Sins of the Father

Stephen Bank
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THE MINUTE I SAW HIM IN THE WAITING ROOM I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy case. Stefan was wearing sunglasses; he was slow to put down his magazine. Trudging several paces behind me, he hesitated at the threshold of my office, where he insisted that I choose which chair he should sit in. He waited to be interviewed.

“What brings you?”

“My headmaster says I need to see a psychologist.”

“That’s what your headmaster says. Do you think you need to see a psychologist?”

He shrugged, “I’m just doing what he told me to do.”

“Sounds like you’d rather not be here.”

Rather,” he said, in a bored, half-mocking tone.

I knew very well why his headmaster had phoned. Stefan, an exchange student from Germany, had arrived at an elite prep school for his junior year. His fall semester had been a success. He had attained a B+ average, was liked by his teachers, and made friends easily. He was elected captain of the rugby team and set a school record in cross-country. His grades took a nosedive when he returned from Germany after Christmas vacation. He stopped hanging out with friends, didn’t sign up for basketball, and often showed up late for class. Strangely, he would leave in the middle of a class, dash back to his dormitory, returning with the excuse that he had needed to go to the bathroom. At the insistence of the headmaster, he saw the school physician whose note read: “Perfect health; anxious, but won’t disclose why. He may need medication.”

Stefan and I continued playing cat and mouse. I realized I had to confront his resistance. “Look, Stefan, I can’t sit here trying to drag answers out of you.” I reviewed what the school had told me, and added: “Your headmaster is worried about you, your adviser and your coaches are concerned, and they don’t believe that you need to go back to your dorm to go to the bathroom. There are bathrooms in every building on campus. Why do you run back to your dorm?”

Stefan looked uncomfortable. Psychologists who work with teenagers know there’s a fine art of creating just enough discomfort to engage them in conversation. “The school doctor wants to put you on tranquilizers. The headmaster has been on the phone with your father.”

“I am not going home! They’ll have to drag me! And I’m not going on tranquilizers!”

Finally, I thought, genuine feelings! Feelings of any kind are the voltage of psychotherapy. Without strong emotions, nothing worthwhile is going to happen. I kicked the emotional level of the conversation into high gear. “The school doesn’t want you out, you don’t wantto go home, and I don’t want to have to put you out on psychological leave. You were a big success only two months ago, and now you’re in a downward spiral.” The silence that followed may have lasted 30 seconds, but it felt much longer. “Something’s eating you, and you probably know what it is. I’m going to need your help so we can figure out what’s going on.”

He whispered, as if revealing a shameful secret. “It’s the shoes. It’s the god-damned shoes.” I leaned forward. “What shoes? Why god-damned?”

“I have to make them straight.”

Stefan told me that he owned eight pairs of shoes. Each morning, and several times a day, he had to make sure they were arranged equidistant from one another, all pointing in exactly the same direction. But he could never be certain that the spaces and the angles were perfect. He would leave his room with the suspicion that they weren’t aligned properly. This task consumed most of his waking moments; it even interrupted his sleep. Upon returning from Germany in January, he had insisted on a single room so that his weird habit wouldn’t be exposed.

“Why do you have to line them up? What’ll happen if you don’t?”

“I don’t want to say.” He turned away. I was afraid he might run out of the room.

“Are you worried I’ll tell the school?” He nodded.

“Everything you tell me is confidential. What you say here stays here. The only time I’d ever tell your headmaster or your family would be if I thought you were at serious risk of harming yourself, or if I felt you were a danger to society. So can I assume you’re not suicidal, that you don’t have a plan, or pills, or the means to do away with yourself?”

“No, none of that, but I know I’m not normal. If I can’t stop this I’d rather be dead.” At this point I had him sign a pledge to do nothing to hurt himself. I didn’t think he was at risk for suicide, at least not right now, but better safe than sorry.

People who suffer from OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, are desperate. They hate themselves, they’re ashamed. If this condition doesn’t improve, suicide attempts are not uncommon. My mind wandered to The Diagnostic Manual of The American Psychiatric Association.

“Obsessions are defined by recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced as intrusive and unwanted and cause marked anxiety or distress. The individual attempts to suppress these thoughts, urges or images by compulsively neutralizing them with some other thought or action. Repetitive behaviors such as handwashing, ordering household items, counting numbers or even praying are aimed at preventing some dreaded event. These rituals must be time consuming: they take an hour or more each day, and interfere with normal daily activities such as work, family life, and social relationships. They are applied according to rigid rules.”

I continued: “Tell me what you think will happen if you don’t line up your shoes.”

Another long silence. “I know this sounds crazy, but if I don’t set them up the right way, I’m afraid my father is going to die.”

“Die? How?”

“A plane crash, a car crash, maybe a heart attack.”

“How’s his driving?”



“Other than missing the thumb and forefinger on his left hand, he’s in great shape; he hikes, he bikes, he’s an excellent skier. He taught me how to ski.”

“What happened to his hand?”

“He says he had some kind of accident when he was a kid. He doesn’t like to talk about it.”

“But it’s up to you to make sure he stays alive? What a terrible responsibility! You must hate it.”

“I despise it, but I can’t stop.”

This case was different from other OCDs I’d seen because it had begun so abruptly. Most have a gradual onset requiring months or years to become a problem. I glanced at the bookshelf behind Stefan’s chair where sits a plaster bas-relief of the bearded face of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Patients sometimes claim that its sunken eyes have a penetrating quality that can follow the onlooker around the room. I remembered the dictum: “Behind every fear lies a wish.” What horrible wish was Stefan trying to conceal from himself? Had there been a disturbing incident that might have triggered his bizarre ritual?

I embarked on some detective work. “I’d like to understand this better. Would you draw me a picture of your shoes when you’ve arranged them precisely?” I glanced at my watch. “Bring it with you and we’ll talk about it next time,” I said, wondering if there would be a next time. I handed him an appointment card.

He showed up 10 minutes early for the next appointment, carrying a meticulously executed drawing. All eight pairs of shoes had to face exactly east. He used a compass to check the exact direction, to within a degree. I said, “I’m going to take a wild guess about why you point them all in the same direction.”

“Be my guest,” he replied.

“East is Germany, your home.” I watch patients’ faces for the most miniscule bits of acknowledgment or disconnection. The face is like a GPS showing me how to navigate the uneven road of feelings. Stefan raised his eyebrows a fraction of an inch.

My thoughts drifted back to Freud. “I set myself the task of casting light on what people hide. Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear will soon convince themselves that mortals cannot hide any secret. If our lips are sealed we talk with our fingertips. We betray ourselves through every pore.”

Stefan’s eyebrows offered the possibility of a therapeutic relationship. Without a relationship, therapy can’t get off the ground. Psychotherapy isn’t a procedure; you don’t just apply it. For a person to reveal intimate, shameful secrets, the relationship is everything.

I pointed to a pink slipper, pointed due west. “What’s that? It looks like it belongs to a woman.”

“It belonged to my sister.”

“Why facing west instead of east?”

“It makes me feel close to her. It’s like I can almost touch her. I touch it every morning for exactly nineteen seconds.”

“You touch it for exactly nineteen seconds?”

“She died on her nineteenth birthday.”

I asked him to tell me about his family.

Kathrin committed suicide six months before Stefan was sent to boarding school. After her funeral, the parents removed evidence of her existence, took down photographs, and forbade any conversation about Kathrin or her suicide. They pretended that she had never lived. This family’s honor had been tarnished by Kathrin’s suicide.

“What do you remember about her funeral?”

“My parents wouldn’t let me go to the funeral. They made me go to school. I was supposed to act like nothing happened. I skipped school and smoked pot in the woods behind our house.”

I made a note: They can’t tolerate unhappy feelings. Shame rules this family.

I felt the stirring of compassion for this cast-away boy, so I risked probing his deeper feelings. “They dumped you, didn’t they? Your parents buried her and tried to bury her memory. And you’re not going along with the cover-up, are you?”

Stefan grimaced: “I’m sick of their lies.”

“How were you ever able to pull off such a terrific first semester after this terrible catastrophe?” My question must have struck a chord because he began letting me peer behind his wall.

“I had to make them proud of me. I knew they would fall apart if I didn’t perform.” With his sister’s suicide, the honor of the family came to rest on Stefan’s shoulders. But I could not understand what might be forcing him to worry about his father’s death.

His cynical façade began to crumble. “There’s more to it than that, but how do I know I can trust you?” This was a moment of truth. A moment of truth requires the patient to make leap of faith. It tests the psychotherapist’s compassion, skill, and integrity.

I gave him the most honest reply I could think of. “You’ve been keeping a secret and it’s killing you. You’re just going have to trust me. I’ll try to not let you down.”

Stefan rummaged in his book bag and pulled out a faded black-and-white photograph. Dropping it on my lap face-down, he wiped his hands on his trousers as if they were contaminated. I turned the photograph face up. It showed a handsome young man, about six feet tall, standing in front of a giant flag with a swastika, his right arm raised in a Heil Hitler salute. He wore the freshly pressed uniform of the Waffen SS, the armed wing of the Nazi party. During the Nuremberg trials after the war the SS was declared a criminal organization. Its top leaders were executed or sentenced to life in prison.

“Who is this?”

“Take a guess.”

“I have no idea. I need you to tell me.”

“It’s my father. He was twenty-one.”

          My mouth dropped. He pointed to the picture, then to his own face. “See the resemblance?” Psychotherapists are supposed to remain emotionally neutral—we play it cool. But this revelation nearly blew me away. “Oh my God, you look just like him!”

“A perfect likeness, eh, doctor? Do I have Nazi blood? Am I going to be killer like my father?” He spat out the words as if trying to rid himself of a bitter taste. I remembered the biblical quotation:

“The Lord… visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 20:5)

Stefan again reached inside his book bag. He handed me an Iron Cross. The Iron Cross was awarded by the Nazi military for bravery or other contributions in combat. I took a deep breath. This moment of truth demanded the deepest honesty. “Stefan, you’re the son of a Nazi who may have murdered innocent people. You’re ashamed of him. You are furious with him. And you’re scared you’ve inherited a killer’s instinct. Is that even close to how you feel?” Stefan nodded.

I went on: “You’re at war with him, but you are really at war with yourself. Your angry feelings are so awful that you have to pretend you don’t feel anything, so you distract yourself by arranging the shoes. And you feel guilty because you probably love him too. And when all this doesn’t make you feel better, you want ‘out,’ maybe by being dead. You’ve lost two of the most important people in your life. You miss Kathrin, so you hold on to this little pink fragment, wishing she were still alive. Now you’ve lost respect for the father you once knew and loved.”

When Stefan began to cry, I knew we had a therapeutic connection. “What happened over Christmas vacation?”

Stefan had sneaked into his sister’s recently cleared-out bedroom. Would there be an article of clothing, a trinket, a sweater, something he might touch so he could feel connected to Kathrin? In her closet he found the pink slipper. In her dresser drawer he discovered the Nazi photograph and the Iron Cross. For two days he slept in the woods. His father discovered a vodka bottle in Stefan’s room. He confronted him: “Where have you been? We thought you might have.…”

Knowing his parents blamed themselves for Kathrin’s suicide having ignored her cries for help, Stefan reopened a raw wound that had not healed: “You thought I committed suicide? I’m sorry I didn’t!”

Horst winced as if he were punched in the stomach. “We’re not talking about Kathrin. Why you did you run away?”

Stefan replied “This is why!” He threw the photograph and the Iron Cross on the kitchen table.

“The past is over! I’ve given you a good life. This is none of your business.” Holocaust education was required by the Federal Republic of Germany for every high school student. Yet an entire generation of Germans, including Stefan’s parents, refused to listen to their children’s questions. The topic simply was unspeakable.

Stefan slammed his fist on the table. “I’m sick of your lies! It is my business, and I need an explanation now!” His father struck him, full force across the face. He threw the photo and the cross in the trash. Stefan ran to his room and locked the door. That night Stefan secretly retrieved both items. Days passed without their speaking to one another. They traveled to the Hamburg airport in silence.

After Stefan left my office, I looked at his responses to some psychological tests I had administered after our first meeting. Tests can shine a light into the unconscious recesses of the psyche. I was glad to have taken a deeper look. On the second card of the Rorschach Ink Blot Test where most people see dancing bears, a red butterfly, his interpretation was: “Two bloody bears, they’ve been shot by a hunter.” His response to the fifth card, where most people see a butterfly or a bat: “A dying bat, flying down to hell.” On the ninth card where most people see witches or animal faces he replied: “A lake contaminated by decaying animal bodies.”

I turned to the Thematic Apperception Test vague scenes requiring the person to create a story. The first scene shows a boy staring at a violin. His response: “It’s the violin his father once played, but lately, it’s been making terrible sounds. His father wants him to be a great violinist, but he doesn’t want to play an instrument that can’t make beautiful music. He’s scared because his father’s going to be mad at him if he quits.”

Images and stories like these suggest a mind swamped with worry, hopelessness, anger and depression. I had seen test results like these from adolescents before: I knew they could be a prelude to suicide or even homicide.

I asked if it wouldn’t be better to communicate with his father rather than fearfully wishing him dead. Stefan shrugged: “So what? Telling him how I feel won’t make any difference. He’ll tell me to shut up. Last time I spoke up he hit me in the face.”

I’ve learned to be keenly aware of my own emotional reactions to the shocking things people do and say. When the hairs go up on the back of my arm, I know something’s very wrong. A time bomb was ticking and I had to do something to defuse it. In the meantime I received an urgent call from the headmaster. Stefan had stopped going to classes, wouldn’t go to meals. I spun through the options:

  1. Do nothing and see if he pulls out of the tailspin? This runs the risk of Stefan getting worse or acutely suicidal. It also may increase the possibility of being chronically enslaved to OCD. This is a bad idea.
  2. Send him unaccompanied back to a family who oppose psychotherapy? Send him back into the inferno of an acute family crisis? No.
  3. Put him on antidepressants and drugs for anxiety? Medication takes up to six weeks to have a therapeutic effect, and time was running out. Antidepressant medicines may lift the depression, but unless combined with psychotherapy, they may flatten the vital feelings that motivate lasting change.
  4. Commit him to a hospital? Psychiatric hospitalization might provide safety and intensive treatment. But this could stigmatize him for life as a mentally unstable person. Stefan would not go willingly. Forcing a person into a mental hospital can get ugly.

Faced with these unacceptable choices, I picked up the phone and called his father, Horst, who spoke perfect English. After I gave him a graphic picture of Stefan’s symptoms and the risks of doing nothing, he told me his son hadn’t returned phone calls for weeks. Horst and his wife Klara booked a flight that afternoon. Fearing his worries would intensify, I didn’t tell Stefan until they arrived safely in New York.

Horst arrived at my office with his wife in tow. Klara wore a simple black dress and initially presented herself as the submissive wife of a successful man. She spoke little English, so I arranged for an interpreter to attend our meetings. My fantasies of meeting a heel clicking Nazi, fueled perhaps by watching too many World War II movies, were dissolved when Horst earnestly and firmly shook my hand. He wore an impeccably tailored business suit and wing-tipped shoes. A self-possessed businessman who owned a medical equipment company, he struck me as worldly and intelligent. “Doctor, I want to thank you for helping our son. We have been so worried about him.”

I asked him what he thought might be causing Stefan’s problems.

“I have absolutely no idea of what could possibly be wrong. He’s always been a good student, a loving boy, maybe a bit rebellious lately. I wonder if he might have a biological imbalance, too little serotonin, or even attention deficiency disorder. Have you sent him to a neurologist for a brain study? Do you think medication would help? Maybe he’s lazy. Is he not trying hard enough? ” Klara interjected: “He always forgets to take his vitamins.” A bit rebellious? Not trying hard enough? Attention deficiency? I thought: Your son blew up at you, he called you a liar, and you slapped him across the face. Stop pretending you’re clueless! Am I going to have to take a sledgehammer to the wall you’ve built around the truth?

Horst and Klara took their seats. My secretary served tea and cookies. We exchanged pleasantries about their flight. I probed, “Please tell me the story of your family and of Stefan’s growing up.” Horst nodded to Klara who, on cue, took a family album from her oversized pocket book. There were baby pictures, photos of a smiling boy, a family having fun on a ski trip, of Stefan coming down a waterslide. There were awards Horst had won for inventing life- saving medical devices and pictures of Stefan’s confirmation in the Lutheran church where Horst was a deacon. This was a well-rehearsed presentation: an affluent, perfectly happy family.

We draw conclusions not only from what people tell us, but also from what’s unseen or what’s left unsaid. Horst and Klara had nothing to say about their lives before, during, or in the immediate aftermath of the war. One would have the impression that this family’s history began in 1955. The album contained no trace of Kathrin.

“I don’t see any photos of your daughter,” I said. Horst had taken the lead but he suddenly fell silent, staring at the floor. Klara wiped away tears. “I can see this is very painful for you. Can we talk about Kathrin? Stefan misses her very much. He thinks about her every day.”

This comment unlocked a torrent of grief and guilt they had been avoiding for months. Choking back his emotions, Horst composed himself. “I don’t see what any of this has to do with Stefan.”

I replied, “Sir, it has everything to do with Stefan. There are things on his mind, not only about Kathrin, but about you, about who you were before the war ended. We simply have to talk about them.” Horst defensively crossed his arms. I took out my sledgehammer. “He found a photograph of you swearing allegiance to Hitler. He’s got your Iron Cross. You had a brutal argument over Christmas. He’s gone downhill ever since. I’m not here to put you on trial, but there’s a chasm between you and your boy. It gets wider and deeper with every passing day.”

Horst fortified his wall. “Doctor, I don’t see the point. I don’t intend any disrespect for your opinion, but I am afraid this may be a waste of my time and yours. This has to be biological problem involving brain chemistry; it may be nothing more than adolescent hormones. We will take our son home to Germany where we will get him medical attention.”

I held firm. “Your son is too sick to travel. Honesty and communication are what can relieve Stefan’s symptoms. You’ve already lost a daughter: this is an opportunity to not lose your son. I can help your family to recover the connections you once had, but this isn’t going to happen without our speaking about these truths.”

Klara, who until this moment had remained deferential to her dominant husband, spoke up. I looked to the interpreter for help. “Something was eating at Kathrin but we didn’t listen to her. Then we lost her. We have to talk with Stefan, Horst, and I’m not leaving here until we do!” Klara seemed bigger. I thought: This submissive woman has backbone. Horst seemed to shrink into the overstuffed leather chair he had chosen. Horst and Klara were not unusual; their generation believed that asking for help is shameful. Nazi ideology reinforced the belief that Germans were the master race; they could overcome any obstacle through force of will.

The hour was up. Klara and the interpreter went ahead into the waiting room, but Horst lingered in the doorway. He whispered, “Doctor, are you a Jew?”

My chest tightened. “Why do you ask?”

“Because I have things to say that only a Jew could understand.” People often tell me the most important things when they are halfway out the door. Stunned and fumbling for words, I replied, “We will have to talk about this the next time.”

Intense and disturbing personal emotions can get in the way of any psychotherapist’s objectivity. When such emotions arise I may refer the person to another psychologist, or I will ask for a consultation with an experienced therapist. But my closest colleague was on vacation, Stefan had just begun to pour out his soul to me, and I had insisted that his parents travel 3,000 miles to get help. Bailing out was just not an option.

I looked again at the photo. It was marked Hamburg, November 1938. I felt sick. That was the month the Nazis unleashed the rampage known as Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass. Jewish businesses were destroyed in hundreds cities all across Germany and Austria. How could I, a Jew, communicate with a Jew-hater? How could I conceal my loathing for a person who might have sent Jews to the gas chambers?

My wife phoned to ask when I was coming home for dinner. “You sound strange. Steve, are you okay?”

I lied: “Just having a busy day.” Laney’s family had lived in Bingen on the Rhine for over 400 years. Wine growers who farmed acres of vineyards, they saw their land seized, their synagogue ransacked and burned. How could I tell her I was helping a former Nazi?

My mind traveled back to my childhood in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I am a ten-year-old boy, taking swimming lessons at the local YMCA. The lesson has finished. I’m naked in the locker room with a bunch of boys. One of them notices I’m the only one who’s circumcised. They surround me in a circle, flicking their wet towels at my crotch, chanting: “Kike! Dirty Jew!” I never went back. I never told my parents who would have engaged in an uncomfortable public confrontation with the YMCA director. Years later, even to this day, when I hear “Jew,” the word “dirty” rings in my ears.

That night I worried that therapy might turn out to be a trial, with Dr. Bank as prosecutor and judge. I slept poorly, knowing that it is my responsibility to help.

At precisely 2 p.m. the next day, Horst and Klara arrived at my office. I began: “You left with me with a question about my religion. Our conversations should be about you, not about me. But I need to know—why it is important for you to know my religious background.”

He answered emphatically, “I must know. Otherwise I cannot speak with the honesty you require.”

I replied: “In that case I will tell you. Yes, I am a Jew.”

“Then, doctor, I must tell you: I too am a Jew.”

I felt dizzy and bewildered. The man sitting in front of me was not just a Nazi: he was a JEWISH Nazi!

The story that followed this revelation still leaves me astonished as I write about it many years later. He read aloud from a letter he had written the previous evening:

Dear Dr. Bank,

          When Hitler came to power I, like many other Germans, believed his influence would be a short-lived ugly episode in our history. After he wiped out his opponents and became wildly popular, I realized that my life might be at risk because I could be identified as Mischling, a part-Jew. Although my parents were devout Lutherans, my father’s parents, my grandparents, were practicing Jews who belonged to a synagogue in Hamburg. They observed Jewish rituals and kept the high holy days. My father converted when he married my mother, a Lutheran. I was confirmed in the Lutheran church. I felt Christian. I never felt Jewish. Nevertheless, I am technically half-Jewish, something I was vaguely aware of, but never worried about until 1935 when Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws.

I was 19 years old at the time. You may recall that these laws created racial categories: pure German (Aryan), half-Jew, and quarter-Jew. It dawned on me that if my identity as the grandchild of Jews were to be discovered, I would be required to wear a patch displaying the Jewish star. I felt unsafe. To be designated as a Jew of any kind stamped me as a sub- human. I grew up proud to be a citizen of a country that boasted of literary giants like Goethe, musical geniuses such as Beethoven. I loved Germany. I loved our mountains, our rivers, food and traditions. How to hide my part-Jewish identity? How to remain a German citizen?

The principal way was to change the records at the municipal hall and the synagogue to which my father’s parents belonged. I gained access to the synagogue, removed the records and burned them. Then I bribed a bureaucrat at Hamburg city hall to destroy the existing evidence of my Jewishness.

A second method for part-Jews to camouflage ourselves was to join the military. By the time I was twenty-one, Germany had become an armed colossus and war was very much in the air. Battle-ready soldiers were in demand. With my papers destroyed or altered, I was able to slip beneath the Nazi radar. I joined the SS partly out of patriotism, but also to save my life. When my picture appeared in the newspaper, I hoped it might protect some of my relatives from being found out.

I interrupted Horst’s narrative. “Did you participate in Kristallnacht?”

He swallowed hard. “I didn’t break windows or anything of that sort. But there was an atmosphere on those nights in which anyone could do anything and not be punished. I went to the cemetery and destroyed my grandparents’ gravestones. I am very ashamed of this.” Horst slumped forward, his head between his knees. I thought he might faint. I poured him a glass of water.

Klara bit her lip and stared at my diplomas. I turned to her: “Klara, what are you thinking about as we talk about these things?” She crossed the room and sat close to her husband. “I also am ashamed, but doctor, you need to understand, we suffered too.” She cradled her husband’s left hand in both of her hands. “Show the doctor.” I realized that he had been concealing this hand since our first meeting. He had three fingers; there was no thumb or forefinger.

Klara continued, “When the war broke out in 1939, Horst was sent first to Poland, then to France and then the Netherlands. Then Hitler stupidly attacked the Soviet Union. Horst was sent to the eastern front. In the terrible winter of 1942 he was wounded and developed frostbite. We met in a military hospital where I was a nurse and married in May of 1943. Horst interrupted: “What did I get for my loyalty to Hitler? A lousy Iron Cross and … this!” He brandished his damaged hand.

Klara picked up the narrative. “Nearly everybody in his unit was killed or froze to death in the retreat from Stalingrad. In Hamburg thousands of homes, and ours, had been reduced to rubble. We lived in desperate conditions. There were rats. The water was contaminated. Horst and I contracted dysentery. Many people died. We lived in shelters below ground and in Quonset huts. Our churches, our schools, our stores—all gone! Fifty thousand people died in eight days of air strikes! It was called the German Hiroshima. Our parents had been killed in the bombing. It was horrible. So yes, doctor, Horst and I paid a terrible price.”

Horst reached for his wife’s hand and spoke tenderly in German: “Der harteste Stahl wird im heilβesten Feuer geschmiedet.” The interpreter, who had until now maintained a neutral facial expression, allowed a faint smile to cross her lips: “The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire.”

I had done some homework on the Waffen SS. Now it was time to ask the most difficult question. “It is well known that the SS committed numerous massacres of Polish and Russian civilians. They wiped out entire communities of Jewish people in the invaded countries.

Horst shot back, “You told me this is not going to be a trial.”

I replied, “This is not a trial. I can see you joined the Wehrmacht to save your life, and by doing so, you may have protected members of your family. I understand that you were fighting for a country you loved. The war ravaged everything you had. You rebuilt your lives. You and Klara have so much to be proud of. But your son needs a full accounting, he needs the facts. Without facts there will still be a chasm between you and your son, and it may widen as he grows older. The truth about your war years may be painful and embarrassing, but covering up the truth is worse than the truth itself. I am asking you to discuss the facts so together we can try to help your son understand.”

Horst responded, “I became a radio signal officer. My job was to position our troops for combat. I carried a gun but I rarely had to use it. To my knowledge, our unit never participated in slaughtering Jews or other innocent people. You may not believe this, but until I was discharged in 1943, I had no awareness of the extermination camps. When I returned to Hamburg, two of my cousins and one of my father’s sisters had mysteriously vanished. It was only then that I realized what had happened to them.”

Was this denial or a true story? Many Germans pretended to have no awareness of the atrocities being committed against Jews and other civilians. I decided I had to accept his word. “Then you owe it to Stefan to tell him you were not directly involved in killing Jewish or other innocent people. He has come to some wrong conclusions about your military years. He has no idea of how much you and Klara suffered. You need to tell him.” Horst’s breathing came slower, his face relaxed.

Klara and the interpreter left. The January sun had almost set; my office was cast in shadows. Pausing at the doorway, Horst fixed his eyes on a mahogany statue of St. Francis of Assisi that greets every person who enters my consulting room. My father, a medical doctor, had given it to me before he died. It is one of my most treasured possessions. “How strange,” Horst exclaimed, “to find a Catholic saint in the office of a Jewish psychologist!”

I reflected, “Love and forgiveness are not owned by any religion. “Will you pray with me?” he asked.

“I’m not inclined to prayer,” I replied, “but I will gladly witness yours.”

He touched the saint’s priestly hood with his damaged left hand. His lips moved in silent prayer. I know no German, but I was sure he was reciting the prayer of Saint Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”

As Horst said good-bye, he gently laid his hand on my shoulder and let it linger there for a brief moment of silence. Then he turned and walked out to join Klara and Stefan at dinner. Aware they would be taking a flight to Germany early the next morning, I felt uneasy, not knowing if their family dinner might become another ugly confrontation.

Four days later Stefan arrived for his therapy session, looking more at ease than I had seen him. He offered a handshake, wore no sunglasses, and looked me in the eye. I led off: “So, how was dinner with your parents?”

Stefan smiled, “Unbelievable!” What he told me over the next forty minutes was almost unbelievable. “We talked about everything. We cried about Kathrin. My father even cried. I’ve never seen him cry. He told me what he did in the war, about being part Jewish. He told me about what had happened to his hand. I found out how much my parents had suffered, about their being homeless, about relatives who had disappeared or died in the bombing.” Unlike other sessions when it was like pulling teeth, today I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

Influencing people to change, not only to modify their behavior, but to fundamentally alter their outlook … to have a lasting change of heart … this is what psychotherapy can sometimes accomplish. You never know ahead of time what will work. At the end of the day, no matter how well trained or talented the psychologist, the outcome depends on the person’s willingness to replace self-inflicted pain with the ability to learn and to be deeply moved. There’s magic when this happens.

I offered Stefan an appointment for the following Monday. He smiled: “Sorry, but I’ve got basketball practice and I’m catching up on the classes I missed. And, by the way, I’m not doing that thing with the shoes.”

I tilted my head incredulously. “Stefan, are you really not doing those compulsive rituals anymore?”

He laughed: “Well, yes, I do them once in a while, but it’s gotten kind of boring.” The headmaster called: Stefan hadn’t missed a class.

Two weeks later, a package postmarked Hamburg, Germany arrived in the mail. A note read:

Dear Dr. Bank, with thanks for helping our son. You showed us how to open our hearts. ~Horst and Klara

Inside the package was a framed reproduction of “Praying Hands,” by the German artist, Albrecht Durer.

Praying Hands occupies a special place on my wall, opposite the statue of Saint Francis. From the shelf in the far corner, Freud’s penetrating gaze examines everything.

By Stephen Bank, Contributing Writer


“Sins of the Father” is a work of fiction, based on key facts and incidents involving a family I worked with many years ago. In the service of confidentiality I have altered names, dates, sequences, and places. I filled in blank spots with what I can reasonably imagine to have been actual happenings or events. I subordinated factual case details to the flow of storytelling, and have tried to give an account not only of the participants’ emotions, but also of my own. Rather than writing a literal (and dry) case study, I’ve tried to convey a deeper truth through storytelling.

I thank my friend and colleague Dr. Michael D. Kahn for creating The Hartford Psychoanalytic Study Group. He has continually emphasized what is called “the intersubjective space,” the flow of conscious and unconsciously experienced emotions between the psychotherapist and the patient. Many case studies lack a narrative voice that takes account of the unspoken personal feelings and reactions of the therapist. The first- person voice can capture the drama and the struggle of the human exchange … what Carl Whittaker called “the life and death voltages of psychotherapy.” I’ve also been influenced by the narrative style of Irvin Yalom, whose book, Love’s Executioner, has shaped my teaching and writing.

I appreciate the illuminating conversations I’ve had with Krishna Winston, Professor of German Studies at Wesleyan University. Her insights about German history and her keen sense of language, both German and English, contributed to making “Sins of the Father” a coherent story. Krishna’s translation of Günter Grass’s Crabwalk helped me understand how the trauma of World War II has played out across three generations of Germans.

I recommend the documentary film, Hitler’s Children, by the Israeli filmmaker Chanoch Ze’evi. He interviewed the children and grandchildren of highly placed Nazi officials. These descendants struggle with feelings of guilt and may feel contaminated by their connections to murderous Nazis.

“Sins of the Father” describes the struggles of the Mischling (part-Jewish Germans). I relied on Bryan Mark Rigg’s astonishing book, Lives of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: Untold Tales of Men of Jewish Descent Who Fought for the Third Reich.


  1. Wendy Peterson

    I love this story. Bravely and movingly told!!

  2. Jerry Spears

    Thank you for sharing this story. I found it powerfully compelling and somehow also affirming of our shared humanity.

    I hope you will share other stories about the power of love and reconciliation.

    All the best to you and your family.

  3. Dave Feldman

    I have always enjoyed your stories, Dr. Bank!
    And hope that you and yours are well.
    With Loving-Kindness and in Friendship,
    Dave Feldman

  4. Lissy

    An insightful look into the mind and what makes us tick. Stephen Bank has a deft hand and quick wit that makes one gasp at the revelations in this story and consider the manifestations of one’s own past on the future.

  5. Lissy

    This story is heartbreaking. It shows the pain of the past on the present and illuminates the workings of a troubled mind. Stephen Bank’s story reminded me of Oliver Sacks storytelling style. Poignant, funny and eye opening.


    This is a rare back story of the inner life of a thoughtful psychotherapist who managed to traverse the volcanic empathetic divide presented by his patient and his family. The religious and moral as well as historical challenges presented by this story offers us timely lessons in our human potential for understanding and forgiveness. A precious gift of a story. Thank you!!!

  7. John Santopietro

    A gift: to be reminded of the power good psychotherapy has to create and protect reflective, healing space. Not to be taken for granted. Thank you, Steve.

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