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An Experiential Journal from Auschwitz-Birkenau

Posted on 06 Dec | 1 comment
The barracks at Auschwitz.
The barracks at Auschwitz.

[Editor's Note: The following are the author's reflections during and following a trip to site of the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oświęcim, Poland, as part of Bernie Glassman's and the Zen Peacemaker's 17th annual "Bearing Witness Retreat."]

While I do not know what the ultimate impact of this experience will be, I do know that spending time in Auschwitz was a profound and challenging experience that will affect me for a long time.

After spending several days learning about Central Europe, (travelling to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague), we arrived in Krakow. In the first three cities, we gained a real appreciation for the collective consciousness of Central Europe. We learned that the Holocaust changed everything in our world, and for the people who live in these countries, it may take, yet another generation (or two) of healing. I was amazed at the strength and edginess of the remaining Jewish communities (the Holocaust took half of the Jewish population in Europe, from 12 million to 6 million Jews), and the emotional trauma of that devastation continues to this day, 60 years later. Yet, the very disappearance of the Jews is part of the reason for the strong recovery of the Jewish community, which is still quite small. For example, Hungary had 600,000 Jews killed out of approximately 1.2 million before the war, today there are 55,000 Jews in Hungary. In Poland, the numbers are similar—before the war and three waves of immigration, there were 3.3 million Jews. Today, there are 10,000 in Poland (200 in Krakow from the pre-war number of 65,000). Still, there are large numbers of converts because Judaism is viewed as “exotic.”

As a result, many of the people in these central European cities know more about Judaism and Jews than many Jews in the United States. It was amazing to learn from non-Jews about our rich and deep history. For a Pole to learn about Judaism is like an American student studying Native American history. We were fortunate to be invited into the homes of synagogue leaders in both Budapest and Prague thanks to Jade Netanya, my friend and travelling companion’s capable upfront research and networking skills.

In Krakow, our understanding continued to deepen as we took a walking tour of the city and saw the ghetto, various memorials to the Jews, and ultimately, Schindler’s Factory, which was a working factory until 1998 and then converted into an amazing museum. As I looked at the walls of the ghetto (which were built to resemble tombstones), I could see modern apartments just on the other side of those walls. Well, they were not that modern—they were the same buildings with younger people living in them. I tried to imagine how it would be to wake up every morning now and look outside to the desolate ghetto walls.

Then it was time to make the trip to Auschwitz. We lined up in the rain and took a 15-minute walk to the buses. I was glad that I had brought the right cold weather clothing and the poncho! Thanks to REI, we were fully equipped. We started thinking during that first walk, while rolling our luggage along cobblestone sidewalks and waiting in the rain for the buses with 100 people ahead of us, how it must have been for the millions of Jews who were transported to the camps. It was “business as usual” for people on their way to work—while we were headed to one of the darkest places on this earth for five days.

Did I bring the right clothing? Would I be warm enough? Would my boots hold up? Imagine what must have been running through their minds—they were allowed to bring just one suitcase, and it did not have wheels. The deportation of Jews started in September; we were there in November, and it was cold and rainy—the type of weather you really don’t want to go out in without a reason. And while we were, there we heard story after story about how people were made to strip naked in that cold. Just impossible to imagine.

Then we boarded the buses and started our ride to Auschwitz. We could have been anywhere in the world as we drove through some beautiful landscapes and reflected on the time ahead of us. What would it be like? And, I found myself trying to understand again, what those who were put in transport trains and buses would be thinking. Of course we were in a comfortable coach while they were standing in cattle cars—hardly comparable.

For the last 20 minutes of the ride, we were asked to ride in silence. I felt anxious about the trip and wondered if I could do it. We arrived at Auschwitz, and after seeing a brief movie we were given a tour that started in the gas chamber. As we walked from barracks to barracks, room to room, I was struck by the pictures of people who were lost in the genocide. What were they thinking as they packed up their bags and arrived at this miserable place?

I was shocked when I started to consider and ask myself what I would have done if I were a German young man … or what I would have told my sons to do if I were the mother of two German sons the same ages as my sons today. There were 7,000 German soldiers working at Auschwitz, and it was a great job opportunity in an otherwise depressed economy. The Jews were doing the heavy lifting, after all, and it meant that you would not be sent to the front.

It was confusing and upsetting to see the atrocities that were performed on the Jews. And it was equally confusing and upsetting to listen to people in my council group (10 people who met each morning to process the experience together).

One of my council buddies was from Rawanda—where a million people were killed in three months just 18 years ago. Another person in my council lives in Bethlehem, Israel—its own sort of ghetto where Israelis are standing with guns at the checkpoints today. These examples of man’s inhumanity to man are happening today, and in my lifetime. So what will I do about it? Were the Poles effectively killing Jews with their complicity? Are there examples of this today that we could make a difference through our loving actions?

We were in the “sauna” (the building where the Jews’ possessions were taken and their arms branded with a number) when a group of Israelis came in with a survivor and did a small ceremony. I found myself singing Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem) with them. There were busloads of Israeli students all over the camps waving their flags. Likewise, there were busloads of students from the European countries with no flags—bearing witness to the depth of cruelty that could exist.

The presence of the flags was cause for extensive discussions. The group that came to “bear witness” was bright, insightful, and thoughtful - each striving to dig deeper into themselves and committed to the principles of not knowing, bearing witness, and taking loving actions. It was powerful!

After touring the camps Auschwitz and Birkenau, we settled into a meditation practice. Each day, there would first be a silent sit, and then we would hear the names of people being read during two to three more sits. Four people would read at the same time, calling out or chanting the names of people who perished and paying honor to them in this way.

We sat along the train tracks at Birkenau—some on the ground others sat on benches or wooden chairs. I was a little spoiled this way as I brought a backjack for myself—knowing in advance that sitting outside like this might be very physically challenging.

At one point I was trying to coordinate my breath with every two names but it was simply not possible. I used the mala to count the names. Then I had my list of mala contributors, and I would read these names to help elevate me. I was so present.

Eventually, I was able to work my way into the meditation, and amazingly, after one or two days there was comfort in the camps. I looked at the stones on the train tracks and realized that I could take just one stone and focus on just that one. By the end, I had a whole “family” of stones.

At one point I did the math and realized that it would take 200 such retreats (with 100 people reading names at each one)—to list all the names of the perished people from just that camp. And of course, that would not be possible because 75 percent of the people who came in transports never made it to the branding and owning a number.

Each day, we also had some sort of memorial ceremony. The ceremonies were in the woman’s barracks, the children’s barracks, and other scary and dark places within the enormous compound. Services at the incinerator site, and the pond of ashes, were just part of the overall experience. Services were led by Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian leaders. It is something else to hear the Kaddish prayer, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning, said in Aramaic, Hebrew, English, French, Dutch, German, and Arabic.

One night we went to the basement of a monastery where a Franciscan Monk lived. This monk sacrificed his life so a Jewish family could live. When Father Kolbe did this, it changed the whole ethos of the camp. Where before the prisoners were treating each other with disrespect that you might assume could arise from being treated like they were not even people; after Father Kolbe made this gesture, others followed suit and started to treat each other with respect. And love. The end result was that more of them lived.

But back to the basement of the monastery. It was the installation of memories from prisoner 432 who was on the first transport, and was a barracks friend of Father Kolbe. After being released at the tender age of 23, Marian Kolodziej became a famous set designer in Poland. He lived a good life and sublimated the camp experience. Then, in his 80’s, he had a massive stroke. To help him recover, the physical therapist gave him a pencil and he started to draw and produce memories from the experience at Auschwitz. The images were haunting, and through his eyes and listening to his wife (he passed away last year), we learned more than anyone could imagine about love and forgiveness. It was more than a little inspiring to have stories like his peppered into the “bearing witness” that we were doing. Marian’s ashes were scattered in Birkenau (the second Auschwitz camp) by the Zen Peacemakers.

Just in case you are wondering about the people who go on this retreat, let me say it was diverse. Less than 20 per cent of the participants were Jews. There was a person who was a parent, and who lived in Germany—with a Nazi grandfather. How do you make peace with a place like this when you just remember your grandfather as a sweet guy? There were people from all over the world who had witnessed or chose to witness racial discrimination and violence. And, after a while you realize that we all have both sides.

That is when the brilliance of Bernie’s work really struck me. All of a sudden, I saw that by taking 100 people out each year for 17 years and sharing this experience with them, he has created a community of peacemakers. Each person will, in their own way, process this experience, and each will bring it back to their own circle of however many people.

So—in that spirit, I share this much of my experience with you. I am just so thankful that you are there to read it! What I will do with my broadened view of the world? I definitely don’t know—I guess that is what NOT KNOWING is about.

-- Jane Graver

Today's guest contributor, Jane Graver, is a serial entrepreneur who has started and or run computer businesses, educational foundations, a fast-growing synagogue, and a loose leaf organic tea business as well as authoring a best selling technical book.

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Comments and Discussions

Thank you Jane for your

Thank you Jane for your successful effort to put the Peacemakers experience into words. I was on the same trip and had many of the same insights that you so beautifully express here. I too have been using the word "brilliant" in describing Bernie Glassman's work and the Zen Peacemakers. Such skill and wisdom in bringing together such a diverse group to listen and learn from Auschwitz and from each other.

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