Monday, November 9, 2009

Trust, Contextualization, and Trauma: Documenting Holocaust Experiences of Homosexuals

Film: Paragraph 175

By William Spell
presented November 8, 2009 at the Film Series: Fear of Difference: The Diversity of Holocaust Experiences, Tampa, FL

Our presence here together unites us for a living tribute to the courageous Holocaust survivors of the documentary Paragraph 175 as well as all survivors of genocidal trauma. The seven remarkably articulate elders emerge from these interviews with a seemingly impossible grace and eloquence, putting words to unbearable experience.

I am also in awe of this achievement by the director-producers, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, their partner in production, Michael Ehrenzweig and their many talented collaborators, who with the inspiring guidance of Klaus Muller, have set a sensitive stage and created a trusting rapport with each survivor.….for their voices to be heard and their beautiful faces to be seen with a clarifying light.

Dr. Doris Brothers, in her paper, Trust, Uncertainty and Therapeutic Alliance in Trauma-Centered Treatment suggests that “trauma does not reside in a specific event alone, but rather in the meanings of that event for the individual involved.” And she places “the focus of treatment on the trustworthiness of the relational engagement of analyst and patient.”

We see from the beginning of this project, a resistance and ongoing crisis of trust when Klaus telephones to confirm a meeting, Karl Gorath answers, “Not today” and later in person, Karl agrees to the session.

.....Pierre Seele, arriving at the train station feeling sick, not wanting to proceed, feeling hostile toward Klaus and offended by his black leather jacket, not wanting to shake hands with a German and paranoid about Klaus’ intentions.

Heinz F. speaks for the first time with another person about his 8 ¼ years in the concentration camps of Dachau, Mauthausen and Buchenwald, confined for being a homosexual. He fears using his surname for the film and initially requests that his face be seen in an anonymous silhouette of dark shadow.

From listening to the director’s added commentary on the DVD, I learned that Heinz F. upon viewing the monitor and seeing how dark his image appeared, decided that he wanted his face to be seen, since at age 93 he felt that he hadn’t much time left for the rest of his life.

There was a survivor living in Poland who ultimately declined being interviewed on film because he was battling with the fear of being publicly exposed as a homosexual.

Another German man who was castrated by the Nazis, had given consent to participate when, on the day of his filming, someone helping with the production told his landlady that he was going to be interviewed. When he found out that she knew this, he became very upset and refused to continue and Klaus spent a lot of time calming and comforting him.

The directors discuss their experience of a troubling ambivalence as they respectfully engaged Albrecht Becker, arrested for his homosexuality by the Nazis. Albrecht explains the alarming indifference and passivity of many German citizens to their widespread, word-of-mouth knowledge of the death camps.

Michael Ehrenzweig affirms that without Klaus having established relationships of safety and trust with the film’s subjects over a period of years, this ground breaking documentary would not have been possible.

Dr. Lycia Alexander-Guerra, in her presentation for the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies’ Trauma Workshop Series, discussed how, physiologically, traumatic memories are dissociated, de-contextualized from each other, and unlinked to words. In referencing the work of Dr. Jody Messler Davies and Dr. Gail Frawley, she discussed how re-enactments of experiences which lack words can become an opportunity for the therapist to lend words and help construct meanings with the survivor of previously unspeakable traumas.

Klaus encourages Heinz Dormer’s painstaking, verbal descriptions of “the singing forest”. There are haunting silences between Heinz Dormer’s words, the palpable “goosebumps” and his powerful gaze, contained by Klaus.

After approaching the abyss again, I was relieved to hear Heinz find his open-ended meanings, in his words: “inhuman” “beyond human comprehension” “inexplicable” “and much remains untold”.

Heinz F. and Klaus offered words freely and tenderly to one another. Heinz F., often tearfully sobbing, spoke of his shame. “It’s all about patiently carrying one’s burden”. When asked if there was anyone he could have spoken with, he insisted, “Never!” “Nobody wanted to hear about it” “If you would just mention one of those words…..Leave me alone with this stuff---it’s over now and done with”.

Dr. Sam Gerson's paper, When the Third is Dead: Memory, Mourning, and Witnessing in the Aftermath of the Holocaust is in press: International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 2010.

Paragraph 175 remained a law until 1968 in East Germany and 1969 in West Germany. Homosexuals continued to be classified as criminals. Heinz Dormer was re-arrested during the 1950s and 1960s.

Dr. Bruce Reis emphasizes that in the treatment of massive trauma the language of narration cannot translate away the raw pain of traumatic exposure. He recommends the work of Dr. Sue Grand in being a witness to trauma, illuminating silence and rendering it audible.

Dr. Ghislaine Boulanger represents therapeutic recognition as "when clinicians resonate to situations in their patient’s lives with which they can identify only too well; locating parallel experiences and feeling states in themselves. This often unacknowledged resonance between the patient’s and analyst’s experience signals a level of acceptance and understanding that can be transformative and promote analytic reflection.
However, when resonating to a familiar affect state is not possible, clinicians must be prepared to serve as containers and witnesses to terrifying and alienating experiences without losing their connection to the survivor. Inevitably, that connection is sometimes lost as the clinician struggles against his or her own tendency to dissociate in the face of horror."

Our hearts today contain these passages of love, hope, faith and devastating loss.

Annette Eick recounts the story of the miraculous “love letter” that saved her life, surviving only with her brother as her entire family perished in the camps.

Gad Beck remembering trying desperately to rescue and flee with his young lover, Manfred Lewin, who felt compelled to stay with and take care of his sick family, soon to go to their deaths in a camp. As Gad describes the moments of agony when he and Manfred were separated for the last time, he says, “I couldn’t think but I knew something was forever broken.”

Pierre Seele frantically beseeching Klaus, “Do you think I can talk about that?” “This is too much for my nerves, Klaus! I can’t do this anymore! I am ashamed for humanity.”

In the director’s commentary, Michael Ehrenzweig shares a story of the transformative power of Paragraph 175, the documentary.

Immediately following the film’s premiere showing in Berlin, Michael quickly joined Gad Beck and Pierre Seele in the audience and walked them slowly down the aisle to the stage, both men on each of his arms, as the fully packed theater gave them a standing ovation with thunderous applause.

Later that night Gad and Pierre sat at a cafĂ© table nearby, holding hands and receiving the loving recognition and warm attention of many who had just seen their film. As a result, both men were inspired to subsequently travel extensively, speaking publicly and seeking official acknowledgement for their case and advocating support for other survivors. This reminds me of Dr. Adrienne Harris’ description of analytic process as “the shared labor of relational mourning.”

I feel this humbling work of art is an archive for all of humanity with the potential to inspire honesty and compassion for the understanding of massive traumatic experience and a caring acceptance of women desiring women and men desiring men.

-- Will Spell


Alexander-Guerra, M.D., Lycia (2009).

Boulanger, Ph.D., Ghislaine (2008). "Witnesses to Reality: Working Psychodynamically with Survivors of Terror." Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 18:638-657.

Brothers, Ph.D., Doris (2008).

Gerson, Ph.D., Samuel (2010). "When The Third is Dead: Memory, Mourning, and Witnessing in the Aftermath of the Holocaust." IN PRESS: International Journal of Psychoanalysis.

Harris, Ph.D., Adrienne (2005). "Gender as Soft Assembly." Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Reis, Ph.D., Bruce E. (2000). "A Review of the Reproduction of Evil: A Clinical and Cultural Perspective: Sue Grand. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 2000. xvi + 167 pp." Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 36:730-734.

1 comment:

Mike Poff said...

My question following Chapter 175 was specifically about psychological factors that may have blinded the German (and the international) community to the realities of what was unfolding around them when all the indications were explicit in what Hitler had published already by the mid-twenties: In what way might Berlin society – gay and strait alike - have defended against the effects of trauma, loss and humiliation post-WWI? To a lay-person this question may appear strange in relation to sexuality but not to any clinician who has treated trauma. This was not a question about morality or homosexuality and I took pains to emphasize that in both communities there was evidence of a pressured quality to the excitement/sexual atmosphere of Berlin’s ‘golden years’ - much like the manifestations of the ‘roaring twenties’ around the world. I take this to be a post-traumatic phenomenon, in part. The entire world was wishing to forget what it had just survived and Berlin - a center of German culture and society – and the entire German people - had been particularly traumatized by the impact of loosing ‘The Great War’ and were continuing to suffer further humiliation, inflation and poverty consequent to the effects of the Versailles Treaty. Seasoned clinicians will recognize psychological defenses against emotional fragmentation and signs of unmanaged grief, loss and terror and will also know that exaggerated excitement or a compulsive turn to sexuality is a common means of warding off painful emotions or assaults to the self. The first person to be interviewed in Chapter 175 could not have been more eloquent on this reaction when he expressed: “We had to [have sex on that bus in the moment the terror had begun.” As you can imagine, this engages idealization and the denial of internal and external realities that, when left unaddressed, can put the person at even further risk. Clarifying this is different but closely related to the task of identifying and calling out insipient violence and dehumanizing trends that precede atrocity like stereotyping or othering, as you have rightly named these. The fact is that Berliners along with the rest of the world ‘roaring’ blindly toward WWII who believed that they were in the midst of golden years were only too human to have hoped that this could be true. In desperation we wish whatever glitters to be gold. But where adaptations to trauma heightened the risk for repeating trauma and repeating history the irony becomes tragedy. I fear that this is as true today as it was in the Twenties and the Thirties.

-Mike Poff