Healing the Scars of History
Retreats are being held at Auschwitz, a former plantation, and a site where Indigenous people were massacred. Lindsay Kyte reports on how retreatants are finding freedom from their ancestral pain.
Approximately a million people died at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau. It was the largest of the more than forty camps and subcamps that made up the Auschwitz complex. Photo by INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo
Standing on the grounds of the Auschwitz extermination camp, David Birenbaum lost control of his legs. “We had been meditating in the barracks, and the only position my body would go into was with my legs up in my chest and my face toward my knees, like a fetal position,” he says. “We were supposed to go outside to chant the names of the victims, but when I tried to get up, I physically could not move, because of the emotion.”
A man helped Birenbaum straighten his legs, but when he tried to walk, he started to shake uncontrollably. “I propped myself up on a pole and started to chant,” Birenbaum says. “And I added my parents’ names to those of the victims.”
Birenbaum was seventy-two, and this was his first trip out of the U.S.—to go to Poland, the homeland of his parents, to participate in Bearing Witness, a meditation retreat to help heal the multigenerational wounds of the Holocaust. His parents had been among the few who survived Auschwitz, but they—and he—never stopped suffering the trauma of that unfathomable experience.
You have to touch and taste and smell the intergenerational wounds. When you’re walking around with unconscious trauma, you’re doing things and holding things that shape you.” —Kabir Hypolite
“Being there, right on the grounds, there’s a conscious energy that comes forth,” says Birenbaum. “It came through my body, this terror that wanted to be transmuted into healing. It was like I found my purpose—to heal that energy and my relationship with my parents.”
The Bearing Witness Retreat is one of several programs operating today, including Deep Time Liberation (DTL) and Wolf Dream Mountain, that help retreatants heal from intergenerational trauma by traveling to the very locations where their ancestors faced horrors such as genocide and enslavement.
Participants of a Bearing Witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau walk the grounds. “The energy came through my body,” says participant David Birenbaum, “this terror that wanted to be transmuted into healing.” Photo by Rev. Mikko Rakushin Kendō Ijäs, Ph.D, Zen Peacemakers Int.
Started in 1996 by the late Roshi Bernie Glassman, Jishu Holmes, Eve Marko, and Andrzej Krajewski of Zen Peacemakers, the Bearing Witness retreats help participants heal through contemplation amid the sights, sounds, and smells of the actual sites where their ancestors suffered so greatly. Through the use of Buddhist and other spiritual practices, participants are able to meet whatever comes up for them in this experience and share it with others. Once these feelings have been realized, both as ancestral pain and as a part of one’s own suffering, true healing can begin.
Bearing Witness is multifaith and multinational, but with a strong focus on the Zen Peacemakers’ three tenets developed by Roshi Bernie Glassman: not-knowing, bearing witness, and taking action. The retreat hosts fifty to eighty participants who visit different sites at Auschwitz and the nearby camp of Birkenau, both in silence and by chanting the names of the dead.
They sit in meditation by the train tracks at Birkenau and perform vigils and memorial services inside the barracks. Birenbaum went on this retreat to heal the lifelong anger he felt toward his parents for what was never discussed in their family. “I would have described my father as repressed and enraged,” he says. “I never understood why, on a somatic level.
Even though I knew my parents both had concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms, when I stood on that ground it was the first time I actually faced and….