Strenght of empathy, a few thoughts after Jena Summer School on Societies in Transition and Reconciliation

Aug 29, 2014 by

Strenght of empathy,  a few thoughts after Jena Summer School on Societies in Transition and Reconciliation

What is reconciliation? Can it be equaled with “conflict resolution” or “conflict management”, or is it  more than that? Can we develop “reconciliation practices” transferable from one region to another? In how far can we really learn from history? These and other solution-orientated questions mingled in my mind, practical as it has become in the recent years. And still, there is something idealistic, something like an appeal and a promise in this word “reconciliation” – an appeal which I eagerly followed.

Last week I took part in a one-week conference in Jena where I met people from all over the world working on themes related to peace building. It was a conference like no other, in which reconciliation was not just an object but a principle of discussion – creating  moments in which intellectual curiosity and ethical urgency, analysis and experience, came together. I am coming back now, my suitcase filled with notes, graphs and arrows (which will hopefully result in a few articles soon) and myself – with a variety of emotions that my  mind needs to reconcile with.


On Sunday, we went to the Buchenwald concentration camp located near Weimar. The inscription “Jedem das Seine” – everyone gets what he deserves – makes me shiver. The concept of justice imprisoned between the iron bars. There is an open space spreading in front of us restricted only by the forest along the horizon. But the moment your mind, disobeying its own orders, conjures up the barracks once standing here, the corpses of those ill or weak who did not manage to survive and the orchestra of the infamously brutal camp manager playing on the side, the space becomes surreal and the air stuffy. The trees around, pliant enough to follow the gusts of wind, are moving as if in astonishment of what a human is capable of. Under one of those birch trees Göthe allegedly wrote his works. Later, people were hung on those trees.

I went along this place accompanied by a Jewish man, a participant of our group, who had joined us later, for he wanted to say a prayer before. He would speak at the conference about the ideas of the philosopher Levinas and how God  had “receded” or “contracted itself” during the Holocaust. He explained to me that God was not there when it happened. I wonder if he had returned since, but I do not dare to ask. As we go up a monument to the memory of the Polish soldiers with an inscription “Polish patriots were killed here”, someone from the group asks me how they knew that these were Polish patriots. His glimpse says that this is not objective and I say, well, that means they fought for a free Poland. A glimpse of focused half-comprehension, which would change later.

There were Soviet prisoners of war and Jews killed and tortured in the forest nearby. But most of the prisoners lived inside the camp, “quite normally” for those circumstances, says the guide. It was not an extermination camp, but rather a working and a transfer camp. Not death, but separation of the prisoners from the rest of the society was the primary aim of this camp. There were no gas chambers here. But there were ovens in a building on the side, still standing here, where living children were thrown into, we are told. The air is stuffy, there are dried flowers scattered around the ovens. I see someone studying the map of the building, hanging on the other side, the perfect mechanism of killing illustrated in a process chart with arrows and lines. I see there are flowers put under one memorial plate, given by the association of antifascists in Germany.

 I feel grief when I look at this open space which was once a camp. When I think of reconciliation, I forget big conceptual terms, conflict management strategies and the like, and I just feel we should approach the subject humbly and with due care.


If someone asked me, as we were asked on the following day, what we could  do today to prevent that from happening again, I would say – we can listen. Learn the language of the other person, try to take on a different perspective. It seems to me that empathy has muscles – and each time you try to see the world from another angle, you learn another language, you have a deeper argument with someone, those muscles are being trained. And the moment the crisis comes, be it from the outside or the inside, you have built your strength in those muscles, in the humanity you worked on before, and you are capable of resistance.

There is this popular phrase “change of perspective”, which is misleading I think, as it suggest that such a change happens quickly. I like the continuous form “changing” better, or the more subtle “shifting”. There are moments in conversation with others that for a split of a second undermine something we believe in strongly. It may be an uncomfortable feeling, like a pinch on your skin. Most of us slide over it towards (self) justification, arguments we voiced many times before. And each time we voice them again, their imprint on us becomes firmer, we fester our positions and weaken our “muscles”. There might be a judgment involved. We close on the argument of Another.

Back to the conference room

The tables are put together in a rectangular shape.

A Belorussian woman with a gentle voice and a withdrawn smile is sitting to my left. She is a lecturer at the European University in Vilnius. Since the university in Minsk was closed by the authorities, and then reopened in Vilnius under the auspices of the EU, her life split in two: two weeks in Minsk and two in Vilnius. We speak about shame, the topic of her research. “The second, the third generation have hardl any reason to feel ashamed….,” she says, and looks down.

On her left, a dark-haired Russian woman is sitting who opposes Putin more vehemently than the rest of us do. Maybe because she feels she has more right, or more of a duty, to do so. A woman from Kosovo speaks about Albanian and Serbian collective narratives. She is a diplomatic peace-loving type, wearing a light white shirt, but even she cannot see a way to create a common narrative in this ethnically divided context. There is a Swiss film director in his 50ties sitting on her right who first made films about animals but then became interested in people. He made a film on Ruanda and the question of forgiveness and reconciliation between Hutu and Tutsi tribes. He speaks about making an impact a lot.

There is a Belorussian historian living in France, whose Belorussian mother lives in Russia and a Russian father – in Belarus. A Slovak political scientist, whose mother is from South America but looks Slovak and father – you can guess, the other way round. He says “however” a lot, and by now laughs about it too. A Georgian lawyer studying at a German university, and a Palestinian teaching specialist focusing on non-violence techniques.

There is an American professor, who finds a kind and a wise word for every presentation. She wants to learn from the young generation she says. There is another Russian girl living in Bordeaux who does research into Russian schoolbooks and wondering why the word opposition does not come up there all too often. There is a German journalist who broadcasted from South Sudan and Afghanistan for many years, but lost faith in the integrity of journalism and makes her way back into academia.  There is a Polish girl, who takes it all in and realizes, from time to time, how Polish her perspective sometimes is, despite her long-lasting striving for objectivity. She sits on my seat.

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