Neo Nazi Encounter in Germany


Neo Nazi Encounter in Germany


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An Exercise in Listening

by Samson Munn

My German train-mate and I decided to share a taxi after arriving in Berlin. With both of us seated in the rear that sunny afternoon, she sat to my right. The conversation became more relaxed and less focused once she had approved the final version of her statement and my computer had been put away. She breathed more easily, sat a bit farther back in the seat and spoke with less urgency. It was surprisingly cool for August.

After rambling a bit in English, we happened upon the subject of languages and she asked if I spoke any others. When I answered that I knew a little Yiddish, her eyes widened, she turned and leaned a bit toward me and her ears even seemed to tip forward. She immediately begged for an ear-taste of Yiddish.

Previously, in our train compartment, I had related that for over forty years I had known well a man who had seen a gas chamber at Auschwitz/Birkenau from close enough literally to have smelled the fear, remaining suspended in the still air, of those who had died just minutes earlier. He had also escaped his own gassing there by shear luck. Unfortunately, he had had ample opportunity to observe well the personnel and physical structures that had been utilized by the Reich as weapons of mass killing, actually murder. That Yiddish was his mother tongue may have provided the poignancy that made me sufficiently emboldened in the taxi finally to reveal to her that that man was my father.

Knowing that she was in for a surprise, I paused and switched to Yiddish. Listening attentively and silently to my every Yiddish word and tone, her eyes were riveted upon mine, their whites rapidly turning pink. I related that when his train arrived at Auschwitz [Ven mein Footer's tsoog iz ungehkummen nahK Owshvits, in Yiddish], all of the Jewish barracks had already been jammed full. However, the "Gypsy" barracks [Tsigoiner lahger] had become empty since all of the Roma and Sinti ("Gypsies") had been exterminated [oomgehbrahK t] soon before. So, upon arrival, he and his train mates were billeted in "Gypsy" barracks instead of Jewish ones. Nine weeks later (a typical Auschwitz-Birkenau "shelf-life"), when it became time for his barrack's "contents" to be gassed and then burned, a guard marched my father's whole barrack group across the camp to the gas chamber entrance. My father then saw the gas chamber frightfully well [Er hut gehzain dee gahz-kahmmer gahnts klahr.]. At that very moment, the camp whistle blared the end of the workday!

During our bizarre encounter in the taxi, my heart pounded as I actually heard the clarion whistle of my father's last evening in Auschwitz. Still, at that very moment, I found myself wondering: Was that end-of-the-workday whistle blaring in her ear? Was her chest beginning to reflect the whistle's life-and-death power over my father's heartbeat?

The whistle started an argument between the functionary who had been operating the gas chamber and the guard who had marched my father and his barrack-mates there. The man at the gas chamber refused to deal with the nuisances of another round of gassing, moving and burning some more Jews; he had already shut down operations for the evening. On the other hand, the barrack guard was simultaneously peeved with the prospect of leading a return march back across the camp to the barrack. My father and his fellows listened hard and heard every word.

In the end, they were returned to their barracks. They believed all night long that they were to die in the morning. They knew so! However, coincidentally, an envoy arrived from the Görlitz forced labor camp very early the next morning to obtain slave workers. My father was fortunately among those supplied that morning.

I was still speaking in Yiddish. I inventoried with detached tone those many who had been killed in only the immediate families of my parents [Zai zenen in Lahger oomgehkimmen], and I mentioned that although fewer had been killed in my mother's immediate family than in my father's, her personal victimization had been even more horrible than had his [S'iz mehr shrekliK gehvazen for zee]. (She spent over two years in three concentration camps and was a musselman much of that time. A musselman is a Yiddish term for the thoroughly wasted type of concentration camp victim who was exposed to such protracted starvation that even to grow hair was sometimes impossible; still, they were often able to walk zombie-like and to do minimal labor.)

Her voice choked and her spine provided waning support as she first began genuinely to conceive of the deaths of Jews (newly perceived by her as at least her own linguistic kin) actually as murders, and of her fellow Germans as the murderers. I could sense her wondering, "Could I have been so mistaken all these years?" Her voice quivering and her hands trembling, she indeed finally confessed with anguish, frustration and confusion, "Now I don't know what to believe!!"

How had we come to this point?

At forty-three years of age, I had found myself gliding on a train from Katowice (Poland) to Berlin. My partner in this unusual dialogue and I had likely been traveling upon the same rails that decades earlier had conveyed my parents to Auschwitz. It was August 1995 and I was returning from a short trip I had taken to participate only briefly in a conference at Auschwitz (now Oswiecim, Poland) in the midst of a concurrent two-week seminar I had already begun to attend in Berlin.

The seven of us attending the Berlin seminar were members of three Boston Jewish-German dialogue groups that met for an evening each month. These groups addressed issues of interest to Germans and to Jews, such as the Holocaust, South Africa, racism, fascism and European culture.

The purpose of the Berlin seminar was for a small number of select American Jews to gain intensive exposure to the current situation of Jews in Germany. It was packed with meetings and presentations that provided a comprehensive and fascinating exposure. Listening figured importantly, because the opportunity was so rich in its presentations to us and in our dialogues with the presenters.

Also, I was (and still am) one of about eighteen participants in an intensive, ongoing, nontherapeutic encounter primarily composed of daughters and sons of Jewish Holocaust victims or of German Nazi perpetrator fathers. Stemming from that project, I organized and facilitated a similar encounter group; it comprises children of Austrian Jewish Holocaust victims and children of Austrian Nazi perpetrators. All since 1992, there have been many other related projects and meetings.

(The popular ascent of the Nazis in Germany is often marked at 1933, when Hitler (an Austrian), then chief of the (German) National Socialist Party, was elected chancellor of the Reich. Contemporaneously, my father was a hard-working, fourth generation, fine woodworker of 21 in Lódz (an industrial city in western Poland with a population then of over 620,000, one-third of which was Jewish). He had been born the second of seven children in a poor, working family of observant Ashkenazi Jews. My mother was then an innocent of 11 in Aurich (a small agricultural town in northwest Germany, near the Dutch border), the third of four children in a middle-class family that was also observant but largely Sephardic.

Five years later, Austrians were gleeful as their nation was peaceably annexed by the Reich. By then, my father was eagerly studying sculpture in Paris and my mother anticipating nursing school in Berlin (despite the difficulties already present).

By 1943, Germany had easily conquered France (with the help of many French collaborators) and Poland. My father had by then been confined to the Lódz ghetto, working as a manager of several factories in the ghetto. After about two years, he was shipped to Auschwitz for approximately nine weeks, when he was transferred as a slave laborer to a camp in Görlitz (Germany) for about seven months. He finally found himself free as the Germans withdrew in fear of the approaching Russians.

Although my mother had already become a graduate nurse in Berlin, she found hein 1943 consigned by her fellow Germans to a killing camp. She was first incarcerated at Auschwitz, then Gräben (a division of Gross-Rosen) and finally Bergen-Belsen, from which she was ultimately liberated by the British. In all, she was restricted for just over two years to killing or labor camps.

My mother's parents and one brother, and my father's parents, sister, one brother and first wife, were all murdered in ghettos or in concentration, forced labor, or killing camps. There is insufficient room here to enumerate killed cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.; personal possessions and mementos taken forever; and, hopes and careers wrecked.

Separately, they began recovery in Germany in Allied displaced persons' camps until 1947, when they immigrated to America and met in New York. They were wed the next year, my brother was born in 1949 and I in 1952. Arguably, my father's recovery proceeded productively in the subsequent decades but certainly my mother's has not been nearly so successful. She has remained tortured daily by post-traumatic stress and by the effects of prolonged starvation.)

The main vehicles of such successful encounters are listening respectfully and talking honestly, in depth. The benefits of listening attentively, nonjudgmentally and at length include greater revelation of actual facts, enhanced profundity of understanding of perceived realities, improved validity of analyses, empathy, and more constructive and hopefully more satisfying personal relationships. For me, that appreciation may have begun by listening zealously in childhood to frequent stories of Europe that I heard from my parents, stories which they generously and calmly shared but upon which they did not dwell.

On the return limb of my brief excursion to Poland, I entered a six-seat, first-class compartment of the train and a polite and initially very reserved conversation began with a stranger. She looked about fifty years old, but I later calculated her age to be fifty-seven or so. Her skin was pale white and slightly moist, her hair wavy and dull brown but well kempt, her contour lean, and her bearing modestly confident. She was conservatively dressed, appearing wholly inconspicuous.

We sat facing each other next to the window, the other four seats in the compartment remaining empty. Her English was not bad and certainly better than my barely existent German. She was a Gymnasium (high school) history teacher in Germany. Revealing her curiosity, she asked almost immediately what I, an American, was doing in that area of Poland. I explained a little about the Auschwitz talk and the Berlin meeting, mentioning that some of the people at each were Jewish. She asked outright if I was a Jew "too." Somehow, I mistook her "too" to mean as was she rather than as were the others at the meetings. In any event, I answered affirmatively and inquired if she were Jewish. Apparently taken aback, she replied sternly, "No!"

Within moments, she asked if I ("a Jew") would be interested in learning openly and strictly anonymously from her ("a German") "what the great majority of Germans really think about Jews and Germany today." Her voice was clear and serious, and a bit driven.

Even at the time, I thought that missing such a rare opportunity to listen to someone whose views might prove to be so importantly wrong would be my loss. Thus, it seemed that it would be a mistake simply to capitulate to my natural and primitive tendencies to argue the truth with her, simply to decline, to bias the impending exposure with my feelings or reactions, or to have her arrested by the train police. After all, it is easy to listen to people with whom one agrees or from whom one learns altogether new and exciting information. It is difficult to listen fairly to people whose views one disagrees with, finds disgusting, fears, or even hates. Sometimes the latter is simply a waste of time and perhaps more, but this opportunity attracted me: perhaps the attraction lay in the possibility to hear genuinely from a German history teacher who would not be so typically liberal and forward-thinking as those Germans whom I would usually come across.

Further, following her initial inquiry, I knew that her views were probably illegal to express publicly under German law. I had never before had the chance to listen to such expressions in person, and for some reason she was eager to share them with me. I anticipated a rare encounter but saw little purpose in aggressive confrontation in this particular case. So, I answered "yes" and determined right then to listen with patience and without censure (in word and in gesture) to everything that she offered.

She opened with "Germany is for Germans, not for Jews." However, at that very moment, her already powerful words were promptly interrupted by the intrusion of a train conductor. It soon became clear that she needed to pay eleven more Polish zlotys in fare. She had only German marks but he refused to exchange currencies for her. Their stalemate was obviated by my intervention: calculating the generosity it would demonstrate, I deliberately handed a twenty-zloty bill to him and told her that she need not compensate me.

She was caught off guard and momentarily stupefied by such kindness from, in this case, a Jew - a Jew who obviously already knew that he was about to be informed of strong and negative feelings about Jews from her (a German), and a Jew whom she might stereotypically expect to be stingy. After briefly collecting herself, she opined confidently that most Germans were fearful of being open about their thoughts and feelings because of their own country's laws that restricted free speech regarding Jews, Nazis and concentration camps. To do so would have been to risk her own imprisonment, perhaps for years. She said that she yearned for decades to meet anonymously a "reasonable Jew" so that she could explain, at least once, the feelings of "most Germans." She voiced her hope that other "reasonable Jews" might in turn hear of it from me.

At that early point in our conversation, she was already speaking with power and determination, as if the thoughts and perhaps lines had been rehearsed or memorized. Her confidence and bearing were reminiscent of early Nazis. The discussion itself began to remind me of The Jewish Problem, as it had been addressed in the thirties and forties by the Nazis. It was already becoming clear that her orientation was that ethnic Germans were modern victims and that the German government and Jews were contemporary perpetrators.

We spoke mostly in English but occasionally in a few words of German. A few minutes after we began, I asked her if she would mind if I were to pull my notebook computer out and to take notes. I assured her that she could take all the subsequent several hours we had together on the train to get her feelings into words precisely as she wished. I suppose she saw the possibility that her words might really be cast faithfully and perhaps widely.12 Sensing the orientation of my interest, she agreed excitedly.

The following narrative was condensed by her from her spontaneous, hours' long elaboration. She took the opportunity I gave to her to use ample time to review carefully every word and phrase in the next three paragraphs, changing words, moving sentences around, etc., until she approved in a heartfelt and proud way. It was created fully by her and is merely reported here, with only a few, brief and explanatory phrases added by me (in brackets):

Germany should be for Germans, for a small number of persecuted foreigners, and for Jews whose families had been here in former times. Other foreigners here in Germany should remain with foreign status. It is impossible for Germany to be gradually changed into a multicultural society. The great majority of Germans resent deeply the fact that Germany is becoming involved with all sorts of foreigners, especially extra-European races. Germany is dependent upon America and Jews. The German government now favors foreigners and Jews and disfavors Germans. And, Jews in Germany today hope to take advantage of and to profit from the multicultural chaos here, and ato hide in it so as to avoid confrontation.

On relations between the Germans and the Jews .... The laws against free speech in Germany regarding the Holocaust and the Nazi era are unethical and themselves encourage anti-Semitism. The non-native Jews should remain in Germany as guests (along with other foreigners) and not seek revenge. German officials who feel otherwise are wrong, and those who simply say otherwise are dishonest cowards and hypocrites. The relationship between Jews and Germans is much worse now than it had been just after the war; then, most younger Germans (excluding the older Nazis remaining) had been ready to reconcile with Jews in an honest way. The Jews don't know their borders [probably meaning limits]. The Jews perceived the readiness of the Germans for reconciliation as weakness; the Jews exaggerated their reparations claims in a way which is unbearable for the German people. In contradistinction, nothing is ever made of the damage and harm done to German civilians during the war. The Hanover memorial to the Jews is a disgrace. We Germans feel it is shameful of the Jews to treat their dead as wares by garnering financial gain from them. The concept of "collective guilt" is pure nonsense - guilt can be only personal. The culminating point of all this is that the Holocaust has become taboo for discussion in several important European countries.

There exists [chemical and other] research from a man named Leuchter, from an institute in Krakow, and from a chemist named Germa Rudolf (pseudonym Ernst Gauss) that indicates that the presumed gas chambers had never contacted [been in physical contact with] gas, but that they had simply been crematoria for people who had died of typhus. Gas chambers existed in Auschwitz but only for the purpose of insecticide disinfection of clothes. The majority of intelligent Germans know about such research. The imprisonment of Mr. Rudolph is therefore absolutely unbearable for a normal-thinking, normally intelligent person. To have put this young scientist into prison (sentenced without parole) rather than to have encouraged open discussion is to have regressed back into the Middle Ages. The book he authored, ~Strittige Fragen der Zeitgeschichte [~ Disputed Questions of Contemporary History], is forbidden; and, the book he edited, Unterricht in Zeitgeschichte [Instruction in Contemporary History], is banned.

This behavior ridicules the German government before [i.e., in the eyes of] the world. It damages the appearance of the Jews in Germany and in the remainder of the world too. It seems as if the German government and publicly visible Jews in Germany wish to make anti-Semitism permanent. Anti-Semitism is encouraged and made stronger by the restriction of free speech in regard to the Holocaust and to the Jews. Official Germans who are devoted to Jews are in this regard imbeciles, neurotics, hypocr, cowards, or without character - there is no other possible explanation.

I assured her that I, as an American, found it possible to agree with her objection to infringements of free speech, such as those to which she referred in Germany. However, I did not reveal specific disagreements that I had with her comments. For one thing, I did not perceive it to be my inherent role magically to change her mind at that moment. For another, she did not yet seem able properly to apprehend her misconceptions. I am sure she could physically have listened to my words, but I doubt she would genuinely have heard them. She was still too driven to get her concerns off her chest to listen earnestly, if that were ever possible for her.

Somewhere in the midst of our conversation, she began to allude to courtroom law. In authoritative tone, she cited the supreme value of scientific evidence in any discussion, including this one. I told her calmly that although I respected her view as applied to herself, it did not so automatically and authoritatively apply to me: I did not live in a mere courtroom and was thus free to consider evidence differently - more personally and less scientifically. The example that I gave was my father as witness in recollections of his wartime years in Europe. She asked me to explain and I replied with a superficial, factual chronology.

Her raised, cocked head betrayed her confusion - a more personal approach to wider truth seemed entirely unknown to her. Further, she somehow found my father's history credible! Together, these new perturbations may explain why she did not pursue the story with further questioning. I imagined the intellectual and emotional inconsistencies welling within her. In the end, though, her acknowledging grimace suggested possible, residual receptivity.

Perhaps because of her apparent confusion and temporary openness, I risked provoking her by indicating that her "scientific" claims would be disputed by most experts. She replied that such merely reputed experts would not include "real Germans," by which I assumed she meant non-Jewish, ethnic Germans. I told her that she happened "to be sitting across from either the wrong or the right person" depending on one's orientation: by chance, I had with me in my computer the names of at least five Holocaust scholars, four of whom were German and not Jewish, and three of whom still live and work in Germany!

Curious, she inquired why they did not very publicly talk or write about such discrepancies from the view "held by most Germans." I told her that they indeed did so often, and I offered to give to her their names and work phone numbers (public information). She said she was deeply impressed with the seriousness of my approach to her and she gratefully and enthusiastically accepted. I handed them to her right then.

Returning to her prior tone, she asked me to end my computer entry with these cautions and questions explicitly to be posed to the remaining scholars, academics and diplomats with whom I was still to meet, back in Berlin:

Why do you come to us? We know that you are not honest. Why don't you have the courage to say to us what you really think? Try to say what you really feel! We won't harm you; don't be anxious. It's ridiculous to disgracefully minimize yourself in this way!

She also advised me that Germany would recover Silesia in merely about ten years. I asked how that would be possible. Her four-fold answer rolled smoothly, swiftly and suspiciously automatically off her tongue:

Silesia is German, Germany's economy and world position are fast recovering, America is in an important financial decline that will lead its significance in the world nearly to vanish, and the Poles are so very stupid.

She related some personal anecdotes too. For instance, she told me a story about her son (who was to begin medical school in Germany in the fall of 1995). He had recently been dropped by his girlfriend. When the two women conferred over the phone, the ex-girlfriend said that she had ended the relationship with him because she had found his Nazism intolerable. The mother asked how the ex-girlfriend could possibly have believed that he was a Nazi, a notion preposterous to the mother. The ex-girlfriend answered that, among other things, she had seen him raise his arm to Heil Hitler. Stunned, the mother insisted to her that that simply could not have been so, since neither mother nor son had ever been a Nazi! For her, the image of her son in Heil to Hitler was inconceivable! However, the ex-girlfriend remained steadfast and their conversation ended without resolution.

Finally, she portrayed Americans in occupied Germany in the period just after the war as having been "barbaric - even more barbaric than the Russians." She felt that American barbarism had been subtly hidden beneath the superficial wonderfulness of post-war recovery, but had nonetheless been powerful and insidious.

Her utterances hurt and strongly offended me on at least four levels: as an American, as a Jew, as a child of Holocaust survivors and simply as a person. I was born and raised in America, was a cub scout, was a little-league baseball all-star three years, attended city elementary and high schools and a state university, and had by then medicallconsulted on veterans at a federal hospital for over thirteen years. Thus, my American aspect was unquestionable. Although I had no forbears in the States before 1947, I felt instantly insulted as an American by her accusation. Still, my response to the bulk of her commentary (and even to her existence) was deeper - more visceral.

My parents are Jewish, Holocaust survivors whose many months of unrelenting, heinous trauma had been at the hands of what she would logically call "real Germans" and Austrians. Austrian and German Nazis (and their collaborators) defined Jews effectively not by religious affiliation, by political orientation, nor by other sociological aspects, but rather coolly by a single, immutable criterion: ethnic category at birth. That determination had been sufficient to relegate people of both sexes and of all ages to prompt murder or to shipment to concentration or killing camps via the famously precise German railroad system. As is now known well, the "cargo" had been thought of as sub-human and had been made to stand over-crowded in deadly cattle cars for many days without food, heat, water, fresh air, rest, toilets, or even simple information.

I have tried to envision life in the camps and think that I occasionally only barely glimpse it. It is hard even to approach grasping the enormity of anguish, horror and evil there - the beatings, prolonged starvation, intentionally intensified exposure to the elements, slave labor, disease, rape, medical experimentation, etc. I am also sometimes moved by images and feelings that come unsolicited.

(Imagery helps in trying to sense the depth of torture and anguish. For instance, in the camps, a highest-tier bunk was prized because diarrhea would not drip down through the cracks between wooden bunk boards supporting eight or nine people who would otherwise be sleeping above; rather, one's own diarrhea could flow away.)


However, my traveling companion largely seemed incapable of a process of genuinely attempting to envision or to understand concerning the Holocaust. The most generous view might be that that was or would be too painful for her. In this rare experience with me, her door of conception was only barely pried open; she was far from crossing the threshold.

For me, personal understanding is to facts somewhat as wisdom is to knowledge. In this setting, genuinely to understand another person's experience one first needs to learn of the other's actual and perceived facts and circumstances and then to allow them consciously and unconsciously to percolate, sometimes eliciting empathy. To do that well often necessitates the temporary suspension of ethical judgment (essentially prejudgment). A benefit is improved application of one's own ethical analysis and judgment afterward.

Although I reacted outwardly with equanimity, my internal responses were profound and vacillated among various combinations of revulsion, hurt, hatred, angst and pity. At some moments my heart rate rose and I wanted to throw her off the train. At others, I reclined back in my seat, sighing with exhaustion. At no point was I bored, although I did occasionally find myself mentally out to observe this surreal conversation. Aside from the brief mention to her of the man I had known who had been to Auschwitz, she then knew nothing of my family's past and seemed to sense none of my reaction. To try to suspend judgment of her and not to evince my reactions were difficult.

Of course, I knew well of such importantly evil and pathetic thinking as hers. Anti-Semitism is still a problem in America and elsewhere, of course. It is more often and more deeply present in Germany than in the States, and has been worse in Austria for at least this century. Also, other manifestations of tribal mentality, such as homophobia, xenophobia and racism against Roma, Sinti, Turks and Blacks, remain unfortunately prevalent in Germany and in Austria.

Even with that knowledge, it troubled me that both mother and son were ensconced so well in contemporary German society. Also, simply the transmission of such notions in this modern time, particularly on a German train between Auschwitz and Berlin, and poignantly to a child of Holocaust survivors, elicited an unpleasant combination of tense excitement, angst and mild shock in me. That she was a history teacher worsened matters considerably, since it suggested that the state or federal government was in some way failing to screen out such people from positions in which they could share their views authoritatively with Germany's youth.

Toward the end of the taxi ride, I calmed her a little by suggesting that she need not necessarily believe me, a man she had begun to trust only within the prior few hours. On the other hand, I proposed that she also might not trust the biased sources she had believed for years. Rather, I encouraged her to contact the acknowledged Holocaust scholars whose names and numbers I had just given to her, and to trust them. I also filled her in with a minute or two more of the history of my family. At the end of our ride, she thanked me warmly and gratefully, and assured me that she would indeed contact them. We shook hands and said "good-bye" as anonymously as we had met. I will likely, of course, never know if our meeting had even a small, permanent effect.

Later, I discussed her with my colleagues and with those with whom I was meeting in Berlin. At first, most dismissed the experience as fluke and the woman as exceedingly rare. After all, certainly most Germans who were urban, young or middle-aged, bright, educated and employed were not racist, anti-Semitic, or xenophobic. Such liberal Germans may lately have been most visible publicly, but just how representative were they? The director of Germany's federally sponsored, anti-Semitism research bureau in Berlin promptly and privately confided that the woman's anti-Semitic views were indeed present in a large minority of Germans.

Over the next several days, the Berlin group's general view of the woman evolved. Increasingly, she and her son began to be appraised as dangerous in current times. People of such conviction are not so rare as is often thought, they often hold positions of respect and of influence, they are often overlooked since they are visually inconspicuous (unlike skinheads), and they could gain pivotal political power and peer-pressure utility should a more conservative social atmosphere arise. If such a socio-political shift occurred, they could function as liaison, providing reciprocal political, psychological and concrete support among a conservative government, neo-Nazis and the general German populace.

Although disappointed with the importance of those appraisals, I was glad even then to have met the woman and I was gratified that listened to and heard her. Of course, I would not desire such a personal exposure often or with a violent racist. However, this once-in-my-lifetime nonconfrontational encounter - with someone who was capable of explaining herself but who was nonetheless deeply wrong - was very worthwhile for me (regardless of whether it was for her). I discovered that even when pushed quite far by disgusting, absurd and dangerous verbiage, I could (at least this time) indeed manage to listen genuinely and even to engage in dialogue, albeit unusual and limited.

We live in a complicated, competitive and fast-moving world in which people frequently meet others, in person or electronically, of varied life experiences, views, cultural styles and emotional orientations. Those factors lend themselves to the birth of new conflicts or to the recrudescence of old ones, but not constructively to dealing with them. Simply being alert to this situation is fundamental in beginning to handle such encounters and conflicts well, but it takes more. Other factors include judging (sometimes uncomfortably early) when to avoid or to engage confrontation and why, and later how, where, with whom and so on.

In regard to any aspects or stage of such engagement, it is deeply important to try hard to listen well - attentively, openly and very patiently - in order to understand another properly and ultimatelyto express one's self well. For most of us, hearing is a sense with which we are born, but listening is not. Listening well is widely appreciated but rarely practiced. It is a skill, and as such can be taught and learned to varying degrees. Education in listening takes time and effort, and is taught in part by example. Finally, listening benefits from exercise.

As hearing is to vocalizing, so listening is to expressing. Most of us, perhaps especially men (in my experience), speak more frequently or more easily than we listen. Often, the goal of our speaking is to persuade others (or ourselves). However, we often have not distilled our thoughts to their most constructive bases nor do we always say well what we mean.

Expression is not merely passive transmission like that of a radio tower without tuners in the area. Rather, expression necessitates both transmission and reception. More effective, more constructive and more pleasant expression stems not merely from clarity and power of transmission in isolation, but rather from a knowledge of the quality and might of reception. Masters of this notion have included better comedians, clergy, professors and speechmakers throughout history, but their roles are intentionally more monologue than dialogue.

When larger numbers of us get better at listening on our way toward better dialogue, there is a wholly different and far more healthily constructive effect to be had interpersonally and inter-societally. Hearing happens best in the setting of concerned, attentive listening, in turn most fruitfully elicited in those who themselves feel listened to and heard. This can happen stunningly rewardingly amongst people who are directly or indirectly related to major conflict areas.7, 9, 10

Thus, rounds of patient (sometimes painstaking) listening and earnest speaking are at the core of effective, constructive dialogue. There is little hope for peace and respect (or at least acceptance), interpersonally and internationally, without serious dialogue between those whose perspectives differ, even and especially dramatically and painfully. Finally, there is little hope for genuine dialogue without exercising conscientious, skilled listening.

Samson Munn

The Foundation Trust

Brookline Massachusetts U.S.A.


from the December 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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