not go to prison. He had sent a sad letter once that he had not made it in the States. Two of his daughters became nuns later and went to America to search for him, but never found him.

Another touching moment was when I saw a photo of my mother’s mother (who died when my mother was seven years old); ; I saw how much I look like her, which I never was aware of.

We arranged that I would interview my aunt on Saturday and my cousin on Sunday. The interview with my aunt took place in her living room, which is a smoke free, private space. Only the two of us were in the room. My first impression was that she was very willing to do me a favour. She said: “I do not know what to talk about,” but then she started and went on for about half an hour without me having to ask anything.

Once we were interrupted because my cousin came in, asked her mother something and left again. My impression was that she wanted something else but did not say it.  After 45 minutes the second daughter arrived for the weekend, came in to greet her mother and stayed. At this time I had asked about the Third Reich, and I could feel how difficult this topic was for my aunt. I infer this because the tone of her voice changed. In the first part her voice was almost without a modulation, almost monotonous, for long periods, as if giving a report. In this part her voice became deeper, more emotional. I also felt that some answers were difficult for me to listen to, especially when she revealed the story of the gold and the bread. Another difficult point was when she mentioned that Hitler had good sides too. I realised that I stopped the protocol at those points, and in my mind I reacted to the stereotypes in her answers: I did not want to believe it; I knew all the stereotypes and probably I hoped that my family was different, but they are not.

When her second daughter came in, she immediately changed the subject and started talking about childhood episodes of her children. We ended the interview because my impression was that she was exhausted and that the last part had cost a lot of energy. In the interview my aunt mentioned things that she had denied or was defensive about when her children asked her about them.

My cousin Gertrud seemed to postpone her interview as long as possible, but as I had to leave on Sunday we finally sat down. We were using the same room as the day before with her mother.  She started by saying several times that her life was not very exciting. Then she talked for almost two hours without a break. I did not ask a single question, because I did not want to interrupt the flow of her narration. While talking she seemed to enjoy it more and more. In the last third of the interview she got more emotional, and cried about the death of her sister.  Compared to her mother’s narrative her voice was much more expressive, modulated.  I realised that I was listening to her without any signs of fatigue. Many of the things she talked about triggered my own memories about my childhood, family etc.

I phoned my aunt and my cousin a day later because I wanted to hear how they were doing after the interview.

My aunt said she was ok, a little flu, and that she had enjoyed that I was there. She said it was exhausting, but nice.

My cousin said that she had been distracted from her work the whole day, because she was thinking of the interview all the time. She had recalled many more things that she had not talked about. “One would have had to take much more time.”

The third interview with my cousin’s daughter , Lisa, happened a half year later, in September 2006. I was curious about her, because I had never really met her before. She is 31, working as a teacher in a school for mentally handicapped children.  For the interview we used the same room that we used for the other interviews. She immediately sat down at the table “This is always my place.”  Before I started recording I told her in detail what the interview was about. She was very attentive, asked why, why her family. I liked the fact that she asked and how she did it, straight and simple.  I told her that I was very excited about the interview with her, because she is another generation with which I am not so familiar because I have no daughter, and that I am really interested in her life and how she thinks and sees things. During the interview I sometimes forgot the protocol because I liked to listen to her vivid intensity, especially when she talked about her profession. When she said that she became aware in this moment that the choice of her profession could be related to the exclusion of those people in the Third Reich, we were both moved.  I was reminded of my own professional choice, motivated by the wish to “help people.” In the beginning I also worked with handicapped children for seven years. At that time I did not relate this to the Third Reich. Now, listening to her, it rushed through my mind that the choice could have unconsciously been supported by the wish to help people with less power.

In the beginning of the interview I recognized a similar pattern as with her grandmother and mother – “I have nothing to say” – presenting herself as not being very important. But later she talked about “learning to stand up for myself,” taking a position for herself in her job and learning to be assertive. She sees “making oneself small” as a pattern in her family, especially from her mother and grandmother, and she wants to change this for herself.  When I relate to this myself, I remember this being a habit in my family too. I still can see it in myself and find it difficult to change. I am mentally and verbally able to stand up for myself, be assertive and outspoken, but emotionally I still feel sometimes small and insecure.  She also talked about the silencing concerning the Third Reich. Between her friends “it is not talked about much.” She thinks that this is because they are so far away from it time-wise.

She chose as the theme for her exam, “The role of the Catholic Church in the Third Reich“ and related it to her ambivalence towards the Catholic church. She thought that it could have also been an unconscious way to reflect about this time. A touching moment was when she said that she envied me for having such an intense meeting with her grandmother. She never had that, and she regretted that she did not ask for more.

I phoned her a day later to ask how she was doing after the interview. She phoned back on my answering machine later that she felt ok, and that she would like to talk personally again at some point. In my memory it felt more comfortable to interview my cousin’s daughter because I was less cautious than with my aunt and my cousin. The transcription of the interview with my aunt was the most difficult one because of the revealed stories of the Nazi time which I had not expected.  Surprising was that I got more irritated while transcribing the interview with Lisa, my cpousin’s daughter, because of her style of talking, her voice and her “teenage” language which I had not been aware of while conducting the interview.

I found Gertrud more reflective than her daughter. Both Luise and Gertrud were narrated more; Lisa analysed and argued more. This was surprising for me as well. I became aware of it while transcribing and analyzing the interviews, not while I was conducting them.

4.3. Analysis and comparison of the interviews
4.3.1. Chronology of life events
  1. Luise (mother) was born in 1914 in a small village in North Germany, the youngest of five girls. She went to elementary school for eight years. After school she helped on the farm of her parents. She wanted to be a dressmaker, which was not possible for financial reasons. She attended a sewing course in the wintertime. She worked in a household in a city in a teacher’s family with five children. She went back home to work in the village as a housedressmaker. She met her future husband. Then the war began and her fiancé was taken into military service; they married during war. After the war he returned, at the end of 1945. The first daughter was born in 1946, two years later the son. In 1951 the second daughter was born, then two more daughters. Her husband worked hard in several jobs. In 1963 they started building their own house; they moved in in December 1964. He died in 1988. Luise died in April 2007.
  2. Gertrud (daughter) was born in 1946, the first child of five, in the same village. She went to elementary school for eight years, then commercial school for two years. She had three years training as lawyer’s assistant, working until present in the same office. She met her future husband at the age of 17, married at age 25, had her first child at 29, her second child at 31. She lives in the same village since her birth, in her parent’s house again since 1990, and takes care of her mother who lives in the same house. In September, after the first meeting of the women, she became severely ill with shingles/herpes. She was in the hospital for two months. She had never been ill before in her life.


  1. Lisa (granddaughter) was born in 1975, the first child of two, with one brother two years younger. She grew up in the same village. She attended elementary school, gymnasium, and studied pedagogy to become a teacher for handicapped children in K. She passed her exams in 2004. She lives and works in K, with her partner. They are not married, and have no children. She works in a school for handicapped children since 2004.
4.3.2. General reflections

Luise and Gertrud stayed in the same small village all their lives. Gertrud even moved into the house of her parents, first to take care of her father who was severely ill for several years before he died in 1988. Later she took care of her mother until she died in 2007. Lisa moved to K., but she only did it for study reasons, otherwise she would have stayed at home as well.  There is an obvious “sticking together” attitude in this family. They visit each other frequently, and when Luise approached her death, all the children and grandchildren were with her for 24 hours, so that she died in the middle of her family.  They all have made a choice within their frame of the social group: they are strongly identified with their family, culture, religion, upbringing,and village.

Some similarities and differences in the following areas became obvious to me:

4.3.3. Language:

Use of words:

Luise uses a very simple language with limited vocabulary – the more surprising it is that she sometimes uses words which do not seem to fit into her way of expressing: “Confronted with.” She uses mainly narration.

Gertrud uses fluent narration almost without breaks. She speaks in an adult language. She allows emotions and tears.

Lisa has the tendency to overemphasize by doubling or tripling words: “very, very happy childhood”,”so-so-so strong”, “so-so-so terrible.” Her language is almost like a child’s or teenager’s language. ] She uses very few emotional expressions, more analytical than narrative.

Tone of voice:

Luise’s tone is almost monotonous most of the time, except at one point when she talks about the “confrontation” and that she had to cope with the system.

Gertrud sounds excited, sometimes she sounds as if she wants to convince me, addresses me by name.

Lisa’s voice is loud and almost without modulation, excited, very fast, speaks almost without breaks.

4.3.4. Content:

Emphasis on protected happy childhood:

All three women emphazise on how happy and protected their childhood was. Luise is the youngest of five girls, Gertrud is the oldest of five, four girls, one boy, Lisa is the oldest of two, one brother. Gertrud and Lisa also take a critical view in some aspects.

Relationship to religion, church, authority:

Luise and Gertrud have coped with the church. Lisa has gone through an intense process and in a way also coped in order to get a job. She says that she is now happy in engaging herself in the church.

Silencing about the NS time:

All three women talk about how the Nazi time is silenced in their family and environment.

4.4. The “working alliance”

It was both, easy and complex, to find a working alliance with my interview partners, because we know each other since I was a small child, and we have a very warm relationship. We are relatives, but we did not know so much about each other’s lives before this. So I had to find a way between “intimate” and “factual.”

I spent several weekends with them in their house, hanging out together, eating together, spending leisure time. I prepared the space for the interviews in a separate room, which was only used for that purpose on those weekends. I set up the recording equipment, fixed a time, introduced the storytelling, etc., so that each interview had a clear frame.

I also explained to them that the interviews were for the training and not for publication, although I did mention in the family hang-outs that I would like to do some publications of “family stories.”

4.5. Microanalysis of the key part of the interview with Luise

After I had realised how strong my own unconscious denial was to look at the revealed story of the bread and the gold, I decided to follow an idea of Dan’s. I wanted to consciously direct my attention to that silenced part in the story.

I will first present the whole piece that I chose for the microanalysis and mark the key part in fat letters, because it is embedded into another context as if it was a “hidden” or “not to be noticed” content. Then I will analyse sentence after sentence and word by word.

The key part:

L: He was in Riga for a long time

S :In Riga . From when to when was he there? (louder) from when to when was he…?

L: This I cannot tell you really.

S: Till the end?

L:He had also, he was later, he was also eh, tell me quickly, radio operator, aircraftman –

aircraft mechanic, so, and eh, he flew with the mission eh, supply missions to Dresden he flew, and later he was in Flensburg and in captivity also, and eh, there he was in English captivity, and they were keen on, they were specially short of radio operators, no, then they were, then he with a buddy he…they escaped simply, retreated home, the other came from N. (14). In Berlin they were once overrun by Russians, then he was lying under a tank and then he also saved his life, no. So, some single things do I know, but he did not tell much about his experiences.

And then they had to also, he had to also yet sometime guard concentration camps, no, and so, and, and then some time a girl has some time, he has he has given away his slice of butter bread to her and she gave him then a piece of gold and so then we later changed the gold some time for our wedding rings.

S: That means you have…

L: (Hm ((we look at each other)) (15)

L: Luckily he was never commanded that he had to shoot those prisoners, he would not have been able to do this, then, then they would have shot him, he would not have done this. It were really dreadful times, also conflicts of conscience, no? (84)


L: He was in Riga for a long time

Hypothesis: She knows what Riga means. She knows about the camps and what happened there. She names the place “Riga,” very explicit. This is noticeable in comparison to the vagueness later.

“Long time”: long time can be different meanings, what does it mean here? Years, months? First she says “long time” and when I want a specific time she says “this I cannot really tell.” Are we touching a taboo? Can she not talk about it, who is she loyal to?

In my memory I as well seem to block out what that name means. So my next question is factual, avoidance on my part? I recognize this in several situations in the interview later again. Do I want to know? Do I really (want to) hear what she is saying?

S: In Riga, from when to when was he there? (louder) from when to when was he…?

Do I want to know more? Am I asking for dates in order to avoid more information about what he did there? Do I put pressure on her?

L: This I cannot tell you really.

Her answer is vague, unspecific. Maybe I even interrupted her in what she wanted to say?

What is “This”, which she cannot say? Can she not say it to me? Can she not say it at all? “Not really”, the expression is very meaningful to me. She can say something perhaps, but not just like that “cannot…really”, sounds vague, unclear, whether she does not know or does not want to talk about it. Can she not tell or does she not want to tell?

S: Till the end?

My question “Till the end?” does not really mean anything. I interpret it now as a way of expressing my insecurity in this situation where we obviously touch an important issue.

Then she turns to another subject, without any link.

After she has expressed that he did not tell much about his experience, she talks about the guarding of concentration camps, again without any link.

“And then they had to also, he had to also yet sometime guard concentration camps, no, and so, and, and then some time a girl has some time, he has he has given away his slice of butter bread to her and she gave him then a piece of gold and so then we later changed the gold some time for our wedding rings.”

The language becomes repetitive, almost stammering: “and so and, “he has he has.…”

She expresses that he and others had to guard, but she says it in a way as if it is something unimportant “also as well”, “also sometime”, something that he did among other things. And he was not doing it alone, he was in a group of others who did it too. “then they had to”

When she says “they had to,” it sounds as if he was the victim, not the acting person, not responsible for it. And what does “guarding” mean? Was he standing outside with a gun? Inside? What was his job?

“he had to also yet some time”: She repeats again the phrase from before, as if hesitating to say it really. Here the word “mal” comes in for the first time. “schon mal” (yet some time) is even stronger in the sense of wanting to make it less important, but it could also be a reinforcement of “mal”.

She uses the word “mal” four times in this sentence: (I quote the German)

„und denn mussten die auch wohl, hat er auch schon mal müssen Konzentrationslager bewachen müssen, nich, und so, und, und dann hat ihm mal ein Mädchen hat ihm mal, hat ers hat ers Butterbrot abgegeben an der und die hat ihm denn n’ Goldstück gegeben und so da haben wir später haben wir das Gold mal eingetauscht für unsere Trauringe…“

In my understanding there are many ways of using the word „mal“: einmal (one time),

mehrmals (several times), manchmal (sometimes), schon mal (yet or quite sometime).

In her wording it is not really clear what she means with that. I tend to interpret the use of that word as a way to minimize what he did. “yet sometime”

Could my questions for details in the beginning have put pressure on her which made her go to the other themes? And when I let her talk her way, then the story with the gold and the ring comes out? Did she check me out, if she could trust me before she told this story?

Did she know a lot? And was I the first one who asked, and then she decided to let it out? It seems to me that it was maybe the first time that she could talk in a protected environment in the sense, that no one from her family was present, and I had promised that this interview would stay between us.

This hypothesis is supported by the (not recorded) conversation I had with her at her sick bed a couple of months later, where I addressed the same issue again (I quote from my protocol after that meeting):

“I want to bring up the theme of our interview again, and gently mention how important this interview was for me and how thankful I feel towards her. I also mention that the story of the ring and the gold touched me very much.

She answers something like ( I quote from my memory): “Yes many soldiers did that at that time with the poor Jews, that they gave… (she pauses here again)…some of them were hiding their valuables even on their bodies or even swallowing them. (she seems to hesitate to continue), “but I do not know much, because the (men) did not tell much. The ones who had not experienced really heavy things, they always knew a lot and told a lot, but the ones who were really in it (involved in it) they were silent.”

I want to know whether her children know about the story with the gold and the ring and ask her about it. She reflects for a moment and says “I don’t know.” My suspicion is that they don’t.

At this point she says again something about “having to cope with the system” as a way to get things. And that she was young and naïve (she uses the word) at that time and “did not reflect so much about things.”

Back to the key part of the interview:

“and so, and, and then some time a girl has some time, he has he has given away his slice of butter bread to her and she gave him then a piece of gold and so then we later changed the gold some time for our wedding rings.”

Here the stammering is really obvious, „and so, and, and then some time a girl has…”

What happened really? Did he first give the bread, did the girl offer the piece of gold first? Did she beg for something to eat? How was this happening? Was he outside the concentration camp, inside? Did he do this more often?

She tells it as if this was an equal relationship of giving and taking between two equal people. She leaves out the unequal relationship. Is she aware of it? How desperate must the girl have been? Gold is something special, very precious. And wedding rings are something very special. Was she a girl, a young woman? Was there some other dynamic going on? Was he attracted to her? Was she attracted to him? How far did those “exchanges” go?

How were those unbalanced power situations used by the soldiers?

“…and so, then we later changed the gold some time for our wedding rings…”

This sounds as if it was merely a pragmatic act of exchanging goods. She also includes herself now in the act by saying “we.” Again she uses the word “mal” –“sometime.” as if it was a minor matter. But wedding rings are important. She is wearing hers and keeps her husband’s in a safe place. She even has decided in her will who of her children is inheriting her husband’s ring and who gets hers. That’s how important they are. (Gertrud inherits her father’s ring and one of her sisters gets the mother’s ring. )

So I interpret her using the word “mal” so many times as a way of denying the impact of what she is revealing. She talks about the event as if there was nothing before it and nothing followed out of it.

I even dare to assume after what she told me on her sick bed that her husband was much deeper involved than what she was revealing to me. She said: “the ones who were really in it (involved in it) they were silent.”

My question “That means you have…?” is an expression of my shock about her revelation about the gold. I look at the ring on her finger, and we look at each other. Then there is a pause of 15 seconds which seems like an eternity, and I do not know how to continue.

I think this is the moment in which I realise that my family was involved in the crimes of the Nazi time. Especially the idealised family of my uncle was shattered in this moment. The question is also a way of wanting to deny it. It took me more than another year to let it in and to be able to talk about it and to write about it.

Maybe it was a shock for my aunt also, what she had told, because the next statement starts with downplaying it:

“Luckily he was never commanded that he had to shoot those prisoners…”

Luckily? What does that mean? This word represents a complete distortion of the reality as it was. If he did not do it, someone else had to do it. At least he knew and she knew that the prisoners were shot. Was he witnessing others doing it? Was he witnessing how others refused to do it and got shot? Why does she tell me at this point? Is she testing how much more she can tell me? She says “commanded”, again he seems to be the victim of the situation. The ones who commanded him are not mentioned. Who were they? Is she protecting them too? “those prisoners” sounds concrete, who were they?

And how does she know that he did not shoot them? Because in the next part she states:

“he would not have been able to do this, then, then they would have shot him, he would not have done this. It were really dreadful times, also conflicts of conscience, no?” (84)

There is a contradiction in this: How is it possible that he was not asked to shoot at prisoners? What did he tell her? Did he lie to her or did she make up her own version in order to handle what he had done or witnessed?

Again I refer to what she told me about the ones who were involved.

Then she says: “It were really dreadful times, also conflicts of conscience, no?”

This is a religious expression. What is she referring to? If he had refused to shoot where were the conflicts of conscience? And if he shot what did he do with the conflicts? Save his own life by killing others? This is all left in the dark.

This sequence contains contradictory emotional states: luckily – dreadful – conflicts of conscience.

The expression “it were…” is depersonalised, a very general expression, no personal involvement. The “no?” at the end seems to me like asking for my understanding, approval?

The 84 seconds pause after that seemed to be hours.

Interesting is that I changed the subject after this and asked about something completely irrelevant at this point. Was it getting too much for me? Was I willing to hear more?

What about my own denial and repression or openness to face the past?

In which way did I want to be different?

I found a way to turn back to the subject, but it was difficult to bear.

5. My project – Part two: The Meeting of the women

In this part of my project I wanted to find out how and in which way women of my generation today deal with the subject of their family’s involvement in the Nazi time. I wanted to do this in the same area where I was brought up. By doing this I could not separate myself anymore from the parts which I would want to deny or avoid.

The village is 40 km from my home village, close enough but also distant enough for me to handle. I felt that I could not do it in my home village because of my siblings’ attitude towards my research. However, I chose to ask my cousin if she would be willing to support me in finding women of our generation (children of Nazi perpetrators/bystanders) in her village to form a group with the aim to tell each other our life stories. For me this step was a very important one. I went back to my roots, to my home area and confronted myself with the past in a new way.

My cousin agreed to it and immediately had ideas about whom to invite. The women are her friends; one is the wife of her brother.

5.1. The first meeting September 2006:

From my protocol: “I feel nervous about the meeting with the women, which seems strange, because I have been facilitating groups for more than 25 years now. But this is different. It is not a therapy group and the women are not my clients. I do not know what Gertrud has told them, but she mentioned on the phone that some of the women seem to be a little scared because they do not know what to expect. Maybe she told them that they are expected to tell their life stories?

Dan gave some suggestions for a warm up (story of the name…) to find out how safe they feel.

I prepared a paper to give to the women for information. I will give it to my cousin first and if she feels that it is valuable to hand out to them, I will do so. My cousin finds the text very touching and thinks it is ok to give it to them.  She says, “It is very emotional” and that she felt moved by it, especially the part where I talk about the night when I went into a very intense emotional process.  My cousin has invited the women for 3.30pm for coffee and cake and has made two delicious cakes. Five women come, all in the age 55 – 63. One of them I know because she is the wife of my cousin’s brother. I greet everybody individually when they come in and introduce myself. I use my name Mathilde, because in my family this is how I am called. The purpose of this first meeting is to find out if those women would be interested and willing to form a group for storytelling and meet again One or two times this year for that purpose. We sit with coffee and cake and small-talk for about an hour. As all of them know each other for a long time and they seem to be used to talk with each other about personal issues, I do not feel a need for a warm up. I thank my cousin for making this meeting possible, hosting us in such a beautiful way. I introduce myself and the project, using more or less the structure of the paper that I give to them later. I focus on the silencing in the families about the Third Reich, the holocaust, the war. The women start talking very vividly about the silencing in their families and in their village. Almost all the women share about their family history and how their fathers had or had not been in the war. One father fell, one father had not been in the war at all. They discuss among each other what was known about the holocaust in their area. One talks about the burning synagogue and about the Jewish families who were wandering through the village with their luggage. Nobody knew where they went, and they never came back. The question arises, how could it be that men did such cruel deeds and go home, be a husband and father and lead a normal family life. My cousin’s brother’s wife says that in her school the Third Reich was not taught, and she learned all about it after her Abitur (graduation? Ed.) by reading books.  We talk about how it starts that “the other is not ok.” That it starts already in the kindergarden when a child looks different, has a different religion, especially in the area here where everybody is Catholic. We talk about our childhood time where exclusion of people with other than the Catholic religion was normal, protestants were “not good,” foreigners were looked at with suspicion.

By the end of our meeting (around 7pm) we agree that the subject of dialogue is important.  Three of the woman want to get Dan Bar On’s book The Legacy of Silence, which I mentioned in my introduction.  Towards the end I try to bring up the question of another meeting, but the response is not an immediate “yes, let’s schedule it” but more, “let’s digest a little bit and then we see.” This is not said out loud, it is my impression, so I am not forcing it.  My feeling is that this meeting already brought up a lot, and time is needed to digest.  In October I will connect with my cousin about a next meeting.

The first meeting set a certain tone which was retained in the next meetings: coffee and cake, small talk, talking about family and Third Reich, and a very long time between the meetings.  The women do not want to tell their life stories one by one, but they want to share.

It took one year to make the second meeting happen. I relate this to a lot of fear and the slow pace in that area.

5.2. The second meeting, September 2007:

My idea for the meeting was to create a subject, because I got the information from my cousin that two women did not want to tell their stories in front of the group – out of fear or because it would be too much for them.

I brought books with me about Jewish life in that area.  In the back of my mind I was hoping that we would reach a point where we want to research together about descendants of Jewish families who were deported and killed or fled in that time. I was aware that this may be a long term issue or would even never happen. I felt good with having some “subject” that may take away or minimize the fear of disclosure in the women.

The women attending the meeting were:

– My cousin Gertrud, 61 years, living in B. since birth.

– Maria , 55 years, the wife of Gertrud’s brother, the only one who was born in another nearby village , lives in B. since she is married.

– Mona, 62 years, living in B. since birth. She attended for the first time. She is the best friend of Gertrud.

– Sabine, 63 years, living in B. since birth, she is a cousin of Mona. She had said before the meeting that she will not tell her life story in front of everybody. Gertrud and Mona mentioned later that her life story is very traumatic and she would probably benefit from telling it. I had told about my own story in short, and they said that hers is similar to mine. Maybe that explains her willingness to come again?

– Erika, 59 years, living in B. since birth, was supposed to join later in the afternoon due to a birthday celebration in her family. But she did not come.

One woman from the first meeting did not come again because she felt it was not her thing.

We started the meeting again with coffee and cake.  Because of Mona who was with us for the first time I introduced myself and the background for this meeting again.  We started in a more conversational way to talk about the Nazi time and whether or not and possibly how our fathers/parents were involved in the war as soldiers or in another way.  None of the women wanted to tell their life stories, and I did not know how to press the issue. I was afraid that when I push too much they would not come back again. I also understood from Gertrud, that they are interested but fearful of talking about themselves and being the center of attention. This could be related to the Christian and or regional upbringing: “do not exhibit yourself.” It also fits the information from the interviews: in this family you do not show yourself upfront. Maybe if I would ask them for individual interviews they would be willing, because it is a one-to-one situation.

I mentioned that we talked about the burning synagogue in the village last time. This raised the issue about knowing or not knowing what happened.  Mona told that her parents talked about Jews being deported, but nobody seemed to ask where they went. A while later she told the following story: Her parents got new furniture for the bedroom during the war. Her father did not want it, because it was from Jewish property, and he didn’t feel good with it. He said: “They have blood on them.” But then they took it anyway because “they needed it.”  Somehow this story stood in the room, made me (and also the others, according to my perception) speechless. It was told embedded in other stories, and reminded me of the story with the gold which was embedded in another story, and one could have even overheard it. But Mona came back to it at a later point, and then the others contributed with questions and opinions.  We discussed the transmission of trauma to the next generation. We agreed that this is happening, and that therefore it is important to look at these subjects.  Everybody was contributing to the conversation, Sabine the least, but she stayed till 6pm and said that she wanted to come again next time. Again the women expressed that they find the meetings precious. Gertrud raised the issue of meeting again before Sabine left, and everybody agreed that they wanted to.

Gertrud’s husband joined in the end. He is very supportive. He bought the cakes, made coffee and supported his wife in her reflections who else to invite for the next meeting. Maria stayed to have dinner with us and also her husband, my cousin, Gertrud’s brother, joined. After they had all left, Gertrud and I did some evaluation. We agree that the meeting was more relaxed this time. She felt less tense than the first time. She had an idea to invite another woman who she had not thought about before. She asked me several times whether I am “content” with the outcome. I reassured her that I felt it was good and that I had no concrete expectations before. (Of course I had an “image” that we would listen to each other’s life stories, but I really did not know how to get the group there, and I was surprised by what came out anyway.) We both agreed that this group develops in its own way. It seems to create its own shape, and within that the women start sharing their memories and stories.

Gertrud started taking a new role in our relationship. She became more a partner, we prepared the meetings and the setup together. We evaluated what happened after the meeting was finished. She took initiative in the meeting. She asked about Dan’s book, The Legacy of Silence, which I had talked about in the first meeting(). I promised to send five copies, one for each woman. I hoped that this would support their interest and motivation.  Gertrud wanted to continue with the meetings in about three-four months.  I asked Gertrud to phone the women in about a week and ask them how they were doing. She has regular contact with them anyway but I thought it was important to get feedback about the meeting and how they felt some days later.

In our first talk after I arrived, Gertrud told me that her mother was working in the household for a Jewish family in Rheine at the end of the 30’s. I asked her whether she knows what happened to them and she said no. For her mother they were “just employers.” Gertrud never questioned them about it. Again I felt that I was touching a “secret,” but this was a short disclosure and nothing more came out.

I ask myself how come that these pieces and bits get opened each time I go there. And every time it feels that some more information is hidden, but I have to wait until it is ready to open. I cannot just ask frankly, at least I am hesitant to do so. This is maybe my own fear about the outcome (do I want to hear the answers?) or a fear that I will shut the door when I ask too directly.

I asked Gertrud at several occasions whether her father ever mentioned concentration camps or that he was near them and she said “no, never.” Does she know or not? Is this transmitted silencing? I don’t know whether I should believe her or not.

“It is interesting that we arrived at a time, when the details of Jewish posessions is more discussable now, while witnessing of killing and camps is still a tabu. Probably it reflects also a value system, also what was widespred knowledge, and what was closer to the gate kept information.” (Dan Bar-On in a private letter)

The slow development in the meetings reminds me of the interview with my aunt, who first seemed to test me if she could trust me, and then told the story about the gold.

In this meeting with the women a similar “structure” seemed to evolve. First “normal” things (coffee and cake), then easier themes and the difficult issues imbedded in that.

This was also happening in all the three interviews.

I talked with Gertrud about her illness after the first meeting and the interview, and if she had any idea that it could be related. She said she had never thought about it but found it an interesting idea. We did not get deeper into it.

I slept in the room and bed of my aunt Luise where she had died in March. First I was a bit fearful how this would be. It was an interesting experience. She was energetically still very present in the room, especially because Gertrud left all her belongings in their place. I was lying in the bed (it was very late and I was very tired). I remembered her and our talks. It took me a long time to fall asleep, I dreamt a lot, but forgot the content of the dreams. I used her bathroom and her soap (which Gertrud had urged me to do, “it is very nice.”) It felt as if I worked through something doing all this. In a special way, many layers, concerning my aunt as well as my mother and my father and even the Nazi past. It could even be related to the subject of the meeting (the furniture) and the interview (the gold): using belongings of another human being, but this time being very aware of it and honouring the person by doing it.

I felt I was working through a whole chapter of life.

5.3. The third meeting – March 2008

The next meeting took place “only” a half year later.  Two new women came, and they were a “winner,” because they both were very interested, enthusiastic and wanted to continue. Two women of the former meetings came, plus Gertrud and me, so we were six altogether. Two women could not come due to other obligations. One of the new women invited us to her house for the next meeting. This time I at least managed to get them into talking one by one and listening. Again stories of Jewish neighbours who were deported were revealed. One story was told about a Nazi neighbour who was the main force in the “Kristallnacht”. He “walked ahead” when they burned the synagogue.

I visited the shop of one of the new women the following day, and she showed me where some Jewish shops had been, from where the owners had been deported in the NS time. She said she cannot stop thinking about it. We fixed a new date for the next meeting, and we agreed about the size of the group, which is now eight women plus myself. I collected the addresses and will write to all of them about the next meeting.

My impression is that the group has now started to become compulsory because the women who were there really want to continue. It was also important that someone else than Gertrud was willing to be the host next time. And for next time we chose to invite the historian from M. to show us the places of Jewish life in the village.

The most difficult thing during this weekend was to tell my cousin the information about the gold, the bread and the wedding rings. (We had decided in the training that I would tell her). We chose a time after the meeting in the evening when we were alone. Her first reaction was: “Oh yes, I know that was a young French soldier, prisoner, a man, who Papa gave something to eat, and he gave him a French coin. This coin I still have. Mama gave it to my son who left it here.” (She showed me the coin later.) I had to explain to her that it was a girl, and that her father had guarded concentration camps and that it was not a coin but a piece of gold which her parents changed for wedding rings. Again she said that she knew that her parents had cheap metal wedding rings in the beginning, and much later had golden ones made. This means that the wedding ring I saw on the hand of my aunt was another one, not the original one. She did not know about the concentration camp, and she was quite shocked. She also said that she does not want to think about it further now, it would be too much. She wanted to ask her brother and sisters if they knew. Her sister, who she phoned after I had left, did not know, also her husband didn’t. The story about the prisoner and the coin is another new story adding to the other one.

A couple of weeks after the meeting, the woman who invited for the next one phoned me and said that the date we arranged does not fit. She is travelling. Again a couple of weeks went by until I reached her again. We fixed a date for October. This shows me again how slow this process is. It obviously cannot be speeded up. I talked to all the women on the phone. They all shared that they are busy with the process of the meetings. One told me that she started researching in her family. She is the youngest, her parents are dead, and she started asking her siblings. She says how surprised and moved she is by the findings. My sister in law (wife of my youngest brother) wanted to join the women’s meeting in October (2008). She told me that her father was talking a lot about the war, to her mostly “funny” stories. But to her daughter he tells the “heavy” stories. Her daughter was shocked and did not want to tell her mother about it.

5.4. Future plans in 2008

I wanted to continue with the meetings of the women. We planned to invite the historian, go to the memorial and to Jewish places. I felt much more motivated to go on, because I had created a way for myself to approach my “home land” by meeting people who wanted to support and who I might be able to give support to as well. This felt very appropriate and put what was doing into a framework. Unfortunately my private situation (divorce) created a long break in the realisation of those plans.

6. My Project – Part Three: Coming Home

I think this is a very important part in my project and life.

As I described, I have left home, my family, my home village in order to protect myself and to survive the unbearable situation. Through my research I have found a way to come back, in a new and different way. This refers not only to my home village and to my family. It also is true for myself. Even the separation of my spouse created the space I needed to turn in, look at myself and choose my path.

7. Why did the personality explanations for behaviour of perpetrators prevail even when there were situational explanations (Milgram et al)?

As I could see in my own life it is very difficult to accept that under certain conditions I can become a bystander, a perpetrator. The Milgram experiment showed this very clearly. Still personality explanations prevail until this day. Why is this? From my own life experiences and from the interviews I could see how strong the need is to be different. Who wants to be evil? Who wants to face the fact that we are made of fragments which do not fit each other? We want to be coherent, look good. It is very unpleasant to realise that I could do the same atrocities as my ancestors under certain circumstances. But when bad deeds are only done by certain personalities, I can separate myself from these deeds by saying: I am different, I would not do this, because my personality is different. This could explain that personality explanations are still prevailing so strongly.

6. Conclusions, outlook

Today, in. January 2014, time has passed, and many things have happened. Dan Bar On, my dear friend, mentor and teacher passed away on September 4, 2008. I still feel his loss every day.

I have taken on, together with a few friends, the task of creating an International Dialogue Center in his name, to continue and develop his approach in research and practical projects. (Dan Bar – On International Dialogue Center IDC). The IDC is currently publishing the Israeli Palestinian history schoolbook in German “Learning each other’s historical narrative”. I believe that this is one of the most incredible projects of PRIME because it shows that listening to each other is possible even in situations of present unresolvable conflicts. The book will be out in April 2015 (Campus Verlag)

I have facilitated 2 lectures about my project in the memorial in my home area. In February 2009 80 people attended, which was a total surprise for everybody.

Another lecture and a workshop were planned in the same area in October 2009. They did not happen due to too few bookings. This shows again how slow this process of dialogue is, and how much patience it needs.

The second lecture took place in May 2013, and this time around 40 people attended.

I facilitated 3 storytelling workshops in the memorial with each 8 participants from the local area, both very intense and touching.

I have dedicated a big part of my life to help create dialogue, both inside myself and outside.


January 2015


Albeck, Josef, Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On: Dialogue Groups: TRT Guidelines for working through intractable conflicts by personal storytelling

Bar-On, Dan: The Legacy of Silence, Koerber, 2003

Bar-On, Dan: The Others in us, Koerber, 2003

Bar-On, Dan: Tell Your Life Story, Koerber, 2004

Bar-On, Dan: The Indescribable and the Undiscussable, Central European University Press, 1999

Bar- On: Ethical Issues in Biographical Interviewing

Bar-On, Dan, Elke Rottgardt: Reconstructing Silenced Biographical Issues through Feeling Facts,

Bierbrauer, Günter: Sozialpsychologie, Kohlhammer, 2. Auflage 2005

Issmer, Volker: Das Arbeitserziehungslager Ohrbeck bei Osnabrück, Landschaftsverband Osnabrück Land, 2003

Junk, Peter, Martin Sellmeyer: Stationen auf dem Weg nach Auschwitz, Entrechtung, Vertreibung, Vernichtung der Juden in Osnabrück,Rasch Verlag Bramsche, 3. Auflage 2000

Kramer, Helgard: NS Täter aus interdisziplinärer Perspektive, Martin Meidenbauer Verlag, 2006

Levi, Primo: The Drowned and the Saved, Vintage International, 1989

Marks, Stephan, Warum folgten sie Hitler? Die Psychologie des Nationalsozialismus, Patmos Verlag, 2007

Milgram, S.: Obedience to Authority, Tavistock London, 1974

Mishler, Elliot G.: The Analysis of Interview – Narratives, Narrative Psychology, New York, 1986

Reese, Willy Peter: “Mir selber seltsam fremd”, Claassen, 2003

Rheine, Gestern Heute Morgen, Zeitschrift für den Raum Rheine 3/85, 15. Ausgabe

Sen, Amartya: Identity and Violence, Norton, 2006

Sternberg, Sakino Mathilde: Wie bewegt man einen Elefanten – Weg vom Trauma, hin zum Leben, Innenwelt Verlag, 2007

Waller, James: Becoming Evil, Oxford University Press, 2002






Sakino Mathilde Sternberg

Diplom Psychologin

Dan Bar – On International Dialogue Center IDC

Ebersstr. 64

10827 Berlin


phone: 0172 914 66 09

Skype: sakino52




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *