Bearing Witness: Notes from Auschwitz

Peter Cunningham

I have just returned from 12 days in Poland. I went as a photographer and participant in an interfaith meditation retreat at Auschwitz organized by the American Zen roshi, Bernard Glassman, and his new “Zen Peacemaker Order”. During American Thanksgiving week a group of 150 people - Poles, Germans, French, Swiss, Italians, Americans - Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Sufi Muslims - gathered for meditation and discussion, to “bear witness” to what happened at Auschwitz 50 years ago, and to listen for the ways in which those events echo in our lives today.

I’ll start by advising everyone that to tell a Polish joke around me is to risk violent wrath. This is a country that has suffered tremendously and is poised for rebirth. Our trauma in the US and in Western Europe ended 51 years ago, while theirs did not end until about 5 minutes ago. I went with the impression that Poland was a chronically antisemitic country, but while the jury is still out, I was impressed that all Polish children are taken on school trips to visit Auschwitz - they seem to be well educated on what the Nazis did to the Jews and to their own people (as opposed, in my understanding, to the education of German children). Also, I had not previously been aware of the significance of the 2nd Warsaw uprising in 1944 (as opposed to that of the Jewish Ghetto in 1943). Before entering the city, the Russian Army perversely waited across the river for the Germans to finish their slaughter of 800,000 citizens in a town of 1.3 million. All the buildings were entirely destroyed and the city was left farm-flat—only the central cathedral was sleft untouched. Everyone here has a family member who died in the Warsaw Uprising and speaks of an entire generation of Poles stripped of its poets and idealists.

Our group slept on the grounds of the Auschwitz Museum next to the camps. About half the participants were advanced Zen students or Zen teachers from the U.S. and Europe while the others were Christians, Jews, or Sufi Muslims. Each day we walked an hour from Auschwitz I Concentration Camp where we slept (now a brilliantly plain and simple museum complex) to Auschwitz II better known as Birkenau (“place of birches”—the Poles never use the famous German name, they call it “Brzezinka”). Birkenau is a vast complex of ruins left exactly as it was the day the Nazis blew it up in November 1944. The rail line, which enters the main gate from the South, bisects the camp - women’s barracks and children’s barracks to the West and men to the East. Trains from all over Europe would stop at the center of the camp where the “cargo” was unloaded and lined up; German officers, often led by Joseph Mengele, would do a visual inspection and point them to the work camps on the east and west sides or to the gas chamber at the North end.

Homosexuals and gypsies were separated. One of our group, a man from South Carolina named Nolan, objected loudly when an otherwise exemplary tour guide failed to mention the homosexual prisoners in his introductory talk. The gay participants spoke about how they spent their evenings happily sewing pink triangles to wear on their chests and give to all of us as souvenirs.

On arrival in the morning, our group would form a large ellipse—about 75 yards long—around the tracks at this place where these life and death decisions were made; there we would sit in silent meditation for 45 minutes. We were each given a list of names of people who had been killed here (in the early years the Germans kept careful records). We took turns reading out loud names from the Nazi’s list and names we wanted to add. I added the names of the families of two of my friends and that of my own great grandmother. It was cold, it was warm, it was sunny, it was gray, and it snowed nearly every day. We were outside in the winter, feeling the weather and the light and the sounds change around us as we sat perfectly still and listened to the endless names.

After the sitting period we did kinhin (slow walking meditation) to the gas chamber—crematorium complex 200 yards to the north. There our group split for separate services—Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—and returned for another sitting period. A bowl of soup and a hunk of bread at the main gate and then back for another meditation period and interfaith service where there was singing and the offering of candles. On the last night we descended into the ruin that was the actual gassing place and offered candles in the snow to the victims who died there and whose presence was palpable. We walked back from Birkenau to Auschwitz in the dark.

After supper each night the full group met and people spoke of their lives and their losses. An Austrian and a German spoke of having fathers in the SS and mothers who were Jewish; a Polish woman recounted how she only recently found out she was Jewish and was groping for her identity in a world that is changing so quickly around her.

Michel Dubois (a French Zen Priest) spoke of the pain that comes through his heart here and how the more pain he feels here, the more Joy and Love he feels coming through the opening portholes. He spoke of how he feels Love arising from the souls trapped in this place, and how he actually feels grateful to his relatives who died here because of their love which he feels all around him in this place.

Heinz-Juergen Metzger (a German Zen Priest) spoke of how “our ashes are the same color....we must let go of what separates us and look at what unites us”, while Bernie Glassman asserted that “....the only thing we have in common is our differences.”

Sleep was scheduled after the talks, but several of us soon learned that the security at the Auschwitz Camp was really a trompe-l’oiel (the Polish officials handle this delicate question very well: all barbed wire has places you can pass through if you look hard enough and the seldom seen guards are never heard). We found the way into the maze and we would walk slowly through the camp for hours in the darkness. The silence was often pierced by the wailing of a Shofar (traditional Jewish ram’s horn); we would trace the source to find Brian Rich (born a Jew, now Sufi Muslim just back from 4 years of study in Turkey) and Don Singer (Rabbi and Zen teacher) at the execution wall blowing the horn as loudly and as exuberantly as their lips could stand inside these walls of death.

I do not yet understand, so I cannot fully express the reasons, but we felt a complete sense of freedom and love on those walks inside the barbed wire. It was as if the souls of those who died were handing over to us the feelings that were prematurely taken away from them, that they never got to use themselves.

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