OSWIECIM, POLAND. ‘This [Auschwitz retreat] is an opportunity to love, and to give up fear.’ Bernie called, spirited yet tender, from the middle of the auditorium on his way to his quarters after delivering his opening remarks for the 2016 Zen Peacemakers Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat.
He was surrounded by eighty participants from seventeen countries who have traveled seas and land to participate. Forty-five of them, an unprecedented number, had come to Auschwitz for the first time with the Zen Peacemakers. In the following five days, through rain, snow and sunshine, we shared time at the camp, visiting the barracks of children, women and men in places where they spent their last nights and days, we dedicated ceremonies at the remains of the crematoriums and ash fields where they were killed and disposed of, and we sat silently at the selection site where this very decision of their fate was made by other fellow human beings. From the silence, we called their names and those of our own loved ones that died there. Above us, crows circled and swooped.
“I came quite “not knowing” and plunged into one the most meaningful experiences in my life. I felt cared for, safe and guided through this week with enough flexibility to find my own pace. I felt as part of a compassionate community and I am deeply thankful for all these moments of deep humanity. ” – Retreat Participant
Day by day, we further revealed the layout of the camp and the schedule was marked by extended time for self reflection, private practice and exploration. We bore witness to moments of grief of soft lullabies in German, Hebrew and French and moments of celebration of life by songs in Arabic, Dutch and many other tongues. We heard from Yaser and Rabia, two Palestinian siblings, refugees from present-day war-torn Syria of their moments of despair and inspiration, of caring for family and friends, and joined them in the Al-Fatiha – the most essential Muslim prayer – in closing our final silent circle, kneeling palms up by the alter at the selection site. Their presence at the retreat anchored our experience in the present suffering of their people and many others around the world.
One afternoon, Bernie, wheeled by chair and surrounded by the participants, visited the ashes of his late wife Sandra Jishu Holmes which he spread by ‘Jishu’s tree’, located behind the Sauna (the camp’s inmate processing center), at one of the ash depository fields in the camp. On another afternoon he visited a hospice at Oświęcim that was built by August Kowalczyk
, an escaped prisoner from Auschwitz
and a well known actor in Poland. August, like Marian, attended many of the Zen Peacemakers retreats
in Auschwitz and was so moved as to build a place in Oświęcim which will offer a dignified and caring End of Life transition “To survive the memory of those who had the courage to risk their lives to help prisoners of Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau… a sign that during the most cruel times, inhabitants of this land did not remain indifferent to evil and suffering of others.” (Translated from Polish, from Fundacja Pomnik Hospicjum Miastu Oświęcim website
) . It now serves 23 beds for individuals with terminal illnesses.
“Unique experience of collective compassion and courage, to stay with what is horrifying and unfathomable in us, in humankind. Blessed to have experienced a culture that tries its best and succeeds at embracing everyone and all and has become fearless through love. I feel inspired by the people, the Zen Peacemakers and … I feel inspired to contribute in a more concrete way. Thank you!” — Retreat Participant
On the first night, we visited the exhibition of Marian Kolodziej at a nearby Franciscan monastery. Marian produced an astonishing body of artwork about his experience as a labor-prisoner in Auschwitz following a stroke, shared a close friendship with Bernie. Marian died in 2012, but Bernie’s connection to him heightened after suffering a stroke in early 2016. Monks from the monastery availed themselves to us, and shared the intimate stories behind the drawn scenes. Other nights, we gathered to listen to each-other, at the comfort of the Dialogue Center where we stayed, or in old cold dark barracks. A contemplative night offered choice of authentic movement and voice, art making, extended meditation and a nightly walk by Oświęcim’s cemeteries that were lavishly decorated with flowers and warmly candle-lit for the Polish national day of All Saints.
Zen Peacemakers would like to thank all the spirit holders, staff, council facilitators, volunteers and the staff and leadership of the Center for Dialogue.