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Book Review

Laurence J. Gould, Ph.D.[1]

Fed with Tears - Poisoned with Milk

(Psychosozial-Verlag, 2009)[2]


 H. Shmuel Erlich, Mira Erlich-Ginor, Hermann Beland

Reviewing this extraordinary book poses in microcosm the same challenges the authors faced in producing it - namely, capturing the complexities and nuances of experiences that are largely ineffable and fraught beyond measure - the experiences of German and Israeli psychoanalysts facing the "past in the present", in the dark, dense shadow of the Holocaust. What emerges then is as much a meditation as it is a chronicle or report, making it, at one and the same time, intensely personal and conceptually satisfying.

Can a review do justice to a book such as this? The clear answer is no - certainly not with regard to the full richness of the content. But hopefully what can be conveyed, if only partially, is the animating spirit and sensibility that gave it life. In this sense it is a story, a story refracted through the experiences of a hundred plus individuals - staff and members - who participated in what was titled 'The Nazareth' Group Relations Conferences: Germans and Israelis - The Past in the Present. Erlich, in his Introduction, states the explicit aim of this enterprise: "...to make a unique and significant contribution to the proliferating literature on German-Israeli relatedness in the post-Holocaust era" (p. 15).

Formulated by Miller (p. 38), one of the principal architects of these conferences, this aim was: "To provide opportunities to explore how feelings and fantasies about 'German-ness' and 'Israeli-ness' influence relations within and between the two groups in the conference." He goes on to say, that as he saw it, "[These Conferences] . . . would express a broader aim of exploring how these issues relate to individual members' roles both as citizens and analysts. If that were our aim we would want members to go away with both experiential learning and some conceptualization."

I would note here that one contribution of this volume, on a methodological level, is its brilliant, sophisticated exposition of group relations theory and practice, and the dilemmas of applying it to a specific issue. This is a central point and worth underscoring. Namely, one of the great strengths of these conferences is the group relations sensibility which provides a refreshing and illuminating antidote to the sweeping generalities about the human situation that often characterize such efforts. The conferences, in contrast, create a facilitating space for the particularities of each participant's experience to fully emerge, and it is a pleasure to see how this guiding idea is actualized in the volume itself. Erlich-Ginor's chapter on "The Conference Experience" and her invocation of the metaphor of "The Collage" sub-titled "Many Voices, Many Names" (p. 49), best captures it, as she grapples with the dilemmas of both bringing to life the experiences of the Conferences and transmitting them to the reader. I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that, as such, her approach comes as close as I know, to a model that analysts, in presenting case material, would do well to consider, not, to be sure, in a prescriptive or directly parallel sense, but with regard to the dilemmas she raises. To cite just a few obvious ones: whose book is this; whose experience will be privileged, and what, from the wealth of material available will be selected for presentation (unconsciously as well as consciously)? It is, as if, on a larger, more complex canvas, she is grappling with many of the countertransferential issues that we, as analysts, continually struggle with in our work with patients.

Since there is so much rich material and so many provocative ideas in this fairly slender volume (192pp), let me focus on a few that I believe are especially germane to this enterprise, as well as to the larger psychoanalytic enterprise - particularly in the applied realm. The first returns us, once again, to the question of mourning, or more specifically the inability to mourn and its consequences. In this context, the salient issue is how to understand what this may mean in a collective, rather than an individual context. That is, as the authors suggest, collectives - groups, communities, societies - carry loss, and mourn - or not - in different ways if at all. And that further, and consequentially, the outcome of these processes will be a major determinant with regard to how such collectivities both view themselves, and in terms of their relatedness to other collectivities. It is hardly a coincidence that a German politician would provide a succinct and apt appreciation of this fact (von Weizsäcker, 1985)[3]:

We must understand that there can be no reconciliation without remembrance.

In this context, it is also hardly surprising that in Germany, given the daunting societal task of coming to terms with the Holocaust, they coined a term Vergangenheitsbewältigung - a freightload of German morphemes which is best translated as "mastering the past" or "coming to terms with the past". Vergangenheit means "past"; bewältigen means "to overcome" or, more to the point, "to overpower". The whole word specifically, refers to the Germans' post-war efforts to resolve their relationship with the Third Reich, and to salvage from that wreckage, what the Harvard Historian, Charles Maier, has called the "usable past".

This leads directly to several related, direct questions and themes, with a central one being: could German analysts work through their guilt in the presence of Israeli analysts? Or put another way, as the authors suggest, could they only work through their guilt in the presence of Israeli analysts? And what of the role of the Israeli analysts in this enterprise? What would their central emotional struggles be in the presence of German colleagues, and how might one conceptualize them? And lastly, how could these conferences be useful to them?

The issues emerging are the interwoven thematic strands which bring these conferences to life, as each group struggles with them in the presence of the Other. And for this reviewer, and I am quite certain for the reader of this volume as well, will be a shared sentiment that both creating and participating in these conferences was an act of great courage - especially so, given the uncertainty that the rewards would be commensurate with the pain - not unlike undertaking an analysis itself, for both patient and analyst.

The thoughtful Foreword by Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, and the recapitulation and coda of Erlich's Epilogue provide the fitting "bookends" of this volume, as they both invoke and contribute to the possibility that hope can triumph, even in the face of the most widely documented atrocity in human history. But, a much more significant point, as displayed by the courage and creativity of the authors and their colleagues, is that if one dares to hope, one must also dare to risk. And from every possible perspective - personal, professional, and societal - this enterprise was risky indeed, for which we can only express our deep gratitude to the authors for undertaking it.

[1] Laurence J. Gould, Ph.D., Society Board Member and Director, The Socio-Analytic Program in Organizational Consultation and Executive Coaching, IPTAR (The Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research) NYC; Member, OFEK. (Contact: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it )

[2] This is a slightly revised version of the review, originally published in The European Psychoanalytic Federation Bulletin, no. 63, 2009, pp. 237-239.

[3] West German President, Richard von Weizsäcker in a speech before the Bundestag commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the German capitulation (1985).