Flowers on the Edges of Graves: Greg

Flowers on the Edges of Graves: Greg


¬†This post is another in the series “Flowers on the Edges of Graves” –
reflections from 20 years of participants in the Zen Peacemakers
Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreats since 1996.


By Greg Rice, USA


OSWIECIM, POLAND. This last November I quit fishing early to attend the annual Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz, Poland. After an all-day flight, I arrived at the hotel in Kraków after dark, tired and unsure of what I was doing there. Within minutes I was invited to dinner with a group of other participants.

I felt welcomed in as part of this retreat immediately, and my doubts¬†vanished‚Ķ¬†In the big changing room of the ‚Äúsauna‚ÄĚ was a display of thousands of¬†photos collected by the guards as they stripped the prisoners of their lives.¬†Sitting in that room, we sang a simple song, the first line of which was¬†‚Äúhow could anyone ever tell you, you are anything less than beautiful‚ÄĚ.

We all sang, in this dreadful room, first looking each other in the eyes,¬†then at the beautiful pictures of happy children, of lovers, of grandmothers.¬†Pictures taken in a time in their lives when they were happy, a time in¬†their lives like this time in ours. And then they experienced what no living¬†being should ever experience. It broke my heart, walking slowly through¬†these walls of photos, singing ‚Äúhow could anyone see you as anything less¬†than beautiful.‚ÄĚ How could they?¬†One day, as we stood in a circle around the blown-up remains of Crematorium¬†chamber IV, we all read the Kaddish in our native tongue. It was read in at¬†least eight different languages. At the end, Reb Shir blew on the Shofar ‚Ästthe ram‚Äôs horn. It was the first time I had ever heard it. The sound brought¬†tears to my eyes. It seemed a strong and ancient call to the world, to the¬†ashes, to all that keeps us separate. It was a voice saying we are still here, we¬†will always be here, all of us. It was the sound of perseverance and inclusiveness.¬†To me, a secular guy, the sound of that Shofar was Holy.

There is a teaching that says, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill¬†the Buddha. What needs to be killed is the sense of truth, of knowing, the¬†root of this separateness that keeps us apart. It seems almost impossible to¬†consider the Nazis who committed these crimes as just like us, as of our¬†tribe. Yet if we can‚Äôt, we are living the same exclusionary view (…)


This is an excerpt and appears in full¬†in the book¬†“AschePerlen – Pearls of Ash & Awe. 20 Years of Bearing Witness in Auschwitz with Bernie Glassman & Zen Peacemakers” (2015)¬†Edited by Kathleen Battke, Ginni Stern, and Andrzej Krajewski,¬†in German and English. Printed copies or e-book available at:






JOIN THE ZEN PEACEMAKERS IN 2017¬†–¬†Register or¬†Learn more about the Zen Peacemakers¬†Auschwitz/Birkenau¬†Bearing Witness Retreat¬†in 2017



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