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Compassionate Listening Project aims to help Germans, Jews reconcile

By Eric Fingerhut, Washington Jewish Week, 2004

It may be almost 60 years since the end of World War II, but plenty of Jews still avoid Germany, whether it’s not buying German cars or refusing to travel to that country.


About two dozen Germans and American Jews have decided that the only way to come to grips with the aftermath of the Holocaust is to talk to each other. And last week they came together in the Washington, D.C., area to share their feelings and their stories.

“It’s been a very deep exploration of pain,” said Brian Berman, co-director of the Compassionate Listening for Jewish-German Reconciliation Project.

The group spent the first four days talking and listening at a conference center in Germantown, then spent the balance of the conference in the District, visiting such sites as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the new World War II Memorial and hearing the experiences from Holocaust survivors or their children.

The Compassionate Listening Project began in 1990 in the Middle East, and has held talks among Palestinians and Israelis, and Syrians and Lebanese. The project expanded two years ago to include the German-Jewish meetings; a program in Turkey was initiated this fall.

Founded by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, the “compassionate listening” concept hopes to break down barriers of defense and mistrust by getting adversaries to engage in “nonjudgmental” listening. The process, it is hoped, will reduce fear of the other.

Participants say that the project’s environment encourages them to share their own histories and feelings. And deeply listening to others’ stories helps each person better understand his or her own pain from the Holocaust.

Gail Rosen of Pikesville notes that while the levels of pain are far from equal, there is “pain on both sides.”

For example, 39-year-old German Martin Dronsfield, a co-facilitator at the conference, said the project is a way to “get my country back.”

“I grew up with guilt and ignorance and shame about my country,” he said, noting that he never heard any stories about his grandparents because of their involvement in the war.

He realized there was only one way to overcome those feelings — he “needed to be connected to Jews and the Jewish people.”

And the experience has “given me my faith back, my faith in humanity.”

The eight-day conference was the third the project has held, but the first time outside of Germany –which gave the week a different feel, said veterans of the project.

“Being in the States, we noticed we didn’t feel the issues [in the same way that] Jews feel Germany. [The U.S. is] familiar to us, and we lose the perspective,” Berman said.

Rosen, who was participating for the third time, said that while last week’s conference was still a memorable experience, being in Germany for the first time was emotionally powerful and forced her to re-evaluate the place of Judaism in her life.

“When I set foot in Germany, I needed to be more Jewish,” she said, remembering that at a Shabbat celebration during the first conference, a German remarked how “wonderful it is you do this every Friday night.”

Realizing that she was only celebrating Shabbat because “I’m a Jew and I was in Germany,” she had to grapple with the idea that “maybe I want to do this at home.”

Two years later, Rosen said that while she is probably not more religiously observant, she is “more Jewishly identified.”

For some of the Germans, though, the trip to the United States was revelatory, undermining the current warmongering stereotype they have learned in Europe.

“I thought I wouldn’t like America — this is ‘Bushland.’ But it’s a beautiful country. The people are so kind,” said Helena Weynerowski.

But can the meetings of a few dozen Jews and Germans have an effect on a wider population?

Weynerowski said that she knows plenty of other Germans who support the project’s work.

“I think we are starters, [others] will follow,” she said. “Behind me there are at least 50 [others].”

Some gave her money to help defer the cost of the trip, she noted, “some gave me prayers.”

In fact, bringing more Jews to the project may be a bigger stumbling block, said Berman.

“I am a stone sculptor and you can imagine [the strength] it takes to carve stone into sculputure.” But finding Jews is akin to carving “the most difficult stone,” he said. “There is a lot of resistance to the subject matter.”

But while the numbers may be small, project participants all say that their conference demonstrates the effectiveness of understanding the other by simply listening to them — and may be an effective tactic to solve other problems in the world.

“If Jews and Germans can see our common humanity today, what does that offer for Israelis and Palestinians?” Rosen said.

And Miry Klements of Frederick, who said the conference leaves everyone with a “deep inner peace,” felt similarly.

“If Jews and Germans could come together and listen and hear [each other’s] stories, it’s like a message to the world. Anyone could do this.”

This article first appeared Thursday, October 21 2004 in the Washington Jewish Week-Online edition.

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