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Silence, Representation, Responsibility

Stephen Frosh, Birkbeck, University of London

Session 1: Haunted By Uncertain Refrains

Edward Said’s reading of Moses and Monotheism as a poetics of broken identities fits well with the idea of the primacy of diasporic ‘becoming’ in the context both of Freud’s life (the book was finished and published only once he had become an exile waiting ‘to die in freedom’ in England) and in the broader context of the progressive possibilities made available by uncertainty and ‘bewilderment’. Indeed, the very form of the book, with its successive ‘prefaces’ and its repetitions and inconsistencies, can be read as reflecting the creative intransigence demanded by cultural identity-formation under diasporic conditions.  Struggling and, unusually, failing to express himself fluently, Freud creates a nomadic text that attests to the struggle to forge something new out of conditions of adversity and suffering. Of course, this does not mean that settledness is not preferable to exile, security to precarity; it is rather that psychic openness requires a deep awareness of how much vulnerability is a condition of human existence. In this respect, an alternative but contemporaneous version of the Moses story by another Jewish exile of the 1930s, Arnold Schoenberg, provides an exemplary companion piece to Moses and Monotheism. Based on a lively presentation by Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi (1992) to the New York Academy of Medicine, this talk draws on both Freud’s text and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron to explore the question of what can be expressed in language and what might be the conditions under which truth can be known.


  • Said, E. (2003) Freud and the Non-European. London: Verso.
  • Yerushalmi, Y. (1992) The Moses of Freud and the Moses of Schoenberg—On Words, Idolatry, and Psychoanalysis. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 47,1-20.

Session 2: Different Trains

Steve Reich’s Different Trains, a work for string quartet and tape written in 1988, is widely recognised as one of the most significant musical compositions of the last thirty years. Built around speech samples that are mimicked by the quartet, alongside recorded sounds of train whistles and sirens, Different Trains can be an overwhelming experience of mechanical power and also of memory and loss.

Reich famously wrote about the central conceit of Different Trains: ‘I travelled back and forth between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942 accompanied by my governess. While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains.’ The piece is in three sections. The first, America – Before the war, recalls Reich’s experience travelling between his divorced parents. The second, Europe – During the war uses the sampled speech of three Holocaust survivors to evoke the trains that took so many to their deaths. The third section, After the war, offers some kind of integration of these two experiences, but not a reconciliation.

The musical strength of Different Trains is immense. In this paper, however, my interest is more psychoanalytic, focusing on what the piece conveys about the complex issue of how to respond to trauma in ways that balance empathic identification and ‘austere’ separateness and resolve into creative forms of memorialisation.


  • Reich, S. Different Trains.
  • Trezise, T. (2013) Witnessing Witnessing: On the Reception of Holocaust Survivor Testimony. New York: Fordham. (pp.77-95)
  • Wlodarski, A. (2015) Musical Witness and Holocaust Representation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Chapter 5)

Session 3: Acknowledgement, Apology and Forgiveness amongst those who ‘come after’

The question of what it means to acknowledge and even seek forgiveness for violence that one is implicated in yet has not actually perpetrated is of considerable importance in the context of ‘trauma culture’ and of political activism. A particularly significant strand of this has to do with historical wrongs and their effects on later generations. What responsibility do the generations that ‘come after’ have for acknowledging, making reparation or apology; conversely, what ‘right’ do later generations have to accept such apologies and offer ‘forgiveness’ – and what can such forgiveness entail? Where recognition and acknowledgement is denied, is this tantamount to collusion in the past wrong? And if there is acknowledgement, can this produce solidarity amongst all those who come after, whether they are the descendants of perpetrators or of their victims?

In this talk, I try to draw out some of the issues that connect psychoanalytic, psychosocial and postcolonial thinking in this field. I offer a very specific example – the 2015 film My Nazi Legacy or What Our Fathers Did made by the UK International Human Rights lawyer Philippe Sands about the sons of Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor-General of Poland who was directly responsible for the destruction of the Jewish community there, and Otto von Wächter, from January 1942 to July 1944 Governor of Galicia and Frank’s deputy. One of these sons (Horst von Wächter) continues to regard his father as fundamentally a good man; the other (Niklas Frank) takes every available opportunity to accuse his father of heinous crimes. I explore the relationship between Sands and these two men as portrayed in the film and ask why it seems so important to try to persuade Otto von Wächter to acknowledge the reality of his father’s crimes, and also what exactly the function of Niklas Frank’s ‘obsessive’ apologies to Jews (including Sands) might be.


  • Benjamin, J. (2016) Non-violence as respect for all suffering. Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society 21, 5–20.
  • Schwab, G. (2010) Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma. NY: Columbia University Press. (Chapter 3)