OŚWIĘCIM, POLAND. In November 2018, 50 people from 10 different countries gathered in Krakow at the Royal Hotel Conference Room to begin the twenty-third Zen Peacemakers Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat. Before the retreat began, workshops were held on the Three Tenets– the principles of the Zen Peacemakers –and on the basis for the design of the Bearing Witness retreat.
The day before the retreat began, Bernie Glassman passed away. Bernie was the founder of Zen Peacemakers, and he initiated and designed the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1996. The retreat staff held a memorial service. During the retreat, his picture was placed with the alter in the center of the circle of meditating participants. Later in the week, a ceremony involving all the participants was held and broadcast to followers worldwide.
The weather was unusually warm and most days the skies were clear and welcoming. In the following five days participants shared time at the camp, visiting the barracks of children, women, and men in places where they spent their last nights and days. Ceremonies were dedicated at the remains of the crematoriums and ash fields where people were killed and disposed of, and participants sat silently at the selection site where prisoners’ fates were decided by fellow human beings.
Day by day, the participants walked the layout of the camp. The schedule was marked by extended time for self reflection, private practice and exploration. The Christian, Buddhist and Jewish Clergy held multi-faith ceremonies, giving participants the opportunity to take part. (Read You Are the Answer To the Dreams of Your Ancestors, by Ando Kineret Yardena.)
A handful of participants this year were members of the LGBTQIA+ community, or family to those who are. A special ceremony was held to acknowledge members of this community who died at the camp, and particular attention was given those who were still struggling with their identity, perhaps confused by the forced binary separation of ‘men’ and ‘women’ in the camp, where it may not have been simple to find belonging in either (read Reflections on Auschwitz, 2018, by Tim Jordan). Some participants spoke of their own experiences of coming out.
Participant reflections on the 2018 retreat:
I was first afraid of what I might encounter at Auschwitz….I heard of awful acts of violence, followed by acts of great love and human compassion. I began to see and feel the expanse and depth of humanity – that love, cruelty, compassion, violence, beauty, anger, understanding, all live side by side…I thank all the staff, spirit holders, council facilitators, in their clear communication, capacity to hold space, and deep care for the wellbeing of everyone involved.
It was very rich and meaningful. I felt completely supported by the retreat container to bear witness to all I felt arising within me and around me – to both extreme suffering and to beauty and joy.
…There is so much sweetness, softness and tenderness in my heart when I reflect on the week. Amazing to witness so much beauty in the midst of so much darkness. Powerful to sit with pain and suffering of such a grand scale. Life-changing to experience such expansion from bearing witness.
Zen Peacemakers International is grateful to all our participants for giving life to this twenty-third return to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Special thanks to Fr. Manfred Deselaers and Sister Mary O’Sullivan of the Dialogue Center in Oświęcim for their ongoing hospitality and loving care. Many thanks to the retreat staff: spirit holders and roshis Genro Gauntt, Cornelius Collande, Barbara Wegmüller; staff: Roshi Dr. Roland Wegmüller, Roshi Fleet Maull, Rami Efal, Tani Katz, Camilla Moesler, Joanna Jakubowicz, Mikko Ijäs, with special support from Anthony Saracino and Agneiszka Poliszuk; clergy: Reb Shir Yaakov Feit, Sensei Jorge Koho Mello; and many thanks to council facilitators Marushka Glissen and Ando Kineret Yardena.