Flowers on the Edges of Graves: Fr. Manfred

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



Manfred Deselaers, Germany/Poland
(In photo, first on left)


I live in Oświęcim since 1990, in the Catholic Community Mariae Himmelfahrt, and since 1995 I work as a minister for the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer (CDiM). From the beginning on I was aware of the [Zen] Peacemaker Retreats, from a big distance at first. In the nineties, I heard from priest Piotr Wrona, director of the CDiM at that time, that an American international Buddhist inter-religious group with Jewish roots (or something like that, I don’t remember exactly) was planning and conducting contemplative days in Auschwitz. I had no idea what that meant. Then coincidental meetings happened, conversations in between, invitations and then, eventually, at some point the request to take over the role of a Christian Spirit Holder. Later I often said that for me, the Peacemaker Retreats belong to the most important events in Auschwitz and Birkenau. Why?

There are few groups, which listen so intensively to “the voice of this ground”. Sightseeing – yes, of course. Meetings with contemporary witnesses, too. But sitting in silence on the tracks, from time to time chanting the names of those who were murdered… feeling the space while meditating, becoming aware of the many different dimensions in different spots of the camp site… this is such an intense offering to take this place and its victims (and even its offenders) seriously that even former inmates came back to participate.

I also learned a lot from the method of Silent Sharing. Mornings in small groups, evenings in bigger groups. It’s not the lectures that account for the atmosphere, it’s the respectful listening to the inner wealth everyone brings in. “Auschwitz” – that was the annihilation of others. Nearly none of all the groups coming to Auschwitz these days is bringing together different nations, biographies, faiths and religions so intentionally. The healing of broken identities and broken relationships belongs together, there is no other way, I’m convinced of that. New trust comes from honest listening to each other. For that, it needs a safe space, allowing for trust. That is what this retreat offers.

I’m a Catholic priest, not a Jew, not a Buddhist. This means, I am under no obligation to engage in liturgies that I don’t understand or can’t relate to. And that goes for other people too. That’s why for me the respect towards the other-ness of the others was always very important. It was expressed, for example, in the separate prayers for the different religious groups that were part of the retreat program, even when almost everything else is offered collectively. Anyone could visit “the others”, but also find a group with a familiar prayer-language. Sometimes, collective prayers or prayer-paths would form, in which we would express ourselves in our traditions successively. (…)

I have encountered so many beautiful people. My gratitude reaches out to all of them, especially to the founding parents and the pillars that make up the spine of these retreats from the very beginning, Bernie and his “family”. The retreat is not only “Bearing Witness” – it’s also Building a Civilization of Love…

This excerpt from Fr. Manfred’s reflection 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:

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Flowers on the Edges of Graves: Fr. Manfred

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