by Eve Marko
I first accompanied Bernie Glassman to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the first days of December 1994, before anyone conceived of a bearing witness retreat at the site of the concentration camps. He was going there to do a Transmission of Precepts ceremony for Claude Thomas, a Vietnam veteran, at an interfaith convocation convened there by Buddhist activist Paula Green and the Nipponzan Myohoji Zen community. Claude was later joining a group that would walk from Poland all the way to Hiroshima, Japan.
In my family, two aunts and an uncle died at Auschwitz. Another uncle barely survived the hard labor and lived the rest of his life like an extinguished candle. My grandfather died in 1944 and my mother and her other siblings hid in cellars before getting caught and sent to the Terezin camp near Prague, Czechoslovakia. They were close to death when the Russian army liberated the camp in 1945. Given all this history, I thought, what better way to go to a place like Auschwitz than with one’s own teacher?
But as I sat alone on a bench along the Vistula River on the weekend before meeting Bernie, I wasn’t so sure. Years of Zen practice slipped off me like snakeskin, revealing underneath the Jewish woman whose forbears lived, prayed, starved, and finally left Poland for Czechoslovakia.
“Don’t just go to see where they died,” my brother had told me on the phone, “also go to where they lived.” So I had indeed flown to Warsaw and taken the train south to Krakow, peering out the windows at dark, hushed houses and even darker twilights. Other Westerners in the compartment, en route to the convocation, talked eagerly and happily; they were not Jews. They didn’t listen to the clanging wheels or the shriek of brakes, they didn’t look out at bare, wintry farms and remember shtetl markets, they didn’t try to pierce through black beech and pine trees and wonder about unmarked graves in the forests.
Only some six years had passed since the overthrow of Poland’s Communist government; the beautiful Old Town was not yet crowded with tourists, cafes and flashy shop windows as it is now. The Jewish quarter of Kazimierz had only one café and bookstore at the very top of ulica Szeroka; Klezmer and Jewish revivals, now a staple of Kazimierz, were still a long way in the future. I walked for hours searching for small bare rectangles on doorframes where mezuzahs had once hung and the carvings of Jewish stars or menorahs on the walls of the old houses, then sat along the river beneath Wawel Castle watching the crows, listening for the trains as they approached Krakow Glowny, the main train station. Is there an East European Jew who doesn’t dread the sound of trains in Poland, who doesn’t imagine instantly the sealed boxcars, the lone whistle of a locomotive echoing across a ravaged countryside, shunted down smaller tracks till it finally rolls in, slowly and exhaustedly, under a brick arch and comes to a stop?
I walked a great deal that weekend and never once saw Poland or Poles, just the dreadful land of stories whispered to me at night long ago when I was a child.
I picked up Bernie at the airport and together we continued to Oswiecim, home to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We arrived in the late afternoon at the German Hostel, which would host several of our retreats in later years, and were greeted warmly by Paula Green, but almost instantly I felt like a stranger. Talks were being given in the main room by a variety of speakers: Buddhist monks in orange robes, Catholic priests wearing collars, rabbis wrapped in talises or wearing yarmulkes, whites and blacks, activists and saints. Maha Ghosananda was there from Cambodia and Russell Means from the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in South Dakota.
What am I doing here, I wondered in confusion. This is not my family, this is not my people. They talked about compassion, love, and making sure that Auschwitz never happens again; their words meant nothing to me. We were in the same place but they were on a different planet. To my ears they talked spiritual jargon, while in my body I could almost feel the children huddling against my legs as we walked together towards where the guards pointed, watched by knowing eyes full of dread.
What’s this got to do with wisdom and compassion, I wanted to ask the person at the microphone. Look at where we are! There are no words for a place like this.
We walked to the Gate of Auschwitz 1. It was a freezing night and the ground was covered with ice as we stood in front of the slogan written in black, Arbeit Macht Frei, and there lit a candle for the first night of Chanukah. The flames of those candles dancing in the cold wind lightened my spirits.
But the hardness came right back the next day when we went into Birkenau, entering under the famous guard tower and walking down the tracks. Like so many people before and after, I was stunned by the vastness of the camp, sharpened by its geometric flatness and precisely placed barracks. There were wood and brick structures, but more than anything there was the terrible bareness of it, the frosty air that whispered of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, a death city peopled by ghosts. That first time it was easy to let my imagination take over, sense a quivering inside the barracks, look up at the sky and feel that the land where I stood, filled with visitors, was more abandoned than the North Pole.
Once again I remembered the stories I heard as a little girl lying in bed as my mother recounted what happened to Frieda, her sister, who chose to hold on to her baby and die with him rather than to part with him and join the laborers, as Mengele suggested. I thought of Mordechai, 10 yeas old and sickly all his life. When they knew they had to go into hiding, his parents scraped up some money to keep him in a hospital for safety, but the Nazis sent all the patients, including children, straight to Auschwitz. No mother had accompanied this young boy to his death and my grandmother never forgave herself.
But the old voices were interrupted by the strange singsong of the Nipponzan Myohoji followers chanting their devotion to the Lotus Sutra, Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, and banging their hand drums as they walked down the tracks. I was repelled. This is not yours, I wanted to tell them. It’s our place of death, destruction, and grief, not your peace pagoda. Its gray, empty skies are meant to be left empty and alone, a perpetual question mark, not filled with rallying cries or chants. I blamed them for my eyes remaining dry, the lack of tears down my pinched cold cheeks. I shouldn’t be here, I thought to myself. I shouldn’t be here with Buddhists or Christians or American Indians. I should be here only with Jews.
Up ahead a crowd assembled around the remains of a crematorium. I didn’t want to join them, didn’t want to hear any talks, especially by a man who now slowly made his way to the center of the group and introduced himself as a Protestant minister. I watched from the perimeter as someone gave him a mike but he shook his head. He began to talk in a low voice, faltered, tried again, stammered, and stopped. He looked around him, and quietly said that he hadn’t wished to speak but was persuaded by others. And then he apologized. Till he came here he had no idea, he said, how much his co-religionists had contributed to the mass murder at Auschwitz. He collapsed and people hurried to help him up, but he remained on his knees and apologized for the words and messages of his religious tradition, for the subtle and not-so-subtle ways his religion had demeaned mine, his people had persecuted my people, and his participation in oblivion and denial. He ran a home for children who came from places of war all around the world, but that meant little in a place like this, he said. Here there were no good deeds to evoke, no partial expiation. All he could do was express his deepest sorrow and guilt, as a Protestant minister and as a human being.
And that, finally, was when my tears came. I sobbed like I hadn’t sobbed in my entire life, before or after. I remember the liquid heat burning my cheeks as I stepped away from the group, hardly seeing where I was going. Something opened that had never opened in 45 years of life, something was touched that no previous memorial service, story, or Jewish prayer had ever touched. And it came through the words of a Protestant minister who’d looked hard and deep at the spiritual abyss of Auschwitz and made no excuses. He didn’t open up his Bible to find justifications or beatific quotes we could all find refuge in, he simply collapsed in horror and then apologized.
What unlocks us? What opens up deep traumas that I believe go way back before our parents’ stories, before our childhood, even before our birth? Therapists can help us deal with issues of our lifetime, but what about the karma of history, the fears of multiple generations? How do we finally confront streams of fear and hate that seem as old as time? I don’t know the answers to these questions, only that my own turning came that afternoon when I encountered the tears of a Protestant minister whose name I don’t know to this very day standing on the remains of Crematorium 1.
I experienced a profound act of letting go. Certain things changed radically afterwards, first of which was my relationship to German people and the German language. But that was only a beginning. Returning to Auschwitz year after year also helped me shed the insidious identity of victimhood and its accompanying sense of specialness and entitlement—not right away, of course, the process continues, but it began on the grounds of Birkenau that winter morning in 1994.
That, too, was the day I heard Bernie speak out his resolution to do a retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau and bring others with him. Six months later we returned to Krakow and were met at the airport by a tall, broad-chested man from Warsaw, Andrzej Krajewski, who’d heard we needed help to create a silent retreat at the site of the camps. No, Bernie explained right away, it wasn’t meant to be silent; it wasn’t meant to be a Zen sesshin. It would present an opportunity for people to engage with others about their relationship to this place. And not just with others, but also with Others, with those who personified their fears and hatreds. It would be a retreat where as many different people as possible could come together, in the very place where differences, or any variation from the Aryan norm, were eliminated. Instead of remaining in your private realm of thoughts and memories, as I had tried to do, you would bear witness to those who spoke differently, who even said things you disliked.
He jotted down a draft schedule on a cocktail napkin he had in his pocket: small groups in the mornings, walks to Birkenau, sitting by the Selection Site, chanting names, and in the evenings meeting all together, in one big circle of diversity.
Twenty years have come and gone, twenty years of personal narratives from many different people, including different narratives from the same people as they’ve come back again and again. Some are stories about being Jewish and losing members of your family in the camps; some are about being German or Polish, about being gay or Gypsy. Many participants have only a tangential relationship to what took place at Auschwitz, but they too have their stories about the things that have marked their lives. I remember a European woman crying over and over about her broken relationship with her father that never mended before he died. Between sobs she apologized that in this place she was talking not about murder and genocide, but about a personal loss that took place many years later.
German participants have talked about the secrets in their families; Poles talked about the silence in theirs. Palestinians and Native Americans have inveighed against the loss of their land, Rwandans wept about their own massacre. Who hasn’t had her story of loss—a son, a daughter, a parent, a future? Who hasn’t been blamed? Nazis, Germans, Poles, Israelis, Europeans, Americans, President Clinton, Saddam Hussein, and yes, even Jews. What hasn’t been expressed during these retreats? Anger, rage, self-righteousness, indignation. It’s so easy to be offended, especially by superficial opinions that barely seem to scratch the surface, or sudden laughter and giggly gossip by people who for the moment forget they’re standing in the middle of the world’s biggest cemetery.
Certain words came up often, like healing and transformation. You don’t come to a giant cemetery for healing, a participant raged one year. I agree, but nevertheless, it can find you. What started out 20 years ago as mourning my own dead, grieving for what happened to the Jews of Europe, became over time something quite different. There’s great power in the place where life and death come together. How do you meet this place, I’ve asked myself each November, year in and year out. Each time the answer has been different, for meeting this place is meeting my own self in the form of Auschwitz.
So in November 2014 I looked up at the gray skies over Birkenau and asked myself not what my family members and other inmates saw there 70 years ago, but what will be seen there 70 years from now. How much of this will still exist? Will anyone care? Or will things have happened that will dwarf the camps at Oswiecim?
Don’t do this work for yourselves or for the people who come, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, said back in 1996 when Bernie talked to him about that first retreat. Do it for the souls that are there.
Right now it’s no longer just the past that calls out to me from the ruler-straight railway tracks and the remains of chimneys. Rather, the past has reached its tentacles to shadowy corners of our present and our future, too, giving Auschwitz, with its stones and rubble, a timeless quality. But it is no abstraction. Something there is deeply present and continues to cry out, warn, remonstrate, implore, and summon forth our energies again and again.
This article will appear in:
AschePerlen. Zeugnisse aus 20 Jahren Friedenspraxis in Auschwitz mit
Bernie Glassman und den ZenPeacemakers/
Pearls of Ash and Awe. Testimonies from 20 years of Bearing Witness in
Auschwitz with Bernie Glassman and the ZenPeacemakers
Herausgegeben von Kathleen Battke, inspiriert von Ginni Stern (USA) und
Andrzej Krajewski (Polen)/
Edited by Kathleen Battke, inspired by Ginni Stern (USA) and Andrzej
Zweisprachige Ausgabe/Bilingual Edition: Deutsch-Englisch/English-German
Hardcover, ca. 288 Seiten, € [D] 19,90 Preis auch in US-Dollar??
ISBN ist 978-3-942085-47-2
e-Book € [D] 16,99, 978-3-942085-50-2
Lieferbar Oktober 2015 / available October 2015
In 1996, Bernie Glassman, Eve Marko, and Andrzej Krajewski plunged into
Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time – together with 150 people from 10
nations. Ever since, Peacemakers from all over the world, many cultures
and religions have joined this retreat each year. In a place where
million-fold murder became machining, participants not only encounter
the horror of the past, but also their own inner victim/perpetrator,
their in-/humanity, and the abundance of ALL of life in this very moment
of Not-Knowing. – This book strings more than 70 testimonies of
participants to whom the Retreat experience was deeply moving or even
life-changing. For those who are looking for a heart-opening,
transformative peace practice with impact, these honest stories offer
inspiration – and the encouragement to open out.