For several years in the 1990s, I participated in a project called Acts of Reconciliation, created by drama therapist Armand Volkas, a son of Auschwitz survivors. Volkas brought together descendants of Holocaust survivors, like me, with descendants of Nazis, gathering us to exchange stories and enact scenes from our childhoods. Using psychodrama and improvisational theater, Volkas encouraged us to discover the threads of our shared legacy, the complex burdens we had in common, despite our seemingly disparate histories.
I remember my curiosity and dread as I sat in a circle of strangers, waiting to introduce ourselves. Invisible and palpable tension filled the room; we must have all been wondering if we could tell one another apart without hearing accents. When we had to say aloud the names of our parents, I was surprised into nervous laughter realizing how easily I could have been "mistaken" for a German. "Frieda and Carlheinz," I said. My mother was from Vilna. My father was from Hamburg. Then we had to name ourselves. 'My name is Elizabeth," I said. "I am a Jew."
There was Rudi, son of a high-ranking Nazi whose brother, Rudi's uncle, was a Communist who died in Buchenwald-the same concentration camp in which my father was imprisoned. Rudi was a police officer; he had a PhD in Medieval German and a Jewish girlfriend. Just in case I thought I could reduce him to a stereotype. There was Hans, a psychotherapist with a house-painting business he called German Quality Painting. He too lived with a Jewish woman, and he was a writer.
We talked about our parents and about ourselves, finding to our astonishment and discomfort and, ultimately, relief, that we were more alike than we were different. As we recognized one another's pain and mistrust, we began slowly to understand that the simple formula of "us" and "them" was not simple at all. We had inherited a war that wasn't truly ours, a set of beliefs and nightmares that might be transformed if we reached toward one another with courage and hope.
I wrote poems, urged by Volkas to chronicle these experiences, and my first piece was addressed to Hans. I called it "Speaking to One of Germany's Sons." "Did any of us ask/ to be born into this place/ or that one?" I asked. "None of it and all of it/ belongs here." Thus began a practice that has lasted to this day, my desire to write across the vast and confusing gaps between myself and others, even and especially those I've been warned to avoid.
Years later, I kept recalling one of the group's most haunting stories. Ingrid was a German woman whose mother, as a child during the war, had been touched by Hitler. When I began to write my second novel, Blue Nude, and to imagine the early life of one of my characters, I found myself there, inside that German girl's skin. When Ingrid said she "always felt dirty" because Hitler had touched her mother, I wept. I embraced her without her permission, offered forgiveness she hadn't asked for and may not have felt able to receive. What made me think I could comfort her? I offered it anyway.
I believe that Blue Nude is where that offer led me. I still want to transcend our seemingly relentless shame and grief, using compassion and imagination to move closer together instead of farther away. "Only connect," E.M. Forster wrote, not long after one Great War had ended. Can we remember the past and move beyond it, creating art in the process? I hope so.