Trust is an Essential Part of Life

An Interview with Marina Chernivsky

A woman with dark, long hair and glasses looks friendly into the camera.

Marina Chernivsky, with the OFEK association, has her eye on volunteers and communities working to help refugees; photo: Benjamin Jenak, Veto Magazin

The psychologist and behavioral scientist Marina Chernivsky was born in Lviv and raised in Israel. In 2001, she moved to Berlin, where she currently serves as coeditor of the magazine JALTA – Positionen zur jüdischen Gegenwart and as a board member of the AMCHA association. She is the initiator and director of the Competence Center for Prevention and Empowerment, and she also founded and directs the OFEK counseling center.

Ms. Chernivsky, you’re the director of the Competence Center for Prevention and Empowerment, which is supported by the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany. You’re also head of the OFEK Counseling Center for Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination. What work do these two institutions do?

The Competence Center conducts research into institutional antisemitism and develops projects, programs, and other activities to sensitize and train professionals and managers regarding antisemitism and discrimination. The participants come from a variety of fields, including education, youth and social work, and administration. The center’s work is scholarly, pedagogical, and political. OFEK is devoted to providing counseling and support to victims of antisemitic violence. It’s the first advisory office in Germany to specialize in antisemitism and community-based counseling. The central focus of its work is to assess potential threats and provide practical support in dealing with the material and immaterial consequences of violence and discrimination.

“The war has deeply affected the Jewish community. People sometimes have biographical ties – some of the helpers are directly impacted by the war because they have family in Ukraine who are still in danger.”

Like most Jewish institutions, you’re intensely involved in helping refugees from Ukraine.

Yes! In relation to the war in Ukraine, it was important for us to concentrate on the volunteers and communities working to help the refugees. Many communities, as well as schools and other Jewish institutions, have provided shelter, organized support, and launched initiatives and associations. The war has deeply affected the Jewish community. People sometimes have biographical ties – some of the helpers are directly impacted by the war because they have family in Ukraine who are still in danger. Many of those who have gotten involved have never helped out in this way before. With our Support for Supporters program, we’re offering not only safe spaces and discussion rooms, as during the pandemic, but also psychosocial and psychological support that covers issues such as the principles of crisis intervention and the consequences of war and trauma.

What do refugees need when they arrive in Berlin?

People who experience extreme violence have a high risk of traumatization. In war, our basic sense of trust, security, and integrity is shattered, and daily routines are turned upside down. Trust is an essential part of life. External support serves as a protective shield and a stabilizing factor. In addition to this practical support, people need low-threshold, trauma-sensitive, multilingual psychological counseling. Basically, if we side with refugees and give them practical support when they arrive, it helps them rebuild their trust, provides orientation, and creates a path back to a normal life so they can overcome the rupture between “before” and “after.” Wars target not only individuals, but entire collectives. Russia’s war against Ukraine is the deliberate attempt to destroy a nation’s integrity through the use of collective violence. The experience of war is not only individual, but can cause massive individual and social disruption and destruction. In addition to individual trauma, it has the potential to become an extremely traumatic collective experience. We know that wars can induce severe trauma that extends far beyond the initial shock and adaptation strategies; however, there is little professional support for the victims and helpers. This is urgently needed in the form of low-threshold multilingual programs.

Why is it important to support the supporters? What exactly does OFEK do?

OFEK is a counseling center for antisemitic violence, not for the effects of war. However, OFEK works closely with the communities, and these have provided wide-scale support. That’s why it was important for us to strengthen the communities any way we can. Our team offers not only counseling amongst colleagues, but also workshops and supervision for volunteers and full-time helpers. Some of the talks have been very upsetting. It’s clear that the proximity of the war has shifted the focus to the ways people are personally affected. OFEK has its own psychological team and several Russian-speaking psychologists, who have been very busy, but at times other psychologists and counselors have supervised the discussion rooms. Because there aren’t enough Ukrainian- and Russian- speaking psychological counselors, we’ve had to step in to handle inquiries, although this isn’t part of OFEK’s core program. These services were more important just after the start of the war than they are today. We can now observe a certain habituation effect, and people have a lot more experience. In addition, the potential for antisemitic violence in schools and other places is on the rise. Conspiracy theories, group-specific conflicts, and acts of violence are becoming more common and make specialized counseling necessary.

At a panel discussion at the JMB, you explained how problematic the term “war victim” is. Why is that so?

The term is not inherently wrong – we must call war by its name. But it’s also important to avoid using the term as a status description. Calling someone a war victim can quickly rob them of their individuality and autonomy. Even if they have suffered extreme traumatization, they are not necessarily sick because trauma is a normal response to an abnormal event, to extreme stress. For many people, the experience of war may become part of their biographies, but they must be able to decide for themselves how they want to see and describe themselves. We should always keep the consequences of war firmly in mind, but we shouldn’t see those affected by it exclusively from this perspective or frame them as victims.

“Everything that's happening now is closely connected with German and European history. [...] In Ukraine, the traumas of the Second World War are not over yet and not completely overcome.“

What significance does the war have for Ukrainian society?

The war has not only etched itself into individual memory, but has traumatized all of society. The postwar period will come and the war will occupy Ukrainian society for a long time. I’m confident that because of the extensive democratization process, the changed political situation, and the strong and growing civil society, Ukrainians will navigate this process well. Even today, I see tremendous resilience and cohesion, which are giving (back) to individuals a sense of their collective capacity to act. The fabric of society damaged and pierced by the war will mend, though not without consequences. Scars will remain.

Events in Ukraine are also influencing our view of Europe.

Yes, absolutely. Everything that’s happening now is closely connected with German and European history. In fact, every war, no matter where it takes place, can be expected to cause convulsions, but the closer it is culturally or geographically, the stronger these are. But this also has to do with questions of privilege: what we refuse to see or don’t want to know. In this context, it’s interesting that in an Eastern European country like Ukraine, the past and present are closely interwoven with the history and legacy of National Socialism and the Shoah. In Ukraine, the traumas of the Second World War are not over yet and not completely overcome.

Can these wounds heal at all?

Wars and genocide can have consequences not only for the individual, but also for all of society. Coming to terms with cross-generational (emotional) legacies is a task for the descendants. The effects are often different for the victims and the perpetrators. The differences are important because they are linked to political and psychological questions. Acknowledging injustice is one of the most important prerequisites for dealing productively with the past. The question of a person’s position in a family biography or in society is key. Ideally, if a society remembers openly, it is more likely for wounds to form a scab and slowly heal.

What do you hope for in political or sociopolitical terms? For Ukraine, yourself, and your work?

I can’t make demands. I was born in Lviv and grew up in Israel. I’ve lived in Germany for over twenty years. My view of Ukraine is that of an outsider, but I’m confident that the Ukrainians will try to make a new start and will succeed. Ukrainian society is resilient, and Ukrainians are willing to grapple with their history. I’m involved in an important project that examines Shoah remembrance and memorial work. I admire everyone who despite the ongoing pressures confronts this issue and keeps the memory of the persecution and extermination of Jews in Ukraine alive.

Citation recommendation:

Jewish Museum Berlin (2022), Trust is an Essential Part of Life. An Interview with Marina Chernivsky.

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