A few of the things to which we Bear Witness at Auschwitz

A few of the things to which we bear witness at Auschwitz:

To what is around us: wires strung tight, lazily looped or snapped upright like fingers pointing skyward—locked towers and the silhouettes of helmet and gun—long muddy pathways that lead to the very end of the world—the lonely columns of standing chimneys in ruins of brick and tile—the rubble of crematoriums that still smoulder in pity and sorrow—the countless reminders of murdered, men, women and children, their bone and their ash filling this remembered, forgotten landscape;

To sounds: of trucks revving engines—dogs on chains barking— the moan and rattle of distant trains—steps on the stairs—shuffling feet on gravel—boots on the railroad ties—songs, hymns, lullabies and recited prayers—baggage dragged over the platform—bells, waking bell, morning bell, the summoning bell to mediation—the raw, ragged call of the shofar to reflection—the liturgy of poetry, prose and prayer—the chanted names, softly spoken, loudly named, family after family—the pods of visitors fed by the many tongues of the world—the sounds rising from the earth of sobbing—the pounding of heartbeats and shortness of breath—the mystical rhythms of life and of death that only our hearts can hear;

To the names: chanted by the rails, sung in the ruins, tolled through wind, rain and sun—those who died, who survived, who died long after Auschwitz and who have yet to die—Kraus, Rosenzweig, Rothschild,  Steinman, Graca and Immergut, and whole families: Salamon Fuchs, Rebekka Fuchs, Moszek Fuchs, Moritz Fuchs, Regina, Marie, Maximillian, Moric, Paula, Vera, Victor, Wladyslaw and Zygmunt Fuchs and more than a million more and all the names unknown, the names unknown, the names forever unknown;

To the Zentralsauna

Bone-colored light streaming through windows onto a floor the color of cold ash—The feeling of a threshold place, of a space between, still remains—of losing everything here, with no idea what you might gain. Take off your favorite sweater or your red shoes or the shawl given to you by your grandmother. Watch it all get tossed into metal washers full of disinfectant. You are naked, shivering, shamed. Have you surrendered all that you have? Not yet. Down a long hallway and into another large room like the first, you come to have taken from you the very last and most important thing you own—your name.  Frida Shulman you are now 13852; Dawid Abbe? 17655, Leon de Smetd, you shall be known as 75676. Names dissolving into numbers. You are turned out into the courtyard nameless.

When Jacob wrestled the angel to the ground and demanded to be blessed, the bewildered divinity could only ask: What is your name? Jacob answered and the angel said: Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed. Then Jacob asked the angel: Please tell me your name. The angel ended the matter: Why is it that you ask my name? And he blessed him. So it is, my nameless brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, we bless you. We give you our own names and we walk with you into the night;

To soil: the dark, witnessing soil of Osweicim—but also older than Osweicim, older than all the nation, the soil of the Celts, the Scythians, the fierce tribes and clans, the Slavs and Balts—even older still, the soil loved by the healing witches and the forest shamans, the tree folk, the pagan teachers and the heyoka of every kind—and the foxes, boars, wildcats and birds who sprung from this soil to speak in tongues we once understood;

To artifacts: glass, stones, metal, wood, brick, ceramic, tin, stone, electric sockets and barbed wire—remnants of a story still so hard to hear;

To the advice that saved lives (or didn’t): Be neither first or last for soup for you will only get water from an unstirred pot or dirt from its dregs—keep your eyes on the ground, you can use everything you find—don’t gloat or brag, don’t talk too much—look straight and boldly into Nazi eyes, or cast down your eyes—seek anonymity—avoid his glance, or convey deference to his power by acknowledged submission—become indispensable to any German with any authority—we bear witness to advice offered to another for another’s wellbeing, as well as to the lies intended to deceive or destroy;

To sky: wide, broad, windblown sky, dark, rain-swollen sky, blue heaven sky, close in, lusterless sky that diminishes, clear crisp sky that inspires, studded cloud sky that can suffocate–ever the promise that tomorrow’s sky will be different;

To shit as revulsion, embarrassment and shame

The diarrhea of fear—

The hard dry pellet shit of hunger—

Or the fly-ridden, bacteria-soaked, incubator of disease—

The endless stink that fills and fills and fills the barracks—
We bear witness to the sole bucket overflowing within minutes in a car full of frightened souls—and the handful of toilet holes in crowded barracks;

To shit as liberation. Emptying shit as the best job in camp—the gloveless work accomplished under a roof that makes for warmth in the winter, dryness in the rain and shade in the summer—a place where there are no harassing German guards—where, under the broken latrines, there can be the privilege of time, the sweetness of privacy, where news and information can be passed, needed goods can be traded through shit filled fingers and stories can get told— we bear witness to the shit movers who survived Auschwitz—and to those who didn’t;

To the murderers and the murdered: the cruel whose cruelty was their inheritance and those who met that cruelty with grace, bewilderment or fear—the frightened boys in uniforms who feared disobedience more than they longed for righteousness—the bureaucrats who lacked the imagination to stand for life and thus extinguished it without curiosity—and all those who were extinguished, either in body or spirit;

To the crematoriums. We bear witness.

To the Ash Pond and the grove of trees

The sponginess of the pond’s edge—the blackness of the water—the floating flowers—we circle the pond like choral singers holding a song we cannot bear to sing—the fish who have made their home there—the dragonflies who circle it offer their daily benedictions to the miracle of life;

To the Loved: who held their beloved’s hands in the garden and wore ribbons in their hair—the ones  who danced at their marriage and sung around the table— the mothers and fathers of children, the brothers, sisters, favored aunts, the funny uncles an faithful cousins who were never seen again after being stolen in the dark, rounded up in the ghetto, herded onto trains— those who spilled onto the platform, who waited in line for the tilt of a finger while praying for life;

And to those we ourselves love and hold as dear to us as life itself, who make our songs real and who sing along with us– to those we could not love well enough—and to those who choose to wait

for us—

on us—

with us—

without us;

To the feared: whose voices frightens, whose laughter chills, who snarls and whispers, barks and commands, who expects to be obeyed and has the power to punish, the falsely kind and deceptively fair voices that instill compliance; the slick, deadly voices who relish destruction;

To the wind: that carries away the gas after the doors are opened—that lifts the terrible scent of loss, grief and death into a welcoming sky—the breezes that catch a leaf or float a bird—the ceaseless winter wind that freezes—that bitter, biting cold that cannot be escaped, stronger, more brutal, more relentless, than any wire, kapo or guard.

To the artists and the dreamers: who rendered with pencil or paint, poetry or prose, melody, lyric or song, the faith that could not be wounded, the passion that could not be extinguished and a horror only they can spin into love;

To the liars and the cheats, the greedy and the vengeful: we bear witness to the terrible stories you must devise to live, then perilous  ways you must organize yourself to survive;

To the faithful: who prayed and believed—who never stopped loving the world—who saw the future and could help others see it–who could name and celebrate the possible—who understood the structure of trust and hope and modeled it—who helped others to believe that there is an end to sorrow—who mend our broken hearts and swing our despair towards joy;

To ceremony:
Buddhist bells, Christian, Muslim and Jewish prayers, the hymns and melodies sung in the dark, to the dervishes and the Sufis, the lovers of Freya, the indigenous  peoples and the talking sticks, tobacco, shells, bells and bone that lead the way—to all the small salutations to spirit offered in the innermost chambers of every heart still;

To our own hearts: our tender, savage, hopeful, critical, anxious, wise, mindful, mindless, brave, petulant, frightened, resilient, noble heart, we bear witness to ourselves with responsibility and gentleness;

And finally:

We bear witness to those who are swept away,

suddenly, terribly and without mercy—
To those who witness it happening—

To the witnesses who resolve to remember

And to those who need to forget—

To those who are told about it and grieve

And to those who are told about it and shrug—

To those who, unaware, seek with their hearts to know,

And to those, unaware, who will never allow their hearts to seek—

We sit for you

We chant your names.

And we know, as we sit on the selection platform, day after day

That your names are being carried by these winds to all the realms.


We know too, that we are big enough to hold all of this and so much more—

We bless what we bear witness to—

And we bless all that is yet to come to our awareness.


Kemp Battle is a strategic advisor to organizations, hospice volunteer and proud member of ZPI.

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A few of the things to which we Bear Witness at Auschwitz

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