Healing the Wounds program in S.F. stirs Holocaust memories

Armand Volkas, clad completely in black and speaking in a soothing baritone that hinted at his European ancestry, urged the audience to channel their emotions.

The Oakland psychotherapist, who brings together children of Holocaust survivors and descendants of Third Reich members for rap sessions, was orchestrating an interactive event titled "Healing the Wounds of History."

While audience members last week at San Francisco's Herbst International Exhibition Hall heard writer Eva Leveton talk about growing up half-Jewish in Nazi Germany, Volkas implored them to make connections to their own internalized wounds

As she talked about her fear, alienation and loss of innocence, he walked through the audience, his bare pate glistening with sweat. Leveton's voice cracked as she spoke and Volkas used his microphone as an emotional barometer, gauging the audience's reaction to her story.

"What do you feel?" he whispered. "I want to know what images, words or associations come to you. Shout them out…"

"Courage!" cried out one audience member.

"Courage! Yes!" Volkas repeated. "Courage is good. What else?"

"Terror!" shouted another.

"Terror…excellent!" Volkas said, brushing the long, matted strands of silver hair that ran down the nape of his neck. "What else? Who has emotions that need to be told?"

A brief silence ensued, and then a hesitant, barely audible voice from the back of the packed room. "Feelings of being torn apart."

The remark seemed to resonate with Volkas, who paused and contemplated the words, and the speaker.

"Good. Feelings of being torn apart. Let's stay with those emotions." Volkas turned and faced the stage, where members of his drama group, the Playback Theatre, were assembled.

"Let's see what those emotions look like," said Volkas. "Let's watch."

The five members of the theater ensemble let out a cacophony of tortured sounds — howls, yelps and throaty growls. One member of the troupe flung himself to the ground while other actors alternately consoled and threatened him.

Titled in full "Healing the Wounds of History: Transforming Historical Trauma Into Constructive Action Through the Expressive Arts," the May 10 performance was part of the six-week "Silent Voices Speak" exhibition and lecture series at the Presidio, sponsored by 90 local and national human rights organizations, which concluded Sunday.

The performance didn't work for everyone. Several audience members left early, and an elderly woman in the front row shouted, "Oh, feh!" several times during the enactments of various emotions. The majority of those in the audience, however, seemed to have a visceral connection to the work, with many people gasping audibly or clutching at tissues and weeping.

According to Lani Silver, the project director of "Silent Voices Speak," Volkas' program is the only one in the series that incorporates direct audience participation.

"Hearing all these people's stories of suffering, whatever their background may be, forms a common link between people, and with over 200 million people killed through genocide in the 20th century, I think we need a little help in that department," said Silver, founder and former director of the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project.

That link is what compelled Volkas to assemble 12 disparate individuals to relay personal histories for the event. (Only two of the "tellers" relayed Holocaust traumas.)

"There is a certain nurturing of the Holocaust legacy in the Jewish community," said Volkas after the event. "Jews have a need to feel that the Holocaust is the most horrible thing in the history of mankind, and that the Holocaust happened just to them. While I'm not denying that people need to create a space for that feeling, it doesn't allow for that trauma to be part of the greater human experience.

"The Holocaust is my burden, and the challenge is to also make it into my gift," added Volkas, himself the son of Holocaust survivors and resisters. "My experience is that many children of survivors perpetuate victimhood instead of translating that trauma into action or acts of service or creation. The goal is to master the feelings that one inherits…and create something beautiful out of horror."

The Paris-born Volkas, who moved to the United States as a young child, said his work in theater and therapy is his way of saying "f–k you" to Hitler, and a way of demonstrating that Jewish continuity and culture have continued to thrive in the decades after the war.

Volkas said his work is intent on going beyond paying lip service to "never again." The goal is "taming the potential perpetrator in all of us," a motif that has informed much of the therapist's work — whether it involves dialogue groups between children of survivors and Third Reich members, Palestinians and Israelis, or Bosnian Serbs and Muslims.

One participant in the "Healing the Wounds of History" program called the event "transformative."

U.C. Santa Cruz student Jaclyn Beck was crying when the program concluded, recalling the story of her great-aunt, who was sterilized in Auschwitz's infamous "Block 10," where the Nazis conducted experimental medical procedures.

"I've been hung up on the subject of Nazis and the Holocaust my entire life," said Beck, who produced a documentary about Greek Jews and the Holocaust. "My whole life, I've been surrounded by tattoos and tears. My grandmother used to hallucinate that Nazis were raping her…so I was always hypersensitive to anything German and boycotted German products."

Volkas' workshop, she added, enabled her to channel her pain in a group setting, allowing her to empathize with the "other," and confront and overcome her hostilities toward people of German ancestry.

Additionally, Beck said she was privileged to reflect on another aspect of the Shoah: Even though her great-aunt was sterilized, she was still surrounded by generations of an extended family.

"That's the greatest lesson here," said Beck. "My great-aunt defied Hitler's intention of not perpetuating the Jewish race."