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Transforming the Legacy of the Past
at the Quest for Global Healing Conference


by Jessica Roemischer
 

Last December, I flew to the Indonesian island of Bali to attend the first Quest for Global Healing Conference, a five-day event sponsored by a handful of organizations dedicated to fostering global awareness and social change. There, amid the tropical paradise of the South Pacific, an audience of over four hundred—a majority of whom were from the privileged and progressive First World—heard the visions and voices of those who have experienced hardship, injustice, and survival. Some of the presenters had suffered in the most violence-torn regions of the world, from the Middle East to Cambodia to South Central L.A. Others bore the legacy of history's great atrocities, such as the Holocaust. And their presentations accompanied those of prominent individuals who have, each in their own way, been catalysts for the emergence of a global consciousness and conscience—most notably Archbishop Desmond Tutu (see page 32), Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, and human rights activist Lynne Twist.

Over the course of the five days, I had the opportunity to interview many of the conference presenters. And for me, the most powerful, poignant, and indeed, healing encounter took place in a conversation with German-Jewish reconciliation team, Martina Emme and Mary Rothschild. Mary's mother survived the unimaginable horror of Auschwitz. Martina's grandfather was a Nazi who served in the German army. My own relatives—Eastern European Jews—were brutally murdered by the Nazis as they swept through the shtetls of Romania. As Mary and Martina delved into their experience of grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust, sitting with me on their hotel's poolside patio, I found myself awash in what I realized were the unconscious and unresolved imprints of my own ancestral past. “Many of them didn't even make it as far as the concentration camps,” I remembered my dad saying when I was young. And while I had known what had happened to my relatives, their terrible demise had always existed as some distant and abstract reality that I had never allowed myself to truly feel—until that morning in Bali, in the presence of two people who had given their lives to facing into their own history, and mine.

Through this experience, I realized that “global healing” takes place within the inner recesses of the human mind and heart. It is the great gift human beings bestow on one another when they have the courage to engage in an unflinching reckoning with themselves and their past. And, as powerfully conveyed in the following excerpts from my interview with Mary and Martina, when people come together in a mutual willingness to face into that legacy, they can miraculously transmute the horrors of the human condition into a deep and profound relatedness that “alchemically transforms” them and, perhaps, may even transform the world.

Mary: When I was translating my mother's diary (from Auschwitz), I realized that I couldn't cope with the experience alone. So I joined a group in Los Angeles that was addressing the Holocaust. But after a few years, I realized that something was missing—something that I didn't have words for. I started looking for it and came across an organization called One by One that was engaging in Jewish-German dialogue in Berlin, and I had a sense that I had to go there. My mother told me that after the war, every time she heard the German language she would start shaking. But the first time I heard a German say, “I'm so sorry,” I relaxed; I let go. Something inside me changed, and we were able to listen to each other on a very deep level. I was actually able to share their suffering and realized that they were carrying this history from the other side, but with the same degree of pain.

We went as a group to a concentration camp and prayed together at the site of the crematorium. By the end of our time there, we were no longer two tribes looking at each other with suspicion and anger across the divide of six million dead. We were a community. And I was shocked to feel compassion for the Germans, for the legacy that they inherited. I had the sense that I wasn't carrying this alone anymore. There in one of the rooms at the camp, I thought, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.”

Martina: I can hardly bear reading the diary of Mary's mother, because if you let it enter you, it's excruciating. I think to myself, “She lived through it, and I can't even bear to read it.” But we need to go to that valley of the shadows first, to come to that place Mary described, and in my country so few people want to. I needed a hammer to break through the conspiracy of silence. In fact, I've lost friends and family who can't understand why I'm committed to this work. They are suspicious, and they keep asking me, “Can't you focus on your career? Can't you do something of real value?” There is so much mistrust and skepticism.

Mary: Even among Jews, there are very few willing to do this. The largest group of second-generation Holocaust survivors lives, like I do, in Los Angeles—perhaps fifteen hundred or so. Of those, maybe one hundred showed up for Second Generation meetings there. And of that number, three of us went to Berlin. But I believe that everyone who has a connection to the Holocaust has land mines in their psyche and you have to deal with them, especially if your parents were in a concentration camp. Two years ago, my mother finally allowed herself to go crazy, although I'm sure if someone had given her a choice, she wouldn't have. What happened, I think, is that her defenses fell off in old age. All the trauma came to the surface, and she went into a state of absolute panic. But it makes people very uncomfortable and angry when they hear that the survivors of the camps were not liberated when the camps were liberated. They don't want to hear it. So I can understand why people love Anne Frank, because she left us with the na´ve perception of the world she had while she was still in hiding. I'm sure that if someone had interviewed her in Bergen-Belsen before she died, she would no longer have believed that all human beings are good at heart.

Martina: You know, I have trouble with the word “forgiveness” because, to me, what happened in the Holocaust is unforgivable, unforgivable. When I began these dialogues, I had never sat with people who were survivors, or descendants of survivors, and I was full of fear. But it was a sense of responsibility for the collective that made me realize, “I have to do this.”

Mary: It is unforgivable. Simon Wiesenthal said, “Forgive them not, for they knew what they were doing.” And yet to sit in a room with people who are working so hard to grapple with their history, with this collective suppression, to sit still and listen to their stories and absorb them into my being, made something happen inside me. I don't know if it was forgiveness, but there was a sense of profound gratitude. And I was fully alive in that room. There was something so enlivening and energizing, inside and outside.

Martina: The intensity of that connection is so much more than friendship. You feel the potential for a human being to be united, to be connected, to be related, having overcome the feeling of being individuals. Now, there are some people who do this because they need a process, they need affirmation—like, “I'm a good German” or “I'm a good Jew.” But in this work, we need more than egocentric model; there needs to be a motive for something else, something more.

Mary: It's not even about the Holocaust anymore. It's not just about Jews and Germans. We are helping to heal a very profound wound in the collective psyche, as Judith Thompson of One by One has said, and I believe this work is rippling out far more deeply than we realize. I feel I was born to bear witness to this history and to alchemically transform it into something that can help.

And there is an acceleration in this, a quantum dimension. Our experiences have evolved into going to Bosnia, where the people were dealing with their own atrocity. They were really raw. We walked into their lives five years after the war, and it was like staring at my mother five years after the Holocaust. I saw people frozen in their grief, unable to articulate it, unable to cry, unable to mourn. The women were impeccably dressed. We sat in a circle of perhaps a hundred people—Muslims, Serbs, Croats. Nobody shed a tear. And the facilitators used us as a scare tactic because, for the people in that circle, looking at us was like staring at their children fifty years from now. A lot of second-generation descendants of the Holocaust, like myself, carry post-traumatic stress; we have rage, we have anger, we have mysterious psychosomatic and life-threatening illnesses. In fact, research suggests that extreme trauma is transmitted at cellular levels to six successive generations, which means that I got it before I was born. But I have said that the Holocaust is the “gift that keeps on giving,” and the facilitators used us to send this message to the Bosnians: “This is what you're looking at if you don't start dealing with your trauma now.” It was like two generations of genocide looking at each other across the barriers of time. And it worked. It worked beyond our wildest expectations, and they began to open up to each other and talk.

Martina: When you begin to have courage and listen to each other and face history, a miracle can happen. It's hard to find words for it. There's something more that emerges between two people or in a group. Maybe transformation is the right word. You change. You are not the same person that you were before. [Jewish theologian] Martin Buber gave me an explanation for what unfolds when there is this deep connection—he called it the “in-between world.” When the relationship intensifies, this “in-between” emerges as something more than the “I” and the “thou.” He would call it God, and although I'm not a religious person, I can feel the quality of it. It can be like a catharsis. People are very exhausted, emotionally exhausted, and at the same time—

Mary:—liberated.



 

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This article is from
Our Consciousness Issue

 
 

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