Shanti E. Bannwart M.A. / L.P.C.C. is a psychotherapist living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She met Bettina Goering and eventually saw Bloodlines. This sparked her to include Bettina's story and her own reactions (she is also German) in her autobiography. I found it interesting to read Shanti's personal responses to the film. Thank you Shanti for telling your story.
Here is the chapter:
The Place of Forgiveness
Tightrope Across the Abyss.
Bettina lives on top of the Mesa in a hand-built adobe house with turquoise colored trims and window frames. The High Desert is her backyard. There are wild lupines and sturdy New Mexican sunflowers. Fiery red Indian paintbrush blossoms hide between cacti with thorns that hook fiercely into your flesh. Magpies screech in the scrubby pine trees and deer come close to the house to drink from the water in an old bathtub, left there to catch some of the rare rain showers. When the moon grows close to full, coyotes yipe and laugh into the night, telling each other jokes from hill to hill and across the flat mesa, their eerie laughter galloping down into the canyon were a small brook provides water for bull frogs, lizard and hare. In winter a cedar fire brings the iron stove to glow and the smoke roles across the roof, spreading sweet and deliriously spicy fragrances. The wind pushes tumbleweeds across brown grass and gathers them in thick clusters along chain link fences. New Mexico is part of the South West of the U.S., about at the meridian of Marokko. It is dry and hot in summer, but there are fours seasons here and snow falls in winter, because we live at about 7000 feet elevation.
Bettina is my neighbor, and neighborhood at the outskirts of Santa Fe means distances of several miles between us. Bettina Goering has a slim face, blond hair, lively eyes and a quick smile that lingers, comes and goes like shadows of the fast moving clouds across this serene landscape. Her front teeth are a bit out of perfect alignment, just uneven enough to indicate that she might not have American roots. She has not. Like I, she too, was born in Germany. Her grand father’s brother was Herman Goering. In case that you are young enough, not to recognize this name: Herman Goering was the perfectly blond and Arian profiled German officer, the right-hand of Adolf Hitler and Marshall of the Empire, the leader of the SS and founder of the feared GESTAPO. Herman Goering concocted and condoned the concept of the concentrations camps, where in perfectly engineered gas-chambers and extermination ovens more than six million, mostly Jewish, human beings were destroyed.
I live at the foot of the Mesa where Bettina has settled. New Mexico is about as far away as one can flee to separate from one’s German roots and culture, but not far enough, I found out, to avoid meeting a compatriot who is the grand-nice of Herman Goehring. For years I didn’t know about her ancestral bondage and burden. We rarely met and simply said “Hello!” when we encountered each other along the dirt road. I didn’t know that she was a Goering, even when her husband Adi functioned as electrician and connected my 380 feet deep well pump with the meter. Water is precious here in the High Desert and there are houses on top of the Mesa which lack a well. A Mesa is a flat table of land that is shaped and marked by canyons, valleys and deep fissures. Our Rowe Mesa spreads for hundreds of miles and can be made out from a space ship.
I learn about Bettina’s ancestry when a friend mentions during dinner, “ Do you know that Bettina created a documentary about her pilgrimage to a Jewish artist in Australia who is a concentration camp survivor? Bettina’s last name is Goering, she is the grand-nice of Hitler’s right hand and officially designated successor.”
This friend informs me where I would be able to buy the movie, and so I do. It stands waiting for months between books on my shelf, before I gather the courage to view it. I am German, too, and was born at the onset of WW II, my soul and identity is scarred by this history. I still feel unable to talk about the Holocaust without sobbing, sixty years after the events. I am perpetrator by lineage and cultural inheritance.
When I finally gather my courage and view the documentary, it moves me deeply. The images sink into layers of the past were they merge with memories of my own German history. I feel less alone and branded when I discover that Bettina, too, suffers the phenomenon of grief and guilt by association with her German origin.
One day, when driving to Santa Fe along the dirt road that leads out of the canyon, several dogs play in front of my car, crossing and entangling each other with their leaches. As I wait, another car comes my way and stops at the place where I park, our windows are aligned and when I open mine, Bettina is looking at me. With one glance, and for the first time, we recognize each other as sisters of fate.
“Shanti,” she says, “ I heard that you bought my video.”
“Bettina,” I respond, “ I want to meet and talk with you.”
Again, I postpone, for months, connecting with her. I am afraid, shy, terrified, like one would be before open-heart surgery. I fear to be found out, to be discovered with a black sore inside, that has been there for most of my life and would remain until the end. I dread the anguish that radiates from that spot and cannot be soothed. Weeks later, Bettina invites me to a public viewing of the movie in the small and intimate Jean Cocteau theater in Santa Fe. A painful discussion follows the performance.
And this is the story which the documentary portrays: Made aware by a friend, Bettina discovers the art of the Australian painter Ruth Rich, who creates pictures of concentration camps and their victims, dark, brooding, heart-wrenching art. Her images burrow into the subconscious rivers of horror that flows underneath the physical reality of concentration camps. Ruth is a renown artist and has shown her work in two major exhibitions in Australia. Bettina Goering studies the artwork on Ruth’s website and begins an email correspondence with the artist. This emerging relationship encourages her to attempt healing of her own ancestral wounding, of guilt and shame, by meeting face to face with this survivor, who lost loved ones during the Nazi regime.
“Oh my god,” Bettina sighs and distorts her face, “it’s going to be work.”
The camera follows her on this journey to Australia and documents with touching simplicity a thoroughly womanly approach to atonement: being there, eye-to-eye with the “Enemy.” The fright before meeting the guest shows in Ruth Rich’s face as she stands at the Sidney airport, waiting to encounter Bettina.
“I am totally overwhelmed,” she says with tears, squeezing the wilting sunflowers in her hands.
Both women struggle to come to terms with a horrific historical event by scaling it down to the personal encounter. They find inside themselves the courage to be torn open and made vulnerable to their deepest pain. This is politics of the heart and soul. This is a female approach to making peace through personal action and down-to-earth, awkward meetings and exposure.
The two women meet as strangers, drink tea, circle and test each other as they begin to talk. It is hot in Australia. They sweat and get tired, anxious and nervous as well as intimate in their revelations. The physicality of such encounters is stunning, perplexing and heart-wrenching. “Are you willing to be uncomfortable with me?” asks Ruth.
“To have courage and make myself vulnerable, I need physical contact,” says Bettina. They stretch their hands towards each other and hold on as if shipwrecked. “We need to step into the water together,” says Ruth.
Making peace is hard work, like giving birth. It is painful, humbling and sometimes petty. These two women walk along a fine edge, daring to stumble and fall. This is a uniquely feminine way to create a space for healing. The universal story is encapsulated in this small encounter. Horror is transformed into forgiveness through the physical closeness of two deeply wounded human beings. The surface of their encounter seems gentle and sometimes tentative and polite, but underneath this challenging meeting flows a bloody river. This is Herculean work, enacted humbly in a small house in Bangalow, Australia.
“ A lot of Jewish survivors would not agree with me, meeting a Nazi descendent,” mentions Ruth, as if she is surprised by her own generosity.
“My father adored his uncle, Herman Goering,” says Bettina, “I feel total outrage about our inheritance. At thirty I got sterilized, I didn’t want to give birth to more monsters, cut my bloodline. A radical decision. My brother did the same, independently. I had three mental break-downs and could not sleep for weeks.”
After many days of confrontation and healing, Bettina Goering and Ruth Rich desire to perform a final ritual that will bring closure to their journey. They apply to celebrate a peace ceremony in the Jewish Museum in Sidney. Their request is declined. But the World Peace Organization steps into the breach, staging a peace rite with candles, tears, embraces. During this celebration of forgiveness, the two women stand in for millions.
“This was my life work, to get this over with,” sighs Bettina, exhausted.
“We have become friends,” says Ruth.
This encounter is a glorious and practical portrayal of the path towards reconciliation and change. It is not the way, how official politics is practiced, but it seems more effective and engaging. Intimately video taped by Cynthia Connop, this documentary is slowly making its path around the world, being shown and discussed at the Boston Jewish Film Festival and at the Jewish Film Festivals in Israel, in October 2008. Bettina is invited to travel to Jerusalem and attend the presentation.
A two-page reportage appears in the HAARETZ – Israel News with the title: Goering’s Grandniece Seeks Closure in Israel. The report triggers more than forty responses from readers.
Here are some excerpts:
• It seems like far too much guilt over what her father`s uncle did. She had nothing to do with it.
• I hope she can now continue her life in peace, she has wrestled with her demons enough.
• This woman has been hounded beyond sanity. Does she really think her own seed is evil? What a bizarre, Medieval notion. What a grotesque story. What a grotesque world.
• this is definitely unmerited guilt. It is unfortunate that she should feel any responsibility whatsoever.
• Hermann Goering was a Nazi and committed crimes that are simply unforgivable but it is a problem for him only, not for his family. Nobody can be kept guilty for crimes committed by parents or relatives.
• Certainly no sane person would argue she bears the sins of her ancestry… it is a shame that she has felt such guilt over something she has little to do with.
• Any Jew who cannot feel empathy for this woman does not understand the essence of being Jewish.
• Bettina...you are not responsible for what others did before you were even born...I hope your visit to Israel brings you the closure you seek....
* * *
Weeks later, Bettina visits my home and we have tea.
“I need to learn forgiving my own people,” she says. “I have a lot of compassion for the Germans and their history.”
“Your honesty helps me to come out of the closet,” I admit, “Now I can talk more freely about my past. I am softening around it, as if ice is melting inside me.”
I have not yet forgiven my people, it’s challenging inner work, it’s a burden I carry that might become a fertilizer for my own growth. But now, after reading the responses to Bettina’s appearance in Israel, I feel relieved, free, joyous. Yes, maybe, we both can let go and shake the old shadows off. Maybe we are not responsible, not guilty and tainted by our ancestry.
“Bettina,” I say, “your journey into reconciliation broke a spell.
“Your courage to face the victim and accuser took the dark rocks out of the river of my conscience and allowed the water to flow. The reactions of the Jewish people to your video reveal that the children of the Holocaust victims encourage movement towards a new story.”
“’Get rid of your guilt,’ they say, ‘you are insane to believe it’s your burden what your fathers did.’ How long have we lived with the belief that being German carries a stigma. God, I feel as if somebody slapped me in the face and said Wake Up!” I say.
“Maybe it is time for us, the next generation after the Nazis, to kick the demons out and invest our energy, compassion and love into our own, present story.”
We hug with tears and some rusty lock in my chest cracks open.
* * *
As I write this, I sit in the small library room of the Anazazi Hotel in Santa Fe. A fire crackles in the chimney, on the mantle stand a carved wooden angel wielding a sword in one hand and the scale of justice in the other. The beautiful face is fierce and serene, she looks like she knows how to use this sword and will not hesitate to apply force for a worthy cause. Does she know, because she is an angel, when drawing blood is justified?
I come here from time to time, reading, writing and musing and enjoying the art of the three cultures that live peacefully together in New Mexico. In this room, the Hispanic influence is represented by the carved angel in its simple beauty, the Native American by the exquisite ceramic pots and baskets displayed on the shelves, and the Anglo is present in the blond-haired lady in front of this room who handles requests for trips, and tickets, and rental cars, with help of her laptop. Friendly tourism seems to benefit all three cultures. It took some hundreds of years to find this arrangement between races with such contrary philosophies. I think, it’s the work of people in their ordinary lives that weaves the bonds between cultures. The intricate games of politics are less powerful than people’s respectful human interactions.
It’s all layered together and exists in close proximity: normal every-day activities and joys exist side by side with the big events that shake and destroy cultures. The same people, who guard concentration camps, sit at the dinner table with their families and laugh.
“How can a normal citizen turn into a mass murderer without realizing it?” asks Bettina in the documentary. Yes, how is it possible that light and darkness can be so interconnect and “not know about each other?” Bettina is a doctor and healer, and she is also the grand-niece of a mass murderer and fears that she might carry his homicidal genes. And this murderer Goering was also a likable man, jovial, admired by the people. He had style and believed to be a hero, assured that his fame would spread across the world. When he was accused and put on trial in Nuremberg, he still saw his deeds as justified. Deemed guilty, and ordered to be hanged, he poisoned himself two hours before his execution. Bettina feels shame, that she liked him when she was a child.
It seems that civilization is a very thin net underneath the tight-rope that spans across the abyss of evil. We better tread gently, keeping a careful and humble balance so that we don’t slip. Two women, Bettina Goering and Ruth Rich, dared to dance on this rope. Thank you, you two courageous beings. You have become a symbol for a better world, where we can face each other and participate in the intimate territory of each other’s pain and joy.
* * *
I drive home, accompanied by two ravens croaking as they turn and twirl around each other in the air. They are the jokesters and seem to know me, flying ahead into my driveway. I know them, too, and talk to them during my morning walks. Penstemon blooms at the side of the road and the colors of New Mexico sunsets are reflected in the faces of blue and purple asters on the ground . High above vultures circle and lean their wings into the wind.