On seeing oppressors 

.....as victims  

by Jacob Holdt


....While I was writing today I had a phone call which totally shattered the rest of the day for me. A Hungarian born woman called and said she would like to talk to me. As a result of my work I often get calls from people in trouble, but she claimed she had never even heard about me before. I got curious and drove to her apartment since my intuition said that there was something deeper here - even though she had not said that she was in any kind of trouble. 

She just wanted to talk with me. She was 36 years old and a single mother with a 12 year old daughter. She really had no idea who I was, I found out, when I told her about American Pictures. She had come to Denmark 10 years ago as a refugee from Communist Hungary (at a time when I had stopped running Am. Pictures in Denmark). She spoke so fluently Danish now that she had a good job teaching Danish to more recent refugees and Arab immigrants. 

I sensed that there had to be a reason why she had called, but we didn't really have much to talk about for a long, long time. So I started asking about Hungary and told her how many times I had camped there in the past - and especially about the first time I had hitchhiked there in 1972 with my old Jewish girlfriend, Marly. Today Marly is a psychiatrist in San Francisco and there is a reason why I use the label "Jewish" here. (Since you became a bit of a catalyst for me in this conversation today, Marly, I am also e-mailing you this story). For I had started asking Angela, as the woman was called, about her early memories of Jews - telling her about all the anti-Semitism "my Jewish American girlfriend and I" had found in Hungary. 

That started loosening up for something, and she now told me how all her boyfriends in her life had been Jewish and how the father of her child had been Jewish. 
 I think it was at that point I asked if her parents had been very anti-Semitic since I had so often in America seen daughters of overt racists go through years of rebellion via relationships with black guys. She confirmed that her father had been "very, very" anti-Semitic, but didn't seem to really want to talk about him at this point. 

A little later the conversation again stopped. She started asking what I was doing in America. I then talked about my recent spring tour in the U.S. and ended up with the story about Woody, "the mass murderer" I had picked up. The woman was obviously very tired - had not slept for days, she said - but at this point she really started raising her ears. She asked me detailed questions about Woody and how I felt about him. And when I told her about my feelings: that the only salvation I saw for Woody (and for the human race as a whole) was mine and other people's complete forgiveness of him and how I had tried to give him all my unconditional love - but had temporarily failed (as his attempted murder on a sleeping family showed) - and that I would now continue working with both him and his two brothers in prison, well, suddenly it seemed like the gates of heaven came open and this woman started pouring out of herself. 

She now said that she would tell me something she had NEVER shared with anybody before: 
Until she was 6 years old she remembered her life being very happy with a lot of love from her father and mother. But one day the happiness came to an end with a knock on the door - and her father disappeared. For the next 10 years all she was told by her mother and people around was that he was "a soldier", but she increasingly wondered why a soldier never came home. She also experienced isolation in school and increasingly closed herself up in a total shell. 

When she was 16 her father came home, but by then she had moved to college, and rarely saw him since she felt totally alien to him, entrenched in his own shell as he was. When she got pregnant with a Jewish boyfriend - whom she later married - she encountered explosive anger and rejection from both her father and mother. 

 The Jewish family now instead became a real family for her, where she found tremendous warmth and love for the first time since she was 6. But she constantly felt that they knew a secret about her she didn't know herself. Only in glimpses had she felt that it was something about her father having been on the wrong side in the war. Her own parents somehow (I don't remember the details) ruined her marriage with the Jewish man, and since the Jewish family was well-connected in the Communist party, he managed to go to California while she fled to Denmark in 1986. She slipped a remark here about how "Jews controlled everything in the country at that time". 

 She quickly adjusted to Denmark and had after the fall of communism started to send her daughter (with the Jewish name, Theresa) on long visits to both of her grandparents. 

Over the years Angela started to get out of her self-denial. When I asked if she really couldn't remember anything from those years, she said that when her father had left them in 1966, she remembered her mother one night closing the door, but through the door she could hear the radio announce something about "Nazi," "death sentence" and "life sentence". 

Now when she slowly over the years had put some pieces together, she was full of anger towards her mother because she had never told her anything. She learned from Hungarian friends in Denmark that a book about Hungary's war criminals had been published there after the trials, and called her mother and said that if she didn't send her that book she would never talk to her again. 

A couple of months ago her mother finally sent her the book and it revealed a truth far worse than her worst fears. I asked for permission to see it, but only hesitatingly did she let me see it later in the day. It was printed on the bad paper typical in the Communist countries during those years and it was all about the trial of Hungary's 5 worst war criminals (or those who had managed to hide until 1966; most were probably dealt with right after the war). 

There were lots of photos of her father from the trial and even pictures of him standing at huge mass graves giving neck shots to kneeling Jews. The photos of what he did during the Nazi occupation "under order" were not the worst indictments; worse were all the killings he had done on his own as an 18 year old member of the Nazis before the German occupation. Only those where they had found witnesses were mentioned in the indictment: 17 cases where he had tracked down and murdered Jewish families in their homes or in the streets. 

 I don't think I need to say more about his guilt. All these 5 were sentenced to death. But shortly after the death sentence of Angela's father, X, was changed to a life sentence because he had a daughter and a now pregnant wife. (This was 21 years after the war and Hungary was in the midst of an economic boom, as Marly and I would see 5 years later). 

Angela's mother had been totally ignorant of his crimes when she married him in 1959. She was much younger and had been deeply in love with and engaged to a man in university, but on a visit to X's home town she had met him and been charmed by him and especially his wealth. He had his own watch factory (incredible in a Communist country and one may wonder if he had founded it with money looted from the Jews he had killed) - and she had married him to "get security". 

Angela remembered the fancy home they lived in until she was 6 - and how everything was then taken away from them and they were left with a tiny cold flat. With the shock her ignorant mother must have had, she still wonders why she didn't divorce him during his life sentence since they live as dog and cat today. (He was let out for good behavior after 10 years.) But this beautiful trait we so often see with wives of criminals - that they stand by their husbands during trials. 

After receiving this book Angela's life had now been an utter night mare for the last couple of months. She had completely closed herself in - had lost all her friends - and had for the last week even stopped going to work as she was in a total crisis. She was constantly tired since she got only 2-3 hours sleep at night. Why, I asked? 

She said she had recurrent night mares with the same theme: she stands holding hands with her daughter and her brother while a group of Nazis are getting ready to machine gun them. She feels that she can save her daughter, brother and herself by telling the Nazi's "who she really is", the daughter of a Nazi. But she can't get herself to do it and is terrified as she feels her daughters wet hand slipping our of her own.....after which she always wakes up. 

 In the daytime her nightmares continue with guilt feelings about sending her Jewish daughter (Theresa really did have strong Jewish facial traits, when I later saw her) down to stay with a man, who had personally put so many children like her in the grave. She feels selfish for wanting to have her summer vacation for herself to recuperate in - although she actually is sending the daughter back to stay in touch with Hungarian culture and language and to give her what she didn't have herself - the sense of a real family with two grandparent families to go to. Angela refuses to go herself - or to even speak to her parents on the phone now. 

There are many ironies in her story; as a result of Theresa's visits in Hungary, the two grandfathers have now become very close friends - the Jew and the Nazi executioner! Indeed, Theresa had said after the last visit that she didn't like when the two grandfathers were together, because then they would always sit in long, deep conversation with each other - and totally forget about her. 

Another irony is that both of the children end up betraying the former Nazi executioner's aspirations. For Angela's brother is gay - and has cut off connections with his father - not for his war crimes which Angela hasn't told him about, but because the father disowns him. That is why she sees both her Jewish daughter and her gay brother as victims in her nightmare. Her brother lives in Denmark, but refuses to talk with Angela about their parents ("I have enough problems being gay") and hasn't even wanted to hear about the war crimes book. 

This is why I was the first one Angela had ever told her secret to - obviously at a point of total crisis in her life. I now understood why higher forces had sent me here, but wondered how she had gotten my name. She said that while she was trying to escape from Hungary during Communism, a friend, Eva, had given her my name. 

Those were the years where I housed refugees from all over the world in my apartment - gradually ending up with 66 Arab, Palestinian and Iranian refugee men - with the result that all my Danish and American friends left the apartment. I knew that my name circulated in the Arab world, for often Arab newspapers came to do stories on me and I begged them not to write about me as I was afraid to get even more refugees. 

I was surprised now to learn that my name had also passed around in the Communist block. For Angela had been told that if she needed help when she came to the West, she should go to "this man." This was why she had come to Denmark, but here she had instead ended up in a refugee camp at first and been asked to apply for asylum from there - the reason she had forgotten all about me until now. 

 Her life afterwards had been good, but now - ten years later - in her present crisis she had suddenly remembered the words "if you need help, go to this man" and had searched through all her old papers to find my name. I am now not in a position to help refugees anymore (with simple shelter) as I have since entrenched myself into the joys of selfish nuclear family life where I absolutely love to forget about the problems of the world. (During those years where I housed all these refugees even my wife and my son left me - unable to stand the smell and dirt of so many people sleeping on every inch of my floors, on top of refrigerators etc.) 

The only help I could now give Angela was to listen to her problems and this - as I said - even this little help almost failed until I by chance had uttered the magical key words "forgiving a mass murderer." Since this was what had set all this off there was no doubt in my mind that my key answer to her should be about "forgiving her father." 

I don't know anything about interpreting dreams (perhaps you can help me, Marly, with the one in her nightmare?). Nevertheless, I took advantage of her nightmare to tell her that if she didn't connect with the Nazi killers (in other words: completely in her heart tried to forgive her father), then her daughter's hand would slip away from hers. 

I meant not only in a literal sense, that her daughter would one day blame her for not telling her the truth about her grandparents - just like Angela rejected her own mother now for not doing it.  For me the significance of the child's hand slipping out of her own was more about the importance of breaking this vicious cycle of hate in order to save future generations. 

To demonstrate my point I told her about how we had stopped running my show in Germany because all my "employees" at the time refused to work in the unbearable climate of hate which we felt there (around 1977-83).  Everywhere did we in those years see young Germans reject their own parents for their past roles as "Hitler's willing executioners" and they usually cut off all ties to them. 

 This pointless process of unforgiveness shaped and twisted their own characther so that their climate of anger became unbearable for everyone - especially for the blacks who ran my show. Night after night they had to stand defending my sentence about Ku Klux Klan and Nazis "that such lonesome and despairing losers I cannot help but like." 

For the young Germans simply turned their hate on people who refused to hate. They wanted to place responsibility, which is important, but they had no forgiveness in their hearts, and as a result made my black employees responsible - not only for my views, but even for the Klan, as it came out. Often my black spokesmen sensed murder in the air as the spokesmen they ironically ended up becoming for KKK and Nazis in this illogical atmosphere. By rejecting their own parents the young Germans not only carried on the hate of their parents, but actually also helped entrench these in their own pain. 

First of all I told Angela that she was not alone, because there were hundreds of thousands of children of war criminals like her going through similar pain and torture. And that she would destroy herself with hate and negative thoughts if she didn't TRY to reach out to her father - and thereby save herself as in the dream. 

To demonstrate my point about her self-interest in this, I told her about how I myself had learned to survive among vicious people and criminals for many years. By sending them the message of complete trust and forgiveness and basically telling them that "you are good" - often the first time such oppressed souls have ever received this message - we are able to always help them out of the shields of "toughness" and "bad" with which they compensate for their deep pain and lack of self-worth. 

People love to feel loved. So this is so overwhelming a message for them that they will always "melt" and become your ally, after which they will do everything for you. This I had seen countless times with criminals, Ku Klux Klan-members (helping me to Klan-meetings to actually betray their own cause) or with Woody's family. 

When you gradually learn how easy it is to survive in a world of violence and see how even the most "vicious monsters" are starving for our love and acceptance, then you yourself gradually change and become more and more trusting. Thus you send out even more positive vibrations which further increases your own safety and mental well-being. 

 On the contrary, the people I always see getting hurt in my travels are the ones who are locked up in fear and distrust of others whereby they inevitably send out the opposite message to their perpetrators: "You are bad, I have reason to fear you." In that way we re-stimulate the negative self-image criminals generally have of themselves from childhood and directly invite them to act bad against us. And have we first been hurt, we all know how it increases our fear, our negative vibrations to others whereby the vicious circle spirals downwards. 

Although my personal survival philosophy can not be used in war situations with irrational group behavior, drive-by shootings and the like, it can always be applied to encounters with individuals - such as trying to survive mentally with a father like Angela's. The line between oppressor and victim is so blurred anyhow that it is best for our positive thinking and well-being ALWAYS to see everybody as victims. Contrary to what it seems like, this allows others to come out of mental entrenchments and take charge of their own lives - to free themselves from victim/oppressor roles. 

If we instead continue a blame-the-others type of thinking, then we are already ourselves on that same slippery road which her father had once started out from: we are delegating responsibility away from ourselves and end up being devoured by negative thinking - which is hate. 

If you are not trying to completely forgive your father in your heart, I said, you are on the same road as the Yugoslavians and the Rwandan's, where the accumulating hate blows up every 50 years or so. 
Somebody must break the cycle, which is why I am such a great admirer of Mandela's (not to speak of de Klerk's) Truth Commission, in which all the former black and white executioners are given complete pardon in return for confessing to ALL their crimes. 

The reason I held the Truth commission up as a great example for Angela was that she personally had been a victim of the previous escalating South African spiral of violence and hatred. When we had talked earlier about America, I had sensed a lot of racism in her towards blacks. When I asked where she had it from she told me about an event when she had first arrived in Denmark. 

 In her refugee camp she had briefly exchanged remarks with a black refugee from South Africa and one night thereafter he had forced his way into her room and raped her. Later the camp authorities had persuaded her not to press charges against him, "since he was a mentally scarred victim of apartheid where white executioners had killed both his parents - the reason for his hatred of whites now." 

These two victims of oppression, Angela and the South African, had in a sense both lost their parents to oppression - and were now carrying their hate on to each other. To avoid that she would herself end up carrying on the hate in such a pointless way, it was not difficult - intellectually at least - for Angela now to see that she had to do like The Truth Commission: pardon her father. 

The problem is how you forgive someone you see as such a monster that you personally react - not to the human being within - but to the hostile entrenchment he has ended up in as a result of years of punishment and society's rejection and ghettoization of him. It was no surprise for me that he had not been able to express remorse - for to do that you need to feel a positive climate of love, understanding and forgiveness around you, not rejection and hate. 

To help her over this obstacle I asked her to imagine him as a young man - to try to see the hurt child within him once. At that point she said that her father's step-father, who had brought him up, had been Jewish, but she had never really asked him about his childhood and didn't know more. Whatever the reasons, he had ended up very young in the Nazi party. 

I then remarked that he probably had looked like the young Nazis I had marched along in last year's huge European Nazi gathering in Denmark which I had wanted to experience from the Nazis point of view. (This was fun for a while until we were pelted with rocks and bombs from anti-Nazi citizens with just as much hatred in their hearts). She got very interested when I described the hurt and "lost" look I had seen in the young Nazi faces and she wanted to see the pictures I had taken of them. 

Some of my spectators of American Pictures recently recognized two of them as their former school friends and told me about the terrible childhood both Per and Brian had had. But even though they had played with these two neglected children in their childhood, they had later rejected them when they grew up and became Nazis. 
 In other words: the mistake we always do with victims: we turn our backs to them exactly at that critical time of angry outbursts in their youth, when they most need our help. We end up instead entrenching them in their pain and anger, stigmatising them as "NAZIS" - an identity which otherwise would have been brief for most of them. (Often it takes nothing more than a sudden love affair to bring them out of it - such as we saw it with the former leader of the Danish Nazis, who fell in love with a Palestinian woman). 

When I told Angela that I was planning to get in touch with either Per or Brian in order to invite one of them with me on tour in America (because I know how little it takes to get them out of such youthful activities and I find such an approach a far more constructive way of fighting Nazism that pelting them with rocks) -  well, then suddenly Angela begged me to bring one of them to her house so she could "see her lost father as he once had been" before he had entered the slippery road on the way to executioner. 

Actually I felt that such a meeting could be helpful for both partners.  Now I started seeing positive signs that Angela was coming out of her entrenchment. I asked her to try to see for her how easy it must have been for that "hurt child in Nazi uniform" little by little to slip from A to B to C to X'ecutioner - given the historical forces at the time. 

As hateful as I once myself had been towards Americans for their war crimes in Vietnam, what changed me was when I came to America in the 70s and frequently met all these decent and basically "good" Vietnam veterans who would often tell me about what monsters they had turned into in Vietnam. 

One loving truck-driver in Mississippi had just a months before he picked me up been sent home on a dishonorable discharge. He told me how - when his best friend had been killed in battle - he had suddenly "lost it" and had run all over the place and bayonetted pregnant women, torn out their babies, smashing them against trees etc. A few days after that event he was walking down the streets in America and everything now "seemed totally unreal." 

 No, given the right time and circumstances the deeper pain within all of us can be provoked to explode, and no outside condemnation (or treat of punishment) can change that.  Therefore we must try new approaches - such as Mandela's - or such as the one Angela's Jewish father-in-law had shown. For he had indeed been trying to end the cycle of hatred by - first creating a loving refuge for the victimized daughter of an executioner - and now even by making friends with the "child" within the executioner himself. 

It is such beautiful stories of love and reconciliation which makes my day and which gives me lifesaving inspiration to go on in an otherwise "seemingly" more and more violent world with gloomy prospectives. 

By the end of the day I clearly felt that I was making inroads on Angela's entrenchment and that she became more and more positive in her thinking about her father - and their common future. Since he was old now I encouraged her to move fast so he doesn't die before their reconciliation - not for his sake, but to save herself from later self-blame - and I would add in private: to save the future of the human race! Big words, yes - but that all starts in the small - in each of us. 

Let me say here in the end that it was quite an unusual day for me - unfolding like a slow movie in the beginning and ending in a tremendous explosion of something good being accomplished for both of us. But naturally I came home exhausted and totally collapsed in my bed. 

Now I am writing these lines as a way of establishing for myself what happened - and sharing them with you to find out if or where I might have gone wrong - especially how you, Marly, see it, trained as you are as a real counselor. For the most part I didn't try to counsel Angela, but only to share with her my own survival philosophy. Since that is of a more intuitive nature and not any coherent thought system it is a little hard for me to express it in words here. It works better in reality than on paper - or e-mail. 

 There is a final note to this: when you experience strange things like that, at least I can't help feeling that what I experience on the outside is actually a mirror of what goes on in my own inside. Living in ghetto violence for many years was a great way of living out the deeper pain, anger or violence within myself - in other words a great, fun and - as it came out - even productive way of NOT becoming a Nazi monster myself - if that theory holds. (I have heard it enough times from psychologists, astrologists and the like to become aware of it). 

After the strange trip I had in February where I met unusually much violence with murderers and mass murderers everywhere I came, I was forced again to take a close look at myself (for my own sanity I was glad that I had brought a witness with me everywhere - although this doesn't take away from that theory). 

Today's experience with Angela and Theresa once again reinforces the importance I see of learning to turn the deeper and darker forces within us into a less destructive and more creative outcome. And this we can only do with the help and love we get from others - the love I over the years have received from all of you who receive this e-mail. 

With that borrowed fuel from others - on which humanity thrives and survives -  I better now go out and lighten the stove and start cooking for my children.... 

Love from 

ps. 1997: There was a happy ending to this story. For my part the Nazi-criminal was the indirect cause for my old Jewish girlfriend, Marly Sockol, later in the summer to come over from San Francisco so we could celebrate our "25-year anniversary" right on the day. For Angela's part her life changed after that day. She came back to life again, loosened up, sent her daughter down to stay with "the Nazi criminal" - and later in the summer suddenly jumped into her car and drove down and saw her father, hugged him and had her reconciliation with him. 

To e-mail an edited  version of this article back to me:  Thanks, Jacob Holdt 

Here is my full story about the serial murder Woody I picked up in my new book. It took me 20 years of friendship with his family to find out that his story was true.


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