Drawing by Manfred Bockelmann
On the window ledge behind my altar is a charcoal drawing of a Gypsy girl who was killed at Auschwitz/Birkenau, done by the Austrian artist, Manfred Bockelmann. For the past ten years Bockelmann has done charcoal drawings of children and young people killed by the Nazis from photos taken by the SS (http://manfred-bockelmann.de/arbeiten/zeichnungen/zeichnen-gegen-das-vergessen/).
The photo was given me by a participant at the Auschwitz retreat that took place in early November. The girl seems to be around 10, dark, fringed hair parted down the middle and waving down the sides almost to her chin. Short, dark, upraised eyebrows under a high forehead. Eyes slightly slanted, pupils high and penetrating, the corners of her small lips turned down. A blouse with a V-shape collar, and what looks like a beaded necklace from which something dangles below the bottom edge of the picture.
I’ve looked at this drawing every day since coming home, at the round face and pale, defenseless skin below her neck, and mostly the eyes that seem to call out with some kind of plea: To be remembered? Understood? Loved? Are they asking me to bear witness to what happened to Gypsy girls like her, to the starvation and exposure, their terror and despair? Recently I read about Settela Steinbach, who was murdered along with her mother and 9 siblings at Auschwitz. Do I bear witness to the scale of such atrocities each time I look at the Gypsy girl’s face? Or does that face become a catch-all for my own confusions and fears, my own dread of being blown away one unexpected, disastrous day?
Our last day at Birkenau is always Friday; having been there for four days, we arrive like old hands. Our routine, too, feels like a daily practice. I go through the familiar gate and down the tracks to the shed housing our equipment, pick up a chair, bench, cushion, or mat, and continue down the tracks to the site where they once did selections of who’d die right away and who’d die later. People offer to carry my chair. The truth is that I like to carrying it myself, I want to be part of this group of people carrying what they need to set up a circle that will bear witness to what happened here over 70 years ago, and to what still happens around the world.
By 10:15 the circle is set up. The mist dissipates, frost no longer glitters between the grooves of the wooden slats, the sun is coming up, gray and ashen, and the place is ours. The big groups haven’t arrived yet in row after row of parked tour buses, the loud voices of guides speaking in clipped, assured English of something that is beyond words, the occasional flapping of blue-and-white Israeli flags. Those will come by noon, but for now, strange to say, we have Birkenau to ourselves. In the second period of sitting we’ll chant the names of those who died here, but this first period of meditation is silent, giving me a chance to ponder what I’m doing here once again, this 20thyear at Aushwitz/Birkenau.
This time I locate inside myself a special dislike of labels and abstractions: the perpetrators, the victims, the Nazis, the Jews, the Poles, the Israelis, the Europeans, the indigenous people, the refugees. We look at photos of men and women in striped uniforms and heads shorn, which cause their facial features to seem bigger—ears protruding from the sides, eyes open wide, chin more pronounced—but after the first few, the photos begin to blur into one generalized countenance of suffering. I try to individualize and separate, but soon I give up. My eyes aren’t good enough, my mind, my memory. My imagination.
Chanting of the names begins at our meditation circle. The names aren’t chanted fast, but I can’t attach anything to them, can’t attach a family, a job, a wife, children. Names are all there are, muttered, proclaimed, shouted, or whispered into the morning air.
This year I spent a lot of time in the Sauna at Birkenau, looking at photos that were found of entire families that perished there, the siblings and cousins, those who married and those who didn’t, those who left Poland before the cataclysm and those who came back just in time, the Orthodox, the Communists, the ones who built businesses and the ones that lost them, children everywhere, and the vacations with green hills and the faces of fun-loving friends. Finally, they’re individuals with stories. But only members of four or five families are memorialized in this way; the rest are just names. We don’t know the color of their eyes, the name of their mother, their favorite food, if they were quiet or liked to laugh, what they thought about the sky.
My father died right after our retreat at the concentration camp and overnight I became a mourner. We looked at photos of him, listened to many visitors’ stories about how he affected their lives, sniffed his smell in a jacket draped over a chair, listened to his voice leaving a phone message (“Not to worry, today is a good day for me”), saw his body before it was buried.
How does one mourn at Auschwitz/Birkenau? People died there over 70 years ago, leaving in their wake ponds, fields, and trees nourished by human ash. They’re all here, I tell myself. They’re not gone; in some way and fashion they’re still all here. That’s the best I can do.
Deer-shooting season has begun back home and Stanley (the dog) and I wear bright orange vests when we go into the woods. At night I glimpse a deer running cross the road and find myself wishing it will survive till January, when the shooting season is over (though many will then starve to death in New England’s bitter, long winters). What do I bear witness to in that deer? To its grey brown color and the white underside of its tail as it bounds down the slope? Its grunts and snorts warning the rest of the herd? The feel of earth under the scraping of its front hooves or the rough feel of branches as it rubs its head against them? The taste of the leaves, twigs, and grass that it loves? The sprint and leap over a fence and the rush over the crackling leaves on the ground?
Or do I bear witness to my own sense of powerlessness, my own fear of the uncertainties and dangers in life? Do I bear witness to myself or to the deer?
In the morning I look again at the pretty Gypsy girl. How easy it is for my imagination to pour onto that face all the suffering of the world, the killings, the assaults, the indifference, the helplessness, the unendurable fear and pain. But is that all she is, a Gypsy girl killed at Auschwitz? When does empathy become projection? When does the desire to feel for others become just another reflection of my own self concerns? I look at her photo, and especially at the dark strands that come down to her neck, and wonder: Did she like flowers? Was she close to her brothers? Did she have a favorite color? A favorite food? Did she like music? Did she like to play games and dance? Was she beginning to wonder about boys?
“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories,” Pope Francis said in Washington, D.C. about the Syrian refugees whose photos continue to swamp the front pages of newspapers every day. Are they all nothing but the essence of misery multiplied by thousands? Reproaching mirrors to our own neglect and indifference, amplifiers of our guilt? We don’t kill them like the Nazis did, but don’t we equally label them, attributing to thousands the same characteristics, as if they’re all interchangeable? Numbers instead of humans?
Person by person, I think to myself. Story by story, detail by detail. What’s your name, I can ask the homeless person on the corner. “Where do you eat? Where do you sleep? Do you have a family? Do you like to watch TV? Did you dream last night?” If I ask those questions of the picture of the Gypsy girl, I’ll get no answers. But I can ask them of one living human being.