Photo by Karl-Heinz Rauscher
“I live in a crazy time”. (Anne Frank 1929-1945)
“Have you ever heard the expression: Walk a mile in my shoes, and then you judge me?” (Ann Rule)
In June of this year I was invited to the Netherlands, together with my German colleague Dr. Karl-Heinz Rauscher, to offer a workshop on the topic of Men, Women, War and Peace. Our event took place in the city of Nijmegen, located in the southeasten region of the country,along the Waal river, a few kilometers from the German border.Originally established as a Roman military camp,Nijmegen is the oldest city in the Netherlands and was the first Dutch municipality to come under German control during World War II. Given its antiquity, Nijmegen has a long and very rich history, however, given the nature of our topic, particpants were primarily concerned with unresolved traumatic events that occurred during the Nazi times which continue to reverberate into individual and family lives today.
In 1939 there were 140,000 Dutch Jews living in the Netherlands including some 25,000 who had fled Germany and Austria during the 1930s rise of the Third Reich and Nazi racial hygiene laws which included Jews among those deemed “unworthy of life”. With the German invasion in May 1940, the Netherlands was already the most densely populated country in Europe, without much open space or woodlands for people to hide. As a result, many who survived the Holocaust were hidden by other people. As is the case with countries under hostile occupation, citizens often respond by choosing to collaborate with the oppressers or become involved with the resistance. In many cases members of the same family made radically different choices.
During the Nazi occupation, the greater part of the Dutch administrative infra-structure and municipal police, together with Dutch railway staff, rounded up Jewish deportees. These unfortunates were then transported to a transit camp such as Westerbork, a forbidding wasteland in northeast Holland, and then sent by rail to Polish death camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor, where very few survived. During this time, the Dutch underground managed, at risk of torture and death, to hide an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Jews. In later times, the Dutch received a significant number of awards from Yad Vashem for saving Jewish lives. (yadvashem.org)
After the war ended in 1945, Jews who emerged from hiding or returned from concentration camps were faced with a disorganized society unprepared to re-integrate or offer compensation. Legal battles ensued as Holocuast victims struggled to regain possessions, life insurance and bank accounts. ( Michael Palomino, Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol.12, 2008).
Many citizens of that generation, perpetrators, victims and bystanders, chose to cope with their overwhelming collective trauma through denial, silence, secrets, and cover ups.
Given our topic involving war and peace, it was not surprising that the unresolved traumas of the Nazi-era presented through the issues of our workshop particpants. In sessions involving victims who were deported to almost certain death, their representatives in systemic constellation work, showed a curious fascination with shoes. Moreover, those who were representing their perpetrators, said they could only see the shoes of the victims. At the time, we were quite puzzled with their focus on shoes .
Later in the evening following this workshop, Karl-Heinz and I went out walking in the city and were amazed to find streets decorated with rows and rows of overhead wires hung with thousands of shoes; all manner of shoes; sandals, boots, wooden clogs, slippers, high heels, baby shoes and so on. Given the content of that day’s sessions, we began to speculate as to the possible relationship between these thousands of shoes and the deportations during the occupation. My mind flashed back to those tragic photographs of huge mounds of shoes still on display in Auschwitz, which had belonged to the murdered deportees. Karl-Heinz had the thought that through this outdoor art installation, perhaps the city was, unconscoiusly, bringing to light the fate of their deportees.
We soon learned that the stated purpose of the outdoor installation was to celebrate Nijmegen’s famed Four Mile March, held on the third Tuesday of each July, a tradition since 1909 to promote health and fitness. While initially envisioned as a way for Dutch youth to become fit for military service this tradition grew to include civilians and then women in 1913, and now people come from all over to participate in this city-wide walking festival. (walkthewalk.org). For most observers, rows of overhead shoes strung above those old streets are merely festival decoration, while given our work with collective trauma its not surprising, that Karl-Heinz and I were drawn to speculate about all those shoes in relation to unresolved issues of deportation and mass murder.
While it seems that much is still unresolved from the years of Nazi occupation, there is nevertheless a small memorial at the Kitty de Wijze Plaza. Just a few steps from the cathedral dedicated to St. Stephen, there is a statue (by Paulus de Swaarf,1938-2008) of Kitty de Wijze, who together with her family, was deported and murdered along with 400 other Jews from Nijmegen whose names appear on a bronze plaque on a nearby wall.
With mass migrations and deportations still ongoing, it is clear that humanity still has much to learn as to the consequences of such crimes against humanity. In the Netherlands, one brave young girl tried to warn us in her Diary of Anne Frank, published after her death in Bergen Belsen. Anne died of typhus together with her sister Margot and their mother was starved to death in Auschwitz. Only Anne’s father Otto Frank survived the Holocaust and subsequently published the diary she kept during the time their family was in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam.
While the Diary of Anne Frank is much loved by many American readers, we would do well to also be aware that the Frank family applied for visas to the USA as refugees and were denied entrance due to strict immigration policies designed to “protect National Security” and “influx of foreigners” during wartime. (Elahe Izadi, washingtonpost, November 24, 2015).
Such reasoning is with us again under the Trump admistrations’s policies of mass deportations of “illegal aliens” and refusal to offer asylum to refugees, especially Muslims and many Latin Americans gathered along our southern border. As we have seen in the Netherlands and many other countries, the consequences of indifference and crimes against humanity will continue to reverberate through many generations, as these collective traumas will manifest in individuals, families and many other forms of relationship.