Reaching out for friendship through horrors of history

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This Story is by Judith Goren about making friends across historic chasms …

Judith A. Goren, PhD, is a writer and a retired clinical psychologist. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals. She is the author of three volumes of poetry and a collection of essays about her work as a psychotherapist. She and her husband have three adult children and nine grandchildren.

In our first two online stories, we explored friendship in childhood despite family bigotry—as well as the challenge of diverse friendships in the workplace. Today, Judith Goren writes about the nightmarish chasms shaping life for millions of people around the world. The archival photo below shows a proud German family in 1943, celebrating their son’s involvement in the Hitler Youth. This chilling image captures some of those lingering nightmares. How can friends hope to reach across such historical horrors? Here is Judith’s story …

German archival photo from 1943 of a proud Nazi motherWhen I was between the ages of eight and twelve, the United States was at war against Germany. Stories about the Nazis were in newspapers and on the radio every day. When World War II ended, stories came out about the Holocaust. Being Jewish, nothing I had learned gave me a good feeling about Germany or the German people. My feelings were intensified by a film I saw at college just six years after the war ended: pictures of crematoriums and corpses—photos taken by the Germans themselves in their concentration camps.

In 1955, my husband was drafted into the U.S. Army. He had the good fortune to be stationed in France, where I could live with him and where we had ample opportunity to travel around post-war Europe. While there, we took a trip to Munich to visit an army buddy from Bob’s basic training days. When we left, we decided to take a short detour and visit Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp where thousands of Jewish people died. Touring Dachau, bare and almost abandoned, was a horrifying experience. I felt shaky, weak and queasy. If I had lived here, instead of being born in America, I might not be alive. My “crime” would have been my birth as a Jew. This reality hit me like an electric prod.

My new awareness did not serve to make me feel comfortable in Germany. On a subsequent visit to Germany during Fasching week, the carnival festival when many streets are full of costumes and song, I felt intense anxiety. I watched people, wondering: Would they hate me if they knew I was Jewish? Would they have turned me in 12 years ago? As for the younger people I encountered, I wondered what anti-Semitic ideas they had learned from their parents. My paranoia felt overwhelming.

That was my background when a friend of mine from Detroit, Arlene, married an American who lived in Germany and moved with him to Heidelberg. A psychotherapist, she was lonely for her friends and arranged workshops with her American colleagues so her clients could learn from them and she could maintain contact with those she left behind. When she invited me to come to Heidelberg to present a journal-writing workshop, I went, but with very mixed feelings. I loved the old-world charm of the city, but did not want to face the discomfort I had felt 15 years earlier. The workshop was in her home. The ten women who took part were delightful people and questions of religion and the war never arose. Even so, I breathed a sigh of relief when the weekend was over. I had avoided the issue successfully; as a consequence, my feelings remained unresolved. Arlene and I remained in close contact for many years, by mail and also when she returned each summer to the U.S. to visit her parents.

A decade later, I was working closely with a Jewish woman, Julia Press, a spiritual teacher who was also becoming a close friend. I wrote to Arlene about her, and she invited Julia to come to Heidelberg to lead a spirituality weekend. Julia accepted on condition that I come, too. I wanted to travel with Julia more than I wanted to avoid my discomfort in Germany, and agreed to go. This time, when I returned to Heidelberg with Julia, my initial feeling of uneasiness about my Jewishness in Germany was even more pronounced.

The group seemed large, more than 40 people, in a rented space rather than at Arlene’s home. Formerly, for the journal workshop, I had structured my presentation, which gave me some control over content and the direction of discussion. Julia, however, leads in an unstructured manner. Whatever is moving deeply in someone’s heart and soul can be expressed, and the work proceeds from there. Anything may arise, and certainly did that weekend. Midway into the first day, a woman burst out at me, “I wish you hadn’t come!”

I was stunned and hurt. Later, she clarified what she meant: Her father had been a Nazi storm trooper. She felt deep shame. My presence as a Jew in the circle with Julia doubled her guilt to an unbearable level. It was her inner pain she wanted to send away, not me. Our conflict opened up discussion among the entire group, all of whom were Christian. The collective shame and guilt they carried on behalf of their parents’ generation poured forward. Most were children, as I was, during World War II; some were not even born then—yet felt accountable for the actions of their families and their country. They were astounded that Julia and I had come to be with them after what their country had done to our people. With Julia as a sensitive and skilled facilitator, many shared their personal stories. Most, but not all, spoke in English, but as the day progressed, we all seemed to understand one another.

As I heard their words and sensed their hearts, the people in our circle were no longer “Germans” to me, but became individuals and friends, as vulnerable and wounded as I was. That afternoon, all of us wept together. Hannah, the woman whose outburst had been so hurtful, brought me a symbolic gift two years later, when she flew to Boston to participate in another spiritual circle with Julia. It is a piece of wood from a tree that once grew in her yard—shaped like a perfect heart. I keep it on a special shelf as a reminder that even deep wounds can be healed.

Care to read more from Judith? You can order Judith Goren’s “Sharing the Journey: a psychotherapist reflects on her work” from Amazon.

(Originally published at

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