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.Learn More
Sami Awad is the Executive Director of Holy Land Trust (HLT), a Palestinian non-profit organization which he founded in 1998 in Bethlehem. HLT works with the Palestinian community at both the grassroots and leadership levels in developing nonviolent approaches that aim to end the Israeli occupation and build a future founded on the principles of nonviolence, equality, justice, and peaceful coexistence. He has been to many Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreats and is a close friend of Bernie Glassman and Eve Marko.
Sami Awad, on Auschwitz, fear, and the meaning of nonviolence
Sami Awad’s article “It was a Life.”
Every killing of every human is a story and a life that was, that is and was to be. It was a heartbeat that stopped before its time. Itwas a dream that disappeared abruptly like a television set that suddenly lost its power.
It was a young woman who ate her last meal; it was not her favorite dish, but she did not want to upset her mother for cooking it. “Next time make pizza mom,”
she yelled… then she yelled her last cry. It was a wife who did not know that her husband’s last look into her eyes would be imprinted as her eternal memory of him.
It was a child who was learning to ride a bicycle. He fell, scratched his knee and cried. It was the father who gently put his hand on the wound, kissed his son’s forehead, wiped the tears, and told him “I am here for you.” A second later they were both not there. It was a young teenager who finally found the courage to send a Facebook message to a girl he admired. It was the young girl who received the message and blushed and wondered what she should do.
It was the mother who just finished praying for her son to find a job. It was the son who was running home excited to have found his first job in 5 years; now he was going to take care of his family, buy new clothes for his kids, and take his wife out to dinner… something he never did. It was the businessman who called his wife and told her that he had found the right person for the job, “thank God”. It was also the man who was fired from that job and was thinking death would be more merciful than to break the news to his wife. He did not really mean it but it happened.
It was the grandmother who was telling old-time stories to her grandchildren. It was her four grandchildren who were not paying attention, looking out the window eagerly wanting to play football at the beach because they were bored, the weather was just right, and it felt safe.
It was a doctor who was still trying to figure out how to pay his student loans with the little money he was making. It was the garbage collector who was saving every bit of money to send his only daughter to medical school. It was the student who was flipping through internet sites, Harvard Medical, UNC, Stanford… day dreaming, smiling, knowing she will never have a chance to get in any of them.
It was the father who just caught his son and friends smoking cigarettes behind the house and started yelling at them. It was the kid who ran away to the wrong direction of the neighborhood, the father followed him, they both did not return. It was the mother who called her sister joyfully telling her that her baby has grown up and no longer needs diapers. It was the baby.
It was a young man who felt there is no choice but to carry a weapon and shoot it into nothingness. It was the young man who felt there is no choice but to carry a weapon and shoot it into someone’s existence. It was both of them who ended up shooting the emptiness and the humanity out of each other.
It was a life… It was a mother, a father, a son and a daughter. It was a smell, a touch and a look. It was putting on makeup, brushing teeth, hanging with friends, and arguing which team was going to win the next soccer game.
It was a smile, a cry, a kiss and a hug. It was learning to say “please”, “thank you”, “hello” and “goodbye”.
These lives have now been lost, living as painful memories in the heart of their beloved who now carry stories of deep pain, hurt, fear and disbelief. These are mothers, fathers, sons and daughter who will never again smell, touch and see their beloved again. These are humans like me and you whose lives have been altered forever but hopefully never becoming members of the “it was a life”.Learn More
We are happy to announce that the Zen Peacemaker Order has opened the second cohort for the training program for those interested in training in Bearing Witness.
On July 9-10, 2015 there will be a two-day workshop, led by Jared Seide, on Deepening the Practice of Council.
This is followed by a two-day workshop (July 11-12, 2015) on the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order (ZPO), i.e., Not-Knowing, Bearing Witness and Loving Actions led by Bernie Glassman.
In November 5-6, 2016, there will be the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz. After the Retreat there will be a one-day workshop on Evaluation of the Retreat via the Three Tenets and how these Tenets can be integrated into our lives led by Bernie Glassman.
Please visit the webpage describing the Auschwitz/Birkenau Retreat and read more about the details of that retreat.
This training is required for those wishing to become staff at ZPO Bearing Witness Retreats and for those that wish to create a Bearing Witness Retreat under the auspices of the Zen Peacemaker Order.
I recently participated in a “Bearing Witness Retreat” sponsored by both the Zen Peacemaker Order, based in the U.S. and Memos- Learning from History, based in Rwanda in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Having just returned, I am both deeply grateful for the inspiring human beings I have met and reeling as I process what I have experienced. I come away both devastated and extremely hopeful for our potential as human beings.
Brief history: in 1994, inflamed by their leaders, the largest group in Rwanda called Hutu’s, went on a 100 day rampage of collective insanity with the intention of eliminating the minority, yet socially dominant group, called Tutsi’s. This genocidal campaign in which neighbor turned on neighbor with machete’s and clubs is perhaps the most violent short term instance of genocide in human history. (Note- there is, of course, much more to the story and many angles: how colonialism worked to divide people, aggressions by the Tutsi’s etc., I am only focusing on the specific genocide in the spring of 1994.)
“Genocide is not one million deaths, it is one death a million times”
(quote seen in the Rwanda genocide museum)
We are in the genocide museum in Kigali the capital of Rwanda. The history of these incomprehensible acts is presented through words and large panoramic pictures. I see Allison (name changed for confidentiality), one of the Rwandan retreat participants lingering in front of one picture. Although we do not share a common language we have exchanged deep, warm looks over the previous day. As I stand next to Allison she leans into me. I put my arm around her. She points to the picture: the woman in the picture is missing much of her right arm as is Allison. The woman in the picture has a large cut on the right side of her face as does Allison. Suddenly I see- we are looking at Allison!
I discovered that it is impossible for me to process so many deaths. My body freezes, a lump in my belly won’t move, stuck like an undigested mass. The feelings can not move. When I sit with one person, someone with a name, perhaps their picture, then I can feel my heart torn open and the visceral feeling can actually move through my body. My love and care can come forth. The pain of one is more real that the mass of bodies. Yet to experience this one million times is impossible.
Genocide is a rather new term created in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish born Jewish-American jurist to signify the attempt to exterminate an ethnic, religious or racial group. It is more than war for territory. It is the ultimate demonization of a group of people. It is the creation of Us and Them.
Genocide and Otherness
Us and Them. This is the question for all of us. Who is other? Who do we deem unworthy of life? Close to a million people viciously killed by their neighbors. How is it possible to take this into one’s heart? Each one of these people was an individual- a mother, a daughter, son, brother, father. This is not mass killing, it is one real person at a time receiving machete blows or clubbed to death.
Yet this is one instance of many just in the 20th century. Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Armenia, Kosovo and others. We humans do such things, how can we understand that? In each case the group to be exterminated (note the word itself implies insects or vermin) is made to seem less than human. Even in “regular” war soldiers need to create names for the enemy to put aside their connections to humanity. In Vietnam it was “gooks” or “slants”, language used to dehumanize. In Rwanda the Tutsi’s were called “cockroaches” and “snakes” even on the radio and in song.
Roots of Genocide in Everyday Life
I notice we even do this with our ordinary insults of the “other”. Much of our profanity and name-calling has this same message. In politics, calling people “right wing nut jobs” or “socialist a…holes” has a similar intention. It is so easy to create ‘enemy images’ and thus cast-out people from our sense of common humanity and field of caring.
Perhaps we can see the roots of this malicious casting-out in our own self-violence. Our often mean spirited inner dialogue has an intention of exiling that which we can not tolerate. We can not really heal (make whole) anything that has been exiled. Every inner voice is part of who we are and needs to be integrated into our Being. This is true internally and equally true of society’s outcasts- the homeless, the drug dealers, the corporate polluters, and child molesters. How do we learn to differentiate the behavior from the person? We need to vehemently say “no” to certain human actions without casting the person out of our heart. This is the lesson of most genuine spiritual teachings. This is the lesson of good parenting. This is lesson of genocide. Dehumanization is the polar opposite of interconnectedness.
If Africa is the cradle of human life, Rwanda sits near its center. How startling to experience both the greatest darkness and the greatest potential for healing coming forth from one location. Somehow, healing (again, making whole) must occur or the killing will repeat. Rwanda is a potent learning opportunity for humanity. It is not “them” over “there” but “us” over “here”. “They” did not do this to “them”, “we” did this to “us”. We must see our own potential for inhumanity, for unconscionable mass behavior and the implicit dangers of group-think.
The goal in Rwanda is reconciliation. Here in the smallest, most densely populated country on the continent, these people must live with each other. There is no place to move to and they need each other to survive. As most Tutsi’s will tell you, forgiveness is not yet possible. Perhaps some day but not yet. There is a deep, deep level of mistrust. Tolerance of each other is the beginning. This can be followed by some normal human interactions. Working in the fields or meeting in the marketplace. After learning to tolerate the presence of the other and having some interactions, hearing each other’s stories is essential. This includes apologies but even this is tricky as many apologies can be strategic and not from deep in the heart. A big step can occur in a retreat like this in which enough safety is created for truth to be spoken. At this retreat some Tutsi’s sat with Hutu’s for the first time since the genocide. Some even hugged.
Seeing one’s neighbors enter a collective insanity in which your loved one’s are viciously killed creates a hole in the heart that may never be filled. As I said, forgiveness is too big a step for most Tutsi’s. Deep contrition is too much for most Hutu’s. To truly acknowledge what one did without the hedge of “I was one of many”, “others did much more” or “Satan took me over” is extremely difficult. Thankfully, healing does not require forgiveness. This is an important distinction. The whole process of forgiveness takes time and perhaps may never be actualized. Healing one’s own wounds is often reflected in the ability to laugh easily, sleep well and deeply connect with others. These abilities might well occur long before true forgiveness is possible.
Every person over 20 years old in Rwanda falls into three categories: Survivor, Perpetrator or Rescuer. All the others are children of someone in these categories. Every person! The whole culture lives in collective trauma. How can you move forward when you have experienced the potential of your neighbor to brutally kill you? Can you ever trust another human again?
This potential for darkness lives in all human beings. For humanity to prosper, to realize our True place as “Human Beings”, I believe our sense of “Inter-being” or interconnectivity must be experienced. The essence of morality comes from the deep experience of connectedness. When we feel “a part of” rather than “apart from” we will act life-giving ways. This begins with a diligent and dedicated practice of self-awareness. Who do I exile from the field of care? Which parts of my inner life are similarly exiled? As I said before, “they” did not do this to “them”, “we” did this to “us”.
The next writing will focus on the retreat and the people.
I am often asked “How can I learn and experience Bearing Witness?” I am happy to announce that the Zen Peacemaker Order has initiated a training program, led by me, Bernie Glassman, for those interested in training in Bearing Witness. The program begins with a one-day workshop led by Jared Seide, Director, Center for Council on The Way of Council, on November 8, 2014 in Krakow, Poland. That is followed by the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz. After the Retreat, on November 15, there is another one-day workshop, led by Jared Seide, evaluating the Effect of Council at the Retreat. On June 11-12, 2015, there will be a two-day workshop, led by Jared Seide, on Deepening the Practice of Council followed by a two-day workshop (June 13-14), led by Bernie Glassman, on the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order (ZPO), i.e., Not-Knowing, Bearing Witness and Loving Actions. On November 7-8, 2015, Bernie will lead a two-day workshop on applying the Three Tenets of the ZPO to the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz. This workshop is followed by the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz. After the Retreat there will be a one-day workshop, led by Bernie Glassman, on Evaluation of the Retreat via the Three Tenets and how these Tenets can be integrated into our lives. To read about the Zen Peacemaker Order, link here.Learn More
People often don’t understand such a bearing witness trip. I have been asked why anyone would travel a long way to East Africa to listen to people describe a genocide perpetrated on them close to 20 years ago. Someone asked me candidly if I felt a peculiar attraction to terrible suffering.
I can only speak of my experience. Of course, as a member of a family that suffered from the Jewish Holocaust, I have a special interest in how another ethnic group of humans fared after being designated cockroaches, or untermenschen. The two genocides share differences and similarities.
But more generally, I went to Rwanda to witness how these survivors are struggling with the question of what it means to be human. In some way many of us would say that we struggle with the same question in our own lives. But the Rwandans can’t fake it. They’ve seen their families wiped out and must find some way to move on, face the killers, and plunge into the inquiry of what to do: Remember? Forget? Forgive? Hate? Take revenge? Remember God? Forget God?
To me it doesn’t matter what the answer is; the question matters, the readiness—out of choice or lack of choice—to bear witness, to own completely one’s individual life and that of society. What loving action emerges may well differ from person to person, but what the people we talked to had in common was a readiness to fully engage with this most basic of human challenges.
Yes, they each expressed sincere appreciation for our coming there to listen to them. It’s crucial to them that the world wants to listen, to join in their pain if only for a short time. But to me it’s clear that I brought home something immeasurably precious: various soft, clear, courageous voices articulating age-old experiences of suffering and the quest to relieve suffering. Each person did this in her own way, with a simplicity that had no patience for the trivial but that only spoke of what was done, and now what is to be done.
Instead of running away, they had to face the killers. Instead of denying, they wished to walk down the streets of their village and meet the Other face to face. What else was left to do? In their own words, they had to reconcile with all parts of themselves before they could reconcile with the murderers of their families. And if, after 18 years, they could not do this, they had to reconcile with that part of themselves as well.
I make nine bows to each of these beautiful teachers with the shy smiles about the lips and the pain in their eyes. May they find a measure of peace in their lives, and may their hard work bring great benefit to the Land of One Thousand Hills.
……….Read more and/or register for the upcoming Bearing Witness Retreat in Rwanda.Learn More