I am reading my friend and colleague Dr. Narandja Eagelson’s doctoral dissertation on the imaginal world and the healing power of sacred sites and again my thoughts turn to the healing power of actual space. Just as a therapist can help a patient enter imaginary, transitional space where healing is possible, so a physical space can invite us into a state of reverie and ultimately transformation. Dr. Eagelson views the sacred site as a living text of knowledge, discussing how the site, the person and the ancestral and archetypal spirits form a network that effectively reaches deep within to create healing. The “otherworld” or the imaginal realm is thought to be more accessible at sacred sites, providing the opportunity for connection to ancestors through a cultural, spiritual, and bloodline lineage. The imaginal realm is defined as access to what is beyond the material and concrete, allowing us entrance to the rich world of the imagination.
Access to this type of knowledge, which Dr. Eagelson calls ‘the more-than-human world’, has been lost in our culture and she helps us re-connect with this important ancient method of healing, where we can benefit from vast resources of ancestral wisdom. She describes the curators of these sites as analogous to the ancient priests and priestesses but adapting to the needs of the times and the psyche of the culture. What is very important is that all players --the site, the artifacts, the curators and the visitors-- have deep intentionality and respect for each other. Then there is the possibility for the emergence of healing phenomena.
I experienced something similar at The Jewish Museum in Berlin, Liebskind’s monument to the devastation of European Jewry during World War II. I view the Jewish Museum as having the potential to be a sacred site, as it helps us access ancestral and archetypical spirits that can affect healing.
I have written how through the many architectural flourishes and educational displays, this museum draws us into the world of the holocaust yet does not overwhelm us. This is, of course, similar to a therapist’s knowing how to titrate the trauma and provide a safe space while the patient re-experiences.
How does the museum help contain us? The vast and impressive contributions the Jews made to the artistic and scientific life of Berlin are displayed throughout. This grounds the viewer and gives tribute to the strength, vitality and power of the Jews who lived in Berlin. Then there are many docents –they seemed ubiquitous –who answer questions and help the visitor process information. They also point you to the study center, which again gives form to the trauma in the many visuals and articles the viewer can peruse. Giving form to the trauma helps reduce its devastation.
In synch with Dr. Eagelson’s notion about the need for intentionality and respect among all the players, we see this throughout—from the architect Liebskind, who moved to Berlin for ten years to create this structure to the curators of the powerful exhibits to the eager young docents. All are obviously very loving in their devotion. The site itself speaks very loudly and respectfully to us also. We in turn relate to this as visitors. This forms a network that promotes the potential healing.
This creates a container for us to bear the experience of the trauma, which is represented in startling ways. We enter by descending underground, to be introduced to the depths of evil where our fate awaits us. We can take the axis or corridor leading to the Garden of Exile, representing the paths of Jews who were forced to leave Germany for other countries, places that were strange and unfamiliar. They were frequently transported to a shaky, scary new world. To represent this, the ground is on a 13-degree angle or slant, so it is hard to maneuver walking without getting dizzy. Or we can take the Axis of Continuity, leading to a staircase that leads to a white wall, possibly symbolizing the future, which we do not yet know. Then to the left is an entrance to a vast display of the history of the Jews in Berlin, dating back to the fourth century, reminding us that while we must never forget, we must also go on.
Or most devastatingly, we can take the dreaded Holocaust axis leading nowhere except to an empty, unheated tower-like room nearly 80 feet high. Because it is actually located outside of the museum, its only source of diffuse light comes from one narrow window. You can hear the faint sounds of life coming from the outside. Death is the likely outcome of this path. This is the museum’s memorial to the Holocaust.
The whole museum is interspersed with voids, areas in which there is nothing at all, to convey the void left by the extermination. A very graphic and eerie exhibit is "Fallen Leaves" by the Israeli artist Kadishman. He placed over 10,000 metal faces in one of the museum's voids. The expressions on these faces portray the anguish of the victims; visitors walk on the faces and the movement of the metal creates eerie sounds, as if returning voices to the victims.
Later, especially when questioned by a colleague about the experience, I began to realize that I was experiencing this for my mother and grandmother as well. I felt this monumental architectural phenomenon was healing them too, since they reside in me, even though I lost them both long ago.
During World War II, they began to learn of many relatives who were taken by the Nazis and were particularly anguished that my grandfather’s brother, Samson and his wife and two children were all taken. My grandfather had been imploring him to leave Austria, repeatedly offered him money for passage, and his brother refused. My grandmother and mother were in a state of near panic during the entire war, trying to help them through lawyers, but all to no avail. Finally at the war’s end, they found out they all survived and were reunited, even though all had been separated in different concentration camps during the war. My mother and grandmother were finally able to help. Among many other things, they crated up a large refrigerator and sent this to them where they had re-located in Israel. My family didn’t realize they lived in the desert in a tent with no electricity. But miraculously, the family was able to sell this valuable refrigerator for enough money to buy a real home, a furnished apartment in the nearby city of Haifa.
From reading Dr. Eagelson’s work, I realize now that in addition to my own family, I was also communicating with all of the dead souls lost to the holocaust and further, with the whole of Jewish history, with its proclamations of wisdom and its descent into slavery, with its promise of the golden land and its marches into exile. I was in contact with the heights of ecstasy in the many contributions they have made to civilization but also their grief when these were ignored and they were again scapegoated for problems having nothing to do with them. One of the exhibits in the museum was taken from a German newspaper in 1850 which said, “The Jews don’t work and they live better than we do, so away with the vermin.”
The architecture and exhibits guided me into the imaginal realm so I could dialogue with my ancestors and archetypal spirits to help move me to a place of greater equilibrium and hope.
Domash, L. (2014). Creating “therapeutic” space: How architecture and design can inform psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Perspectives, 11: 94-111.
Domash, L. (2014). Intergenerational dreaming: Response to Gerald and Sperber. Psychoanalytic Perspectives, 11: 133-137.
Domash, L. Personal Spaces and Public Memorials: How We Create Them and They Create Us, 33rd Annual Spring Meeting of the Division of Psychoanalysis (39) of the American Psychological Association, Global Psychoanalysis in a Social World, April 25, 2013.
Domash, L. Moderator, Architecture as Potential Space, Colloquium, New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, April 13, 2013.
Eagelson, N. (2015). Sacred sites: The role of place in healing (Doctoral dissertation).Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA. Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3701651)