The setting is beautiful, walking to Birkenau in the early morning. The sun is already bright and very hot. In the flat narrow fields striped with different greens, heads of grain grow and glisten, stirring in the sweet earth-scented breeze along with blue cornflowers and red poppies. Hay has been scythed and is being tossed by the pitchforks of bare-chested farmers, or swept into loose beehive shaped stacks. Morning doves call, and cuckoos repeat — just like the wooden bird popping out of its little carved clock house over the antipodean dinner table of my 1940s childhood.
Icy shivers chill my spine and freeze my stride even before my mind registers the watchtowers and barbed wire enclosures – the endless ordered ranks of barracks and chimneys that appear over the fields. Too vast, too determined, they speak of an intent that is intolerable in its horror – the calculated efficiency of terrorizing, torturing, humiliating, degrading, murdering and annihilating 1.1 million children, women, and men of many kinds, nations, and faiths. Along with them were destroyed the humanity of the SS guards – the humanity that is the one quality giving value to our human life.
Yet, over a few short days, Birkenhau was to become a place of such tender love, joy, and affirmation of spirit that it was incredibly hard to leave.
It seemed at first that I felt only shallowly my own and others’ pain here, and yet I cried out in agony of spirit — with, and as, both victim and perpetrator. From that cry was released a love for each particular person encountered here, now, and for those from the past. For a brief moment I glimpsed how deep is our oneness in this glorious endeavor of apparent embodiment we call life, with all its capacity for joy, and its suffering from separation. This retreat at Auschwitz with Zen Peacemakers offered profound affirmation that when we continue to listen to ourselves and others with an open mind and heart, death and pain of body and spirit, however terrible, can never offer a final answer. And this truth exists even while such horrendous events seem beyond the realm of forgiveness and far beyond any possibility of consolation.
So what is the difference between the two screams – one for revenge for inflicted suffering, for self-protection above all others’ needs, and the other a cry of release into love? Was the message we were finding here the same as that received by the hundreds of Israeli solders and the teenagers touring Auschwitz at the same time?
We sat in a circle in the heat of the sun in high humidity and over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (over 33 degrees centigrade) between the railway lines, connecting all over Europe, which brought the victims to this place of systematic, cold-blooded, efficient murder. Here they unloaded after days of enclosure without food, water, or sanitation, the dead and dying contained with them. From this graveled spot where we sat 75% were separated off and deceived to undress without protest in the birch grove to go to their immediate death in the nearby gas chambers. Often 2000 were murdered at a time, so crammed together it was impossible to separate the corpses. Their bodies were dragged out by prisoners and burned en-mass, their ashes scattered in ponds. Mothers, babies and children went together, men separately. Those not immediately murdered never saw their loved ones again, and were housed in the louse-infested barracks. Through repeating epidemics of disease, they died, were murdered, or were worked, tortured, and starved to death. Very few escaped or were liberated after the five years of the camp’s operation from 1940 to 1945.
We meditated in silence settling our minds and allowing ourselves to be empty and present as best we could. Then we spoke names of the dead, eight people reading different lists at one time. So incredibly many names! Sometimes the same last name was repeated over and over from members of a family murdered together. Each reader offered their list of names tenderly at an altar on the ground within a ring of candles. Then silence again as we sat. Stillness settled. Surprising peace softly released within us. Gentle breezes caressed our faces and necks. As we held the suffering of the victims, it was as if their spirits offered us comfort with this so welcome coolness in the blazing heat.
Then in the distance dogs barked, a train rattled past, and behind us heavy footsteps crunched the gravel. Waves of fear. The breeze grew and buffeted us. Yes, open, grieve, rest in love, but then take action, it seemed to say. Strong work of love is calling.