Bearing Witness: Notes from Auschwitz

Peter Cunningham

I would typically sleep 2-4 hours, wake at 5, wait for the bell to ring at 6 (108 chimes), and attend a small group meeting at 7 (before breakfast). I was fortunate in my group assignment: the leader was Peter Matthiessen,writer and Zen teacher. To start the meetings Peter invoked an old Plains Indian tradition of holding hands silently in a circle until someone was moved to speak. Also in the group was a woman named Reza Leah Landman who dresses like a gypsy and bills herself as a Jewish nun—she is a friend of holocaust survivor/author Ka-Tzetnic 135633, whose brilliant book Shiviti we all read in preparation for the trip. The book is about how he reexperienced his Auschwitz survival through LSD therapy. Reza Leah is an intellectual who argues that there will be no healing until Christians understand that every Jew killed was another Christ crucified. Also a Polish woman, Margena Rey, who is living in German exile because of her activities as an organizer of Solidarity. During the week, she was instrumental in encouraging the Poles at the retreat to find their own voice - they seem to have developed habits of withdrawn silence after years of repression under the Nazis and then the Communists. And there was Eve Marco, the rimary organizer for the event and elegantly spare master of ceremonies, and whose own family had been killed here.

Even with no sleep and no coffee, this is a great way to start a day, and throughout the day the talk continued. I developed much more compassion for my mother and others in more extreme situations than hers. Given the virulent anti-Jewish propaganda of the 1930’s (not to mention the centuries before) and the traumatic choices many people had to make, it is not so surprising that silence has prevailed among both the oppressors and the oppressed. I made a friend from Berlin whose Jewish mother married a Gestapo officer—his connections managed to keep her family outside the gates of Terezenstadt, but, having to fit in so completely into the countryside, the mother suffered a kind of schizophrenic split. Even now, she is completely unable to speak about her Jewish roots. If asked she says she doesn’t remember, and if pressed she breaks into tears. Fifty years have passed and it is still so difficult for so many people and it is so understandable.

Back in New York now, the concentration camp reality seems a dream—really like a dream—just as my New York world seemed a dream from inside the barbed wire. (I am reminded of Chuang Tzu wondering if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.) To live amidst such incomprehensible horror—I could grasp parts of the totality part of the time, but I could never come near wrapping my mind entirely around what actually happened here. In the museum you would see a vast sea of braids, hair cut off Jewish and Polish women, long display case filled with trashed artificial limbs, gas canisters, or a mountain range of toothbrushes and combs, or the clothes of twin children who were the subjects of Mengele’s experiments to find a way to more quickly spread the pure master race.

On a walk to the extreme north-eastern corner of the camp, I found a building sporting a large crucifix looming over the 220 volt electric barbed wire. The building was originally built as the new SS Headquarters, but had been given to the Catholic Church in 1982 to be used as a retreat center (dedicated to those “who pray and learn to imitate Him who was lost on the cross out of love”). Unfinished when the war ended, it had been intended as central command for the coming expansion of the already huge Birkenau Concentration Camp. Further on one finds empty fields where new gas chamber/crematoriums and barracks were to have been built in the coming expansion. Auschwitz was only in full killing operation for a year and a half. Before 1943 it had been primarily a forced labor camp with a large Polish population which killed anyone not fit for work. In �43 the operation accelerated and most Jews arriving on the trains were directly gassed and cremated; even when the war was obviously lost, the killing continued to esculate. cut: The Jews were certainly the number one target, but these people wanted to eliminate everyone who was not like them genetically or ideologically, and if they had succeeded I’m certain these death factories would have expanded without limit.

Because we all lacked the capacity to constantly feel the total horror that is omnipresent, Auschwitz became a very provocative place to be. You’re forced to integrate these interrupted lives—these trapped souls—into your consciousness. They are looking over your shoulder all the time, they demand that you pay attention not just to them, but to one’s own life and mind. Perhaps it’s not an accident that they call this a “Concentration Camp”. Those souls lay in wait wielding huge kayusaku (big sticks), and when you are tempted to act selfishly or when you let your mind wander from the present moment , they immediately see, and they whack you hard over your shoulders; you feel a fool, but you wake up right away. On the other hand, when your concentration is complete, when you are fully alive in this place, you feel in some way that you are releasing these souls from their bondage. If not literally, in the sense that you are breathing for them the breaths that they were never allowed to take. It is at once an inspiring opportunity and a heavy responsibility to breath or weep or laugh or speak or simply maintain silence on behalf of these spirits. This is a place of great intensity. It is a place for great sorrow and great joy, for great bitterness and great love. This mix of emotions was a complete surprise to me and to others in our group, but I think this is why many people consider Auschwitz a Holy Place. It does hold the past in bondage, as might be expected. But like a true pilgrimage site, it also has the power to transform, to regenerate, and to forgive.

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