Everything Has To Do With Us: Roshi Collande Reflects on Bearing Witness at Auschwitz

This November, 2017, Zen Peacemakers are returning to the extermination camp site Auschwitz-Birkenau for the twenty-second time. Roshi Cornelius V. Collande is one of the spirit holders at the retreat. They are asked to serve, listen and learn ‘the pulse’ of the retreat. They adjust the schedule and keep the intention of the retreat centered in the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers, and Auschwitz itself as the one teacher.  Below, find Roshi Cornelius’ reflection on returning to the old site.


Everything Has To Do With Us:

Reflection on Bearing Witness at Auschwitz

by Roshi Cornelius v. Collande


OSWIECIM, POLAND. When we go to pass a week at Auschwitz, it is quite different from being there for some hours as a tourist. As we go to Birkenau every morning to pass the entire day there, we are getting used to the place; we are even getting familiar with it. However, the great paradox is that it never gets normal.

Everything I do and every feeling I have – especially as a German person – is questioned. Can I take photos of “interesting” places? Can I be bored, can I feel OK? Can I sing? Can I even dance with the rabbi? There is no way to be without question marks. Auschwitz leads us into a big not-knowing. That is a great quality of this place.

Yet the greatest quality of this retreat is that it gives you a safe and well organized space in which to bear witness to everything that arises within the big not-knowing. We have been offering the Auschwitz retreat for more than 20 years; as a psychotherapist and spiritual teacher I have experienced that having this (inner and outer) safe space is a precondition to deeply bearing witness to Openness. What does this mean? It means that we become really intimate with this place and its spirit; it means that we realize that everything has to do with us, that we are a part of it– not as victim or perpetrator, but as life itself.  Bearing witness to one of the darkest chapters of humanity opens us to our own great source of love and transformation.


Dr. Cornelius v. Collande, Roshi, has studied Philosophy, Psychology and Educational Theory in Freiburg, Germany, as well as Geology in Wurzburg and Zaragoza, Spain.  Since 2000 he has worked in Gestalt Psychotherapy, Mindfulness and Zen-training. Roshi Collande has a European Certificate of Psychotherapy (EAP), is a teacher of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and teaches Taiji at the Taiji Chan school.  He was also appointed as Zen teacher of the Zen school “Empty Cloud” by Willigis Jäger Kyoun Roshi in 2009. Roshi Collande first attended the Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat in 2011, for which he is now a Spirit Holder.


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Everything Has To Do With Us: Roshi Collande Reflects on Bearing Witness at Auschwitz

One Response

  1. Dear Cornelius,
    like you, I attended the retreat in 2011, we were room mates then. Im am not practicing Zen. The retreat was a real challenge for me. In many ways, I failed. But the week was important for me. Still, I am in touch. May you be blessed.
    regards, Martin

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