I feel I had but glimpses of her. No experience of the movie actor (though I heard a lot about it), the daughter, the wife, the mother, the grandmother, or even for that matter the Zen teacher, though I sat with her in the Kanzeon zendo behind the family home in Warsaw. Yes, faint pictures of her bending over a pot of soup on the kitchen stove while we waited at the table, looking up with a brief, inquisitive smile as her daughter Orinka came in. There were a few meals at Krakow and Warsaw restaurants, and one memory of her at a hotel in Kazimierz Dolny wearing a long red dress and the hotel owner bent low over her outstretched hand as though she was royalty, which at times it felt she was.
No, my glimpses of Malgosia Braunek are from Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she joined the Zen Peacemakers’ retreats November after November. The first was of Malgosia reading the poems of Wislawa Szymborska in Polish to 150 people on the second evening of the retreat, and while someone else then read the poems in English it wasn’t necessary because Malgosia’s voice, with its pauses and low-pitched intonations, seemed to convey everything.
That voice and face! We co-facilitated a morning council group in one year’s retreat. While I meticulously laid out the guiding rules of our time together, Malgosia seemed to rely on the timbre of her voice and her intuitive awareness to create the space we needed for sharing from the heart. Rules and definitions mattered, but not like the flush that crept over her face, the smile that began hesitantly and then widened to dazzle, and the open, direct gaze of the eyes.
She felt bad about her English so often she didn’t say much, occasionally asking her husband Andrzej for translation. It didn’t matter to me, I loved to hear her speak Polish. And I knew that she listened as she talked, with deep, wordless intuition.
And there was Malgosia dancing on the last nights of our retreats. She seemed to love all of it: circle dances, pairing up with Bernie in a Hasidic dance even as they held a white handkerchief between both their hands. I even have memories of her arms billowing and her feet stamping on instruction in Hawaiian Hula from Hula teacher June Tanoue when she and Andrzej visited us in Yonkers. But mostly I remember the frenzied fast dances, as though it was only when she moved every single muscle of her body that she could finally do justice to the fire and passion that lay inside. One year I went to bed early on the last night of the retreat, only to hear from a fellow American participant the next morning: “This gorgeous woman appeared out of nowhere and danced like madwoman!”
And finally, Malgosia walking down those railroad tracks in her light blue jacket. Once she led us in the Gate of Sweet Nectar liturgy at the site of a gas chamber at the very back of Birkenau where they used to burn bodies above-ground. Surrounded by by Poles, Germans, Americans, people from many countries and different traditions, she chanted in English: Being one with all Buddhas, I turn the waterwheel of compassion. We all joined her as she chanted this one line at least 20 times, not looking at the book but rather out at the world she loved with all its suffering, the vast ash pit behind the rectangle in the ground and the one lone tree in the distance.