The Vienna Encounter

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The Vienna Encounter

by C. Samson Munn, M.D.


In June 1992 a genuine encounter group first met in Germany composed of children of German Nazis (mostly of high rank or responsibility), of children of Holocaust survivors, and of a few others with other important relationships to that time. That group was created and facilitated by Dan Bar-On, Ph.D., Professor and now Chairperson of the Department of Behavioural Sciences at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. I am a member of that group; my parents are both Jewish concentration camp survivors (from Germany and Poland).

The group was not constructed intentionally or primarily to be therapeutic, but rather to be more purely a true encounter. The experience was felt by all to be emotionally and in other ways very worthwhile, and so we decided to continue to meet. The group met a total of four times in three countries over two years, and will soon meet for its fifth meeting. We have existed for a little over three years at this point.

In the midst of the second meeting, April 1993 in Israel, I noted to myself and to the others that my contributions did not seem to me and for me to be sufficient ethical compensation for feeling so privileged to be amidst the others in that special experience. It had already occurred to me that it would be of merit to create other similar encounters between children of survivors and of perpetrators generally (e.g., in South Africa regarding apartheid), and I had said so publicly. From some subconscious place the idea of moving toward another group percolated upward into consciousness, simultaneously connecting with long-standing knowledge about Austria’s involvement with the Holocaust.

Austria was annexed by Germany, as opposed to other countries that were invaded, conquered, and occupied, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Holland, etc. Austrians were generally pleased or even gleeful to be annexed by the Reich. Further, Austrians were subsequently notoriously successful in rising quickly and effectively within the Reich, importantly to positions in infamous settings of war crimes and crimes against humanity, perhaps related to even more pervasive anti-Semitism in Austria than in Germany. Finally, since the war, Austria and Austrians have been particularly effective at denying their Nazi pasts, both in their culture as well as in the world arena. So, the concept of a similar group in Austria, a country laden with great culpability and with great denial, seemed to me to be particularly fruitful.

When I first presented the idea in Israel, the others in the Bar-On group varied greatly in their responses. Some, most of whom are themselves therapists, felt strongly that it would be inappropriate for me to create such a group without professional or great personal experience in groups; I am not a psychotherapist, nor do I have any significant experience with or conventional knowledge of therapy, of particularly human psychology, etc. (I am a physician-a radiologist.) Their paramount fear was that I might innocently create an environment in which individuals would be vulnerable and perhaps even prone to psychological revelation or possibly trauma, and that the appropriate handling of such an event would not be likely.

Others felt that I could likely handle the encounter setting as least as well as many people, and certainly at least as well as many therapists! Interestingly, that (admittedly smaller) faction included two therapists! Still others voiced varying degrees of concern and of support or said nothing at all.

In the end, with the particular and strong support of Prof. Bar-On, I decided to proceed with the creation of an Austrian group. His support went beyond that initial discussion. He made available his advice and a back-board against which to bounce ideas during the entire creation period of the group, and beyond. (Perhaps the support I appreciated most came during the encounter itself, when he went to great length to make himself available by international telephoning while he was traveling, which I took grateful advantage of several times.)

I began work in Boston in the days after having returned from the April 1993 meeting. I planned that the Austrian encounter would take place in 1995, probably in summer. The creation process began by thinking of the group’s structure. My goal was to include thoughtful, intellectually honest, motivated participants who are able to listen as well as to speak. I hoped to include children of Austrian Nazis and of Austrian victims. [For the remainder of this paper, I will use CAV or CAN to indicate a child or children of Austrian victim(s) or of Austrian Nazi(s), respectively.] I hoped to include men and women approximately equally, coming from Europe and from outside Europe (particularly Israel and North America). Finally, I hoped that there would be two facilitators, one male and one female, and one affiliated with each “side” somehow. It was important to me that the facilitator(s) facilitate but not lead, and that he/she/they know(s) enough not to presume that psycho-pathology inherently exists in the participants. Although it was of course even initially a possibility that I would facilitate, it was not clear for some time (perhaps a year and a half) that I would indeed do so.

Initially, I tried to enlist another member of the Bar-On group to join me in facilitation; she was suggested by Dr. Bar-On. She is the daughter of a very culpable Nazi and she is very bright and earnestly motivated, and I have always respected powerfully and deeply the years of constructive effort she has put into investigating her past. Importantly, and more simply, I like her very much too.

She initially agreed, but soon withdrew expressing honestly her reservation about the conduct of such an encounter without at least one of the facilitators being an experienced therapist. I was grateful for her honesty, and decided to put off temporarily the issue of facilitator(s) and rather to concentrate on enlisting appropriate participants. After all, who needs a facilitator if there is no group?!

Another structural issue was language. I initially expected this group to run in English, since so many Austrians speak fine English and some could help the others as the need arose. However, when initial and optimistic contact was first soundly made with Roma, it became clear that they would greatly appreciate translation. I promptly altered my view and arranged for two translators. (The two excellent, professional translators worked without monetary compensation, but rather out of their personal commitments to this process.)

I expected it to be far more difficult to contact children of Austrian Nazis than children of Austrian Jewish, Roma, or Sinti victims. In the end, however, the reverse was true. While it was understandably difficult to find appropriate participants who are children of Austrian Nazis, it proved even more difficult to contact Israeli and Austrian children of Austrian refugees or especially survivors, whether Jewish, Roma, or Sinti. (Children of other Austrian victims would certainly have been considered, but they were not encountered during the search process nor did they come forward. Further, to be clear, “Austrian” as it was used in the phrase “Austrian victim” was used to refer 1) to those already living in Austria when the victimization arrived for them, or 2) to those who where victimized in Austria regardless of from where they had come.)

How does one go about finding interested, appropriate children of Austrian Nazis? Too bad one cannot simply turn to the “post-Nazi” section of the yellow pages ! Instead, I placed an ad in one edition of each of the three largest Austrian newspapers’ Saturday editions. (In Austria, the major edition of the week is Saturday’s.) That ad, in English, asked directly for honestly introspective children of Austrian Nazis, who wished to take part in an open and non-judgmental encounter with children of Austrian survivors, to respond. In the end the ads led to two participants and to several other contacts.

Another successful connection was made for me directly to a CAN from another member of the Bar-On group, for which I am very grateful. That CAN became a very worthy contributor to the encounter process before, in, and even after Vienna. That was the only contact made easily in the two-year process of finding and screening CAV and CAN.

Also, I wrote about two dozen initial letters to therapists who had attended a recent European conference on psychological trauma from the Holocaust. Dr. Bar-On and others gave a few names to me, and he and still others also tried to find Israelis who might take part. All of those avenues led to more and more people, mostly unproductively. However, eventually, appropriate participants were found or came forward. Contact was made by hundreds of letters, scores of faxes, dozens of phone calls, several internet bulletin board listings, and even a radio interview in Vienna!

All of the participants were screened by me, sometimes for several hours. To reiterate, the aim was to include thoughtful, honest, motivated participants who are able to listen as well as to speak. Given my lack of experience, I needed three visits to Vienna in the year prior to the encounter in order to organize the participants, to prepare for the group, and conscientiously to try to meet with each participant. In the end, I had still not managed personally to meet with one translator and with one participant on each “side,” although I had communicated with them by phone and by mail. I did indeed meet with the other translator and with all of the other participants.

Many eager and constructive people wished to take part and were German, Austrian, or American (and Jewish or not), but were denied participation in this particular group because they were not CAV or CAN. No CAN who came forward was declined; they all seemed appropriate. Only one CAV was declined, an Austrian Jewish woman in her late twenties who was so riddled with hate that she could not possibly listen with open ears, and who had yearned for years for a forum in which to rail against even those who are related to Nazis! Clearly, she had not yet dealt sufficiently with this issue on her own. Eventually enough appropriate participants were found or came forward themselves.

Among the participants there were no children of concentration camp or of other actual survivors (per se), no Roma or Sinti, no Israelis, and no Austrian Jews. Despite repeated efforts to derive such participants, through a great variety of avenues, over greater than two years, none attended. (Those are a few of the acknowledged shortcomings of this Austrian encounter; I will discuss more of them later.)

Most children of Austrian Jews of the period are children of refugees; Austrian Jews did relatively well at escaping the war years there, and most of those who remained were killed. Thus finding children of Austrian Holocaust survivors was difficult. Thus, the Jewish members of this group were children of Austrians who escaped the Holocaust there by feeling forced to flee and by doing so successfully.

Three Roma and one Sinti did agree to participate in two pairs at different times, but all withdrew in the end, at least two for fear of bombing by neo-Nazis, etc. We did go so far as to keep the location of our meeting secret from even the participants until one hour prior to the meeting! However that measure was certainly no guarantee of security. Their fear was probably reasonable and is certainly understandable since earlier in the same year four Gypsies were killed in a single bombing outside Vienna. (Between that bombing and our encounter, there were several other racist attacks in Austria, two of which were against Gypsies; fortunately, none of those were fatal.)

I still have no good explanation why I was so unsuccessful with Jews in Israel and in Vienna. I will say, however, that the Jewish community in Vienna was of negligible support in the creation of this encounter. (One would have to ask them to learn why, since I contacted many of them by mail, several of them by phone, and met personally with three of them in Vienna.)

The Viennese and Austrian federal governments also offered no support, although the University of Vienna’s history research department was kind enough to offer a room in which to meet for two of the four days of the encounter. We accepted that offer but later withdrew since better arrangements were made.

The Austrian encounter group met July 1-4, 1995 (Saturday through Tuesday). The basic (and group-decided) schedule was to meet from 9 AM until 6 PM, with a two-hour lunch break and with short breaks in the morning and afternoon. We met the first two days at the Literatur Haus in Vienna; the second two days we met at the antique bookstore of one of the participants (who was also kindly the contact to the Literatur Haus). Both locations were excellent and both hosts very accommodating indeed.

There were ten participants, two translators, and myself. The translators were a 24 year old Austrian woman who lives in Vienna and a 38 year old German man who lives in Boston. (Upon reflection, it seemed prudent to retain the translators despite the withdrawal of the Roma and Sinti; the final decision regarding the translators was left to the group members.) I certainly remained primarily facilitator but also became partly participant, as did the translators.

The participants were five women and five men, six CAN and four CAV. The overall age range of the participants was 31-61; the CAN ranged from 31 to 61 and the CAV 39 to 52. (I am 43.) The CAN were five male and one female (one from Germany, three from Vienna, and two from elsewhere in Austria); their fathers were mostly of moderate rank or responsibility. The CAV were all female (one from Canada, two from the U.S., and one from England [but having lived in Austria for 14 years at that point]). In addition, one of the CAN is the living-partner of one of the CAV.

We sat in a circle. At our center was only a low table upon which was placed a small tape recorder and a tiny microphone. Most of the participants, the two translators, and I were present all four days. The exceptions were a 36 year old pediatrician and psychiatrist still in training, living in Austria, who attended days 2, 3 and 4, the son of an SS man; a 59 year old highly ranked judge, living in Austria, who attended days 1, 2, and 4, the son of a prominent Austrian Nazi journalist and propagandist; and a 39 year old English teacher, living in Austria, who attended days 3 and 4, the daughter of Viennese Jewish refugees.

The other participants were a 31 year old who finished schooling (magista in psychology) in the days prior to the encounter, who lives in Austria, the daughter of an SS man; a 50 year old dealer of antique books, living in Austria, the son of an SS man; a 47 year old social worker, living in America, the daughter of Jews who fled Vienna in December 1938; a 46 year old psychologist (whose mother had some Jewish relatives), an Austrian living in Germany, the son of a German army officer and Nazi party member; a 61 year old pensioner and former travel agent, living in Austria, the son of a manager in a Reich airplane manufacturing plant in Austria who later became chief of the Reich’s film (propaganda and commercial) repository and production center for all of Austria; a 45 year old American adoption educator living in Canada, the daughter of a Jewish woman who fled Austria in September 1938; and, a 52 year old writer (with a psychology and teaching background), living in America, the daughter of Viennese Jews who fled in September 1938 and February 1939.

The first day initially dealt carefully and painstakingly for hours with logistical details. Introductions could not begin until after we had decided many recording issues because I had given my commitment to do so to one very thoughtful participant who had well-reasoned reservations about certain aspects of recording. That led to discussion about the translators, etc. The group genuinely decided its issues itself; I did not predetermine or bias the outcomes of such decisions. In the end, the entire encounter was sound-recorded and it was decided to keep both translators. Introductions occurred later in the first day and were mostly completed that day. They were generally factual, logical, reasonably calm, etc. There was some time even the first day to move beyond introductions in our discussion. Still, it remained generally very collected. However, the last comment of the first day was emotional and angry, from a CAV, and had to do with that person’s level of trust within the group; we were left to think for the night about trusting each other and about trust generally. That person ended the day by asking whether we each trust our parents to have had our best interests at heart when they made decisions that might directly or indirectly have had an influence upon us.

The second day began with the comment and question at the end of the first day. The CAV all said “yes.” Most of the CAN said “no.” It was an important transition. I believe the participants were beginning to trust each other a bit and perhaps to like each other too. This day was definitely less factual and collected; it was more loose, and began to become more, and more frequently, emotional. One important issue that surfaced and evolved on the second day was animosity toward one particular CAN, the oldest. He elicited anger, loud voices, and heated words, by what he said and the way in which it was said. Although he speaks about the Nazi era in schools in his home town area and he was clearly not a Holocaust-denier, he was accused by many 1) of being genuinely out of touch with his own feelings, 2) of avoiding true empathy for most victims by his own intellectual distraction with the details of military affairs and with the fate of those Germans who were innocently hurt and deprived in war, and 3) of (unknowingly) utilizing concepts and even verbiage reminiscent of the Reich. While his relationship and existence in the group were temporarily in question, he and the others engaged each other head-on, for which I credit them all (especially him). In the end, though, I broke the deadlock. I admit that I was not calm and that I favored the majority in that intervention; but, I remained collected and managed to reiterate the argument to them all and to point out its current futility. Later (including the next morning), after he was given a special opportunity to present himself anew, they substantially resolved their problem by creating constructive ground rules for communication. In the end, they not only functioned much better together but began to like each other a bit more. That second day, there were also amazing questions and comments from several participants; for instance a CAN lamented with regret, desperation, anger, pain, and great power in his voice: “I never had the strength to say to my father at the dinner table: ‘Were you a murderer, Daddy??!!!'”

The third day was almost entirely emotional! It lasted until 10:30 at night, with no dinner break. It was truly amazing! Discussion and emotions became very revealing. For instance, one person who was repeatedly sexually molested by a Nazi father, and who had determined definitely not to share that with this group, decided to break that promise and to do so. That CAN could not manage to do so with words but still wished to communicate it! So, not making clear what was about to happen, that CAN instead mostly silently enacted on the floor (his or her role in) a typical scene of such sexual molestation. All of the rest of us remained completely silent, in awe. I suspected that some such expression was coming for two days, but no one else even knew of that participant’s past, and thus could not possibly know what was happening! I paid careful attention to that CAN but also to the others; I looked around the room and watched as several minutes later one person’s face revealed realization of the substance of this communication, and then a few minutes later another’s face did so, and so on. It was very moving for us all! Since the enactment was on the floor, we all finally got down on the floor with him/her, rather than remain above (which is the position in which the father would have been). For three days afterward, that participant’s whole view of this meeting, of the revelations in it, of his/her feelings toward the members, etc., were changed toward the positive. The CAN became energized and happier, and remains (several months later) glad to have broken through the barrier and to have shared with us. We did minimally approach the relationship to the CAN’s deceased father’s Nazi past, etc., but there is much more for the group to discuss about that. There were other deep and very important moments that day too.

The final day dealt with some more emotional matters, but began to turn logistically toward our closing, toward organization of a future meeting, etc. We planned to meet again, perhaps in one year, probably again in Vienna. We chose one person in each continent to act as liaison to make organization better. We decided to add more participants. I reminded the others that when and where we meet again, whether we need translator(s) or facilitator(s), whom they should be, etc., are all their decisions.

Many themes were addressed during those four days, in varying emotional and intellectual depths. All were raised by the participants themselves. They included a childhood awareness of marginalization for both CAN and CAV, hurt or damaged roots in some CAN and absent roots in some CAV and CAN, altered trust in relationships in some of both CAN and CAV, the importance of ethics in our lives (and work), warmth versus coldness in our childhood families, terror (to some extent) in response to the outside world throughout life for some CAV versus terror from the fathers in the childhood families of CAN, the relationships between shame and secrets for CAN and between protection and secrets for the CAV (i.e., sometimes different secrets, but sometimes similar secrets for different reasons), and a shared sense of lack of independence from the Holocaust in the living of their lives. Two themes that seemed to relate to the CAV alone are: that despite feeling “as though they live on a packed suitcase,” they nonetheless are very active and visible in community activities (fighting racism, etc.); and, that the CAV generally empathize with other victims, including CAN as victims of their fathers.

Clearly, it was stunning and wonderful for these people to approach so many important issues, so earnestly, in such short time. Certainly, they are bright, incisive, motivated, imaginative people. I found myself impressed, and fortunate on several levels simply to be in their midst. I liked them, too. Over the next 2-3 days there were a few social gatherings of various combinations of us, and two carefully conducted newspaper interviews. [One was in the main newspaper in Passau (Bavaria) Germany, Passauer Neue Presse; the other was in one of the two Jewish newspapers in Vienna, Neue Illustrierte Welt. Both appeared in August or September. Copies are attached.] All of that seems to have gone well. The participants socialized together after the group wonderfully, I felt. Warmth had grown from trust, which developed similarly in this encounter to the original one. Despite the definite overall success, there were several weak aspects.

On the one hand, four days was too short. We took so long as half a day or more simply to address logistics because we had not yet developed some trust between us; however, slugging through those logistics in a careful, detailed, and respectful manner created the foundation for such trust. Also, there was not sufficient time to go into appropriate depth for many of the issues discussed above. On the other hand, these accomplished people would likely not have been able to attend a longer meeting given the exigencies of daily life. However, if only these people had known each other a bit more beforehand (as had been the case for the children of perpetrators in the original, Bar-On group), they might have been able to delve more deeply in the same time because they would already have become comfortable with and trusting of each other. In that way, it is my sense that this meeting serves as a foundation for any future meeting they/we may have. They/we now know each other. They/we have come to trust that each other is for the most part conscientious, respectable, knowledgeable, and concerned. I imagine with awe the next meeting.

In some ways I would ideally have liked to have a co-facilitator who was a woman and a group therapist, a child of a (probably German) Nazi, and a native speaker of German. However, I had no such ideal contact, and no one nearly appropriate was apparently willing to take this great a chance (or at least no one came forward to so indicate). Also, I know from a few who did partake that if there had been therapists as facilitators they would have been more reluctant; that is, they were attracted to the encounter but did not wish to engage in therapy at this setting or to be viewed as subjects in a clinical experiment. Because of my participation in the original, Bar-On group, I could easily relate to those concerns.

However, I had indeed arranged beforehand to have back-up therapists available. They were assured to me by a prominent therapist in Vienna, and was to include male and female therapists, Jewish and not, etc. This was confirmed by me with him in the several days prior to the meeting, when I was already in Vienna. The contacts were to be made available to me via a non-therapist colleague of his, whom both he and I thought was herself to be a participant in the meeting; it seemed very convenient. Also, she is very active in the Viennese Jewish community, which would have been wonderful for all. Unfortunately, there turned out to have been a double misunderstanding: both the therapist and I separately apparently misunderstood her. Even as we worked together through the first day, I still hoped she would show up (late). However, she had apparently not intended to attend, and she did not show up. So, unfortunately, we did not as a group get to know her nor did we have available to us the list of therapists’ names and phone numbers, as I had been assured. In addition, I did not hear from her in response to the messages I left for her until several days after the encounter began! Although I was comforted to some extent by the presence of several therapists in the group itself, the first day or two I felt the absence of the arranged connection to back-up therapists as a risk as deep as a chasm-a chasm at that point nonetheless to be bridged by the momentum of forward motion!

Fortunately, no one had an untoward psychological reaction to this encounter, during it or afterward. Indeed most participants described it as psychological positive, and several as very positive. Most found it interesting or worthwhile in other ways too.

There are three main faults I now see in the manner in which I facilitated. First, I should have provided a bit longer of an introduction at the outset of the meeting in regard to the initial working-through of logistics. At least one participant found the painstaking nature of it to be frustrating enough almost to quit. All of us found it tedious and tiresome. A better introduction to the value of starting by working through the logistics (i.e., that the process of discussing and agreeing upon self-imposed policies leads to trust) might have helped a great deal.

Second, there was one point in the encounter when I clearly and unfortunately led, rather than facilitated. I had informed the group at one point that the original, Bar-On group tends to find itself distilling a great variety of concerns and questions down to just six or so. The Austrian group seemed briefly to find that interesting, but not sufficiently to ask me to share those few poignant issues. Later, my bias (carried from my role as participant in the Bar-On group) was to “inject” this information into the discussion. Although no one was rude or even curt with me when I did so, no one was very interested. The discussion almost instantly veered elsewhere. I soon realized the futility of my effort. It may have been felt as irrelevant to a group perceived as independent and different. It may have been felt an unfair distraction from the unrelated course of discussion already underway. In any event, learning what the Bar-On group had discovered after much work did not act to aid or to assist the process in the Austrian group, at least in the clumsy way in which I did it. I hope it did not damage the process much.

Finally, I believe my greatest failing was the encounter’s closure. I did not plan ahead well. I felt pressured that last day on one side by the shortness of time for discussion of the weighty issues, and on the other side by at least two participants who had already expressed to me their need for a prompt end at 6 PM. Also, my lack of experience with groups blind-sided me: I failed properly to understand two participants who tried in their own ways to propose more substantive closure, and I did not communicate well enough to the group the plan I sensed as consensus for gradual closure between 4:30 and 6 PM. Several people expected an hour and a half of closure to start at 6 PM! Thus, at the relatively abrupt 6 PM ending, while a few participants parted easily and comfortably, many felt at a profound loss. My hope is that the damage done then was not irreparable. Time will tell.

In any event, we shall all certainly see what the group wishes to have in the way of facilitators, translators, participants, back-up therapists, etc., at the next meeting. To be frank, I hope they involve me. While I would love to facilitate this group again (and think I could do a better job next time), perhaps the participants will feel no need for a facilitator, or perhaps will feel a need for a different (or a different sort of) facilitator, etc. Also, there are many other important issues for them to resolve before the next meeting.

In the final analysis, there was sterling success in this encounter group. Amazingly, a group of CAN met with a group of CAV, in Austria ! ! For these people simply to have met, to have been honest and earnest with each other, and to have done so in Austria, is remarkable! Although Austria harbors such terrible enmity of Jews, retains a history and a legacy of heinous responsibility during the Reich, and mastered denial of that culpability after the war, we saw deep openness lead to warmth, trust, and the beginnings of much more in Vienna by wonderful, varied, motivated people, despite their origins from opposite sides of perhaps the world’s greatest trauma.

C. Samson Munn, M.D.

October 31, 1995
Assistant Professor
School of Medicine
Tufts University

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