The Auschwitz retreat, for the 23nd year, is an effort towards spiritual healing, peacebuilding across cultural, political, religious, and other divides, and a plunge into extremes of human nature: its darkest cruelty and most noble compassion.
This retreat has continued ZPI’s global Bearing Witness Programs conducted for over two decades, including present-day Native American Bearing Witness programs and previous programs in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and in countless other contexts. It has inspired bearing witness programs in places around the world. ZPI Staff draws from years of accumulated experience with this retreat, applying it directly in public talks with grade schools, high schools, and in human-rights think-tanks that help non-governmental organizations encourage civil discourse in countries facing government oppression, i.e. South Africa, Brazil, the UK, Cambodia, Turkey, and more.
Participants gathered in Krakow at the Royal Hotel Conference Room to begin the twenty-third Zen Peacemakers Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat. 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. 31 individuals attended this preparatory workshop, the largest group in the last decade.
This retreat also marked the first-ever attendance of a female Jewish clergy – Rav Kohent Taya Ma Shere, who led the group in Jewish prayer throughout the week as well as Shabbat service on Friday evening, ending the retreat. Many participants experienced Jewish prayers, specifically led by a woman, for the first time.
This year six board members from two supporting foundations, the Segal Foundation from Utah, USA and Heart-Based Living Foundation from the United Kingdom, came to the 2019 Auschwitz-Birkenau Retreat for extended training in Bearing Witness, Way of Council training, and more.
Additional highlights included a Palestinian young adult who joined us from the United Kingdom, reciting the Kaddish Prayer in Arabic and sharing with the group about his family’s expulsion to Jordan. His presence connected the participants to present-day sufferings of Palestinians and other people around the world, directly and indirectly, affected by the action done on the grounds of Auschwitz.
This year also marked the one-year anniversary of the passing of Zen Peacemakers’ founder Bernie Glassman. The retreat staff held a special service honoring the legacy that Bernie left behind.
The days followed with a humble camaraderie, as the eclectic backgrounds of the group- through sharing space in conversation and silent witnessing- built bridges of togetherness. Over the course of the week, participants joined in quiet togetherness at the camp & visited the barracks of children, women, and men in places where they spent their last moments. 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’ fate was 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, including a steady balance of private practice and exploration. The Christian, Buddhist and Jewish Clergy that joined us this year held multi-faith ceremonies, giving participants the opportunity to take part.
Participant reflections on the 2019 retreat:
“The retreat was planned thoughtfully to offer the real opportunity to feel deeply into the experience of those that lived and died at Auschwitz Birkenau. I valued all of it, especially the opportunity to gather in the children’s barracks and the women’s barracks and share songs and stories. This was so evocative and profoundly touching. Meditating on the platform where selections were made, reading the names, saying the mourners Kaddish at the memorial, the closing activity, and ceremony were all incredibly meaningful and will leave a lasting impression on my heart.”
“As I have a Holocaust family history, it made me content to feel such an atmosphere of understanding and acknowledgment that was also empowered by the councils we had every morning. The group was diverse and made the experience more powerful. The councils made it possible to dig very deep and lead to a better understanding of my family history and staying in the presence at the same time and reflect on actions I could take to serve the community.”
ZPI would like to thank the individuals on our staff and leadership team:” and add the names of spirit holders, staff, facilitators and clergy.