Thursday night was our usual night at the barracks. On this evening before Friday, the last day of the retreat, it’s customary for us to return to Birkenau in the darkness and sit in one of the barracks by candle and flashlight. Years ago some of these vigils lasted till midnight and even all the way till morning.
As we arrived at the main brick gate through which the train tracks tubed into the camp and directly to the sites of the crematoria, we went upstairs to the guard tower built above the gate. Here, looking out over their machine guns, SS guards enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of men, women, and children stumbling down from train cars that had been their prisons for days and even weeks, with no food or water, pushed and prodded by other guards with clubs and snarling dogs in the direction of the extermination sites. This has always been a chilling spot, inviting us to bear witness to guards with a panoramic view of the terror and suffering below, drinking coffee, laughing, complaining about the hard work and bad weather, gossiping, wishing the shift would end. Somewhere in that scene many of us could find ourselves, preoccupied by our own problems and our own lives, fitting with more or less ease into a system we may bemoan but won’t violate.
We then walked single-file to the barrack, where Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi invited us to look closer at perpetrators and victims. He especially invited the German participants to talk about their lives and families, their parents and grandparents who went through the war. Stories were related about depression, guilt, silence, denial, and the quiet violence that goes along with keeping secrets. I was moved to hear them. But I felt frustration as well, not with the stories but with the heavy, mechanistic view that if we can understand the past we’ll be able to change the present and future.
The Dalai Lama has said that karma is a subtle thing. In my understanding, it has dimensions that are so vast and numberless they are practically unknowable. We are given tours by well-trained guides who provide numbers, data, and facts, but can’t explain the effects of the Auschwitz genocide on the sky or the wind, on the poi dances of the Maori in New Zealand or the wild, timid manners of the alpaca in Peru. A few can point to the birth of Israel as a consequence of the Holocaust but not to global warming and the loss of half our wildlife over the last 40 years. That Thursday evening in the barrack I silently asked for a quality of bearing witness that was no longer just about perpetrators or victims, of who did what to whom, but to something much, much bigger.
How could something like Auschwitz happen? is a question that is asked not just by folks in our retreat but probably by most visitors walking down the dusty, pebbly paths between strings of barbed wire; you can almost see it in their eyes. The American president Dwight Eisenhower said that if you’re having trouble solving a problem, make it bigger. That night in the barrack I felt it was time for this retreat to go bigger. Clubs and labels—Nazis, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, Gays, Heteros—are as alive now as ever, exciting the same deep emotions, rivalries, and hates, but it feels too linear, too much like old history lessons. I feel we need to change the conversation concerning both the large phenomena of genocide or Shoah and the more personal conversation about the inner voices we ignore or deny. Both are not big enough. We have to ask larger questions even though we don’t know the questions; I don’t even know the words.
Instead I find myself thinking of bacteria, specifically the strains of bacteria that outwit antibiotics and pesticides. They mutate quickly, reproducing fast and changing their chemistry in the process. We humans don’t mutate quickly. If anything, I’m conscious of the slowness of my faculties, the resistance to change, the falling back to patterns, labels, and stories that cast blame or victimize, my desire for fast results that have nothing to do with the patience and sacrifice of billions of bacteria cells that die in the process of regeneration and renewal.
January 2015 will mark 70 years since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. Historical forces are at hand, and we can ride them or ignore them. I find myself searching for new words, new stories, new formulations. I want to change my own old chemistry and uncover the energies that I believe are still bubbling in that gray place enclosed by barbed wire, powerful energies we haven’t begun to uncover. What is the Buddha’s work in this land of attachments? How do I change the chemistry of greed, anger and ignorance into healing and renewal on all levels, in all dimensions? I looked up again and again on Thursday and Friday at the gray skies over Birkenau and asked myself not what the inmates saw there 70 years ago, but what will be seen there 70 years from now. Will any of this still exist? More important, will anyone care? Or will things have happened that will dwarf the camps at Oswiecim?
For this reason I was deeply moved to see so many peacemakers gather in this place, the same place where, over a period of almost 20 years, many of us met each other for the first time, and then many times after that. We trained on the weekend before the retreat and on the weekend afterwards in listening not just to all the separate voices, but also to the greater truth of the group, the rich and complex language of people sitting in community, bodies stretching to bear witness to everyone in the room, and after that continuing to ask: And who else is in the room? What else must we listen to?
I feel these Zen Peacemakers are on to something, making their gathering place in the ruins of crematoria, in the green killing hills of Rwanda and in the rapacious thievery and violence of the Black Hills in the Dakotas, rooting ourselves in very specific historical events even as the challenge is to address who and what else is in the room. Nothing is without antidote, and even the deepest ash pits will still yield healing herbs to those who know how to search. So perhaps our work—at Auschwitz, Murambi, the Black Hills, Srebrenica, and the streets—is first to bear witness to what happened, and then find some way to create medicinal potions out of blood and cinder, a new chemistry for our precious world.
Who and what else is in the room have been the questions facing our group of spirit holders, whose job it has been to guide the retreat in the direction of its founder’s vision. This group also spent days in training, trying to point this retreat, which is a living, breathing being that renews itself with each new participant at each new gathering, into a deeper and deeper place of not-knowing. Like everyone else, we are a diverse lot with our own respective styles informed by different lands and cultures. As a new generation of leadership takes over, bringing with it more diversity and varied outlooks than ever before, it is important to create and transmit a clear set of rules and guidelines for everyone—participants, staff and spirit holders alike—to support both the spirit and the container of the retreat, and to prevent distraction, confusion and possibly harm. For this reason the spirit holders are in the process of creating an agreement defining ethical values and guidelines that we hope will enable us, as individuals and as a group, to delve deeper and deeper into not-knowing, to bear witness, and take the action that arises.
Many, many bows of appreciation to all who participated in and served this retreat for close to 20 years, and to the souls and spirits of Auschwitz.