Filed in Books & Media

Only Fiction

The limitations of bearing witness at AuschwitzHawa Allan

In Paradise: A Novel
By Peter Matthiessen
Riverhead Books, 2014
256 pp.; $27.95 cloth

What are you doing here? is the refrain of the novel In Paradise, the last word of prolific author Peter Matthiessen, who passed away at age 86 in April, three days before the book’s release. In its pages, we meet a few of the 140 pilgrims from 12 countries who have traveled to Auschwitz for “homage, prayer, and silent meditation in memory of [the] camp’s million and more victims” and observe their awkward attempts at “bearing witness” to the suffering that occurred there.

The book is based on real annual Bearing Witness Retreats held at Auschwitz and led by Zen teacher Bernie Glassman. The intent of these retreats, according to Glassman, is to dissolve the ego so that practitioners become the elements of the atrocity: “the terrified people getting off the trains, the indifferent or brutal guards, the snarling dogs, the doctor who points right or left, the smoke and ash belching from the chimneys.” After attending three of these meditation retreats, Matthiessen, who had long wanted to write about the Holocaust, was inspired. “Only fiction,” he said, “would allow me to probe from a variety of viewpoints the great strangeness of what I had felt.”

The book’s protagonist, the poet and academic D. Clements Olin (né Olinski), attends the retreat at Auschwitz for the sole purpose, he insists, of conducting research. But Olin’s ostensible intention to deepen his scholarship on survival literature is complicated by the slowly uncovered backstory of his aristocratic family, who fled Poland for the United States at the onset of German occupation. While Olin’s underlying reasons for attending the retreat are often elusive, even to his own probing mind, he eagerly subjects the aims of his fellow participants to critical dissection.

Among them is “the retreat’s unofficial ‘spiritual leader,’” Ben Lama, a “near-bald psychologist left over from the flower-power days of a psychedelic California youth.” To call Lama a leader is to use the word very loosely, as the participants are like a herd of cats: a dispatch of nuns (one of whom, “Olin suspects, has had less difficulty than she might have wished obeying her vow of chastity”); the Germans, “the neediest, most eager” sharers; and the American Jews, who, Olin supposes, “have come to assuage a secret guilt.” There is even a Palestinian who emerges from his “well-wrought isolation” to make a vague, equanimous retort to having been called a “raghead,” and then disappears for the rest of the novel.

Who are they? What are they doing there? These questions are most often posed to a retreatant named G. Earwig, a bellicose New Yorker who, unlike Olin, does not take passive-aggressive swipes at his peers—he simply berates them to their faces. This character, Earwig, also happens to be a mouthpiece for every fathomable objection one might have to hosting a meditation retreat in a death camp, like the risks of fostering sentimentalism instead of self-reflection, and that the retreat could devolve over time into a mere commercial enterprise complete with “package tours and jumbo buses, youth hostels, snack bars, kosher fast food,” and so on.

Earwig is also quick to detect any whiff of self-righteousness (a common accomplice of sentimentalism), swiftly rebuking a woman who claims “that movie about the kind German enamel manufacturer in Cracow who saved his whole list of productive employees” made her want to“ run right out...and do something for those people!” “Do something, lady?” he responds. “Like what? Take a Jew to lunch?”

According to the fictional retreat’s official literature, what the participants are supposed to be doing is “bearing witness.” Indeed, as Olin reflects in exposition, the term is a stale phrase, one that implies a kind of moral decency but—with overuse and underexamination—has become devoid of meaning. So, in effect, one can attend a meditation retreat at Auschwitz and be satisfied that she is “bearing witness” while imagining the torture and mass killing as whatever scenes she can recall from Schindler’s List.

Therein lies the challenge of “bearing witness”: it is far too easy—as Olin and Earwig demonstrate—to point out the wrong way of doing so. What about the right way?

The author and essayist James Baldwin said the root of his vocation as a writer was to “bear witness to the truth.” Although Baldwin was rather fuzzy on what he considered a witness to be, he remarked that he himself was a witness to where he came from and what he had seen. For Baldwin, there is something about being a witness that is personal, experiential—something unlike the authoritative, and perhaps removed, temperament of a spokesperson.

Baldwin’s insight helps illuminate the inherent conundrum of In Paradise’s meditators, insofar as a witness arrives at truth through the immediacy of his or her own perception. Though a scholar of survival literature, Olin himself “tends to agree with the many who have stated that fresh insight into the horror of the camps is inconceivable, and interpretation by anyone lacking direct personal experience an impertinence, out of the question.”

There is a paradox to mass atrocity: its immense scale tends to be inversely proportional to the authentic feeling it elicits—that is, from those who did not directly experience its barbarism. For all of us non-survivors, sentimentalism and self-righteousness often rush in to fill this absence of sincere emotion. This is not to say inheritors of such history, or bystanders of such events, do not feel any genuine anger or grief in response to mass atrocity. It is to suggest that whatever is felt by those of us who lack such direct experience is often reductive, and pales next to the full spectrum of feeling to which any actual survivor can attest.

Olin acknowledges this limitation, stating that he wishes for his empathy with Auschwitz’s victims to be “authentic . . . not merely an idea.” But Auschwitz and its grim remains risk becoming a mere backdrop for the projections of the retreatants, whether the reel that is playing finds them bravely aligning themselves with Oskar Schindler or congratulating themselves for being “spiritual” enough to attend.

If this is the case, then the notion that In Paradise’s pilgrims have come to Auschwitz to step into the shoes of genocide victims or to confront “the Nazi within” is yet another lie that must be shed to allow the retreatants to uncover the truth of why they are there and, perhaps, who they are. Only then, once they recognize themselves, might they be able to bear witness to the suffering of others. In the meantime, the ambitious themes In Paradise sets out to address far outweigh the capacity of its many sanctimonious and cynical characters to fully render them.

Hawa Allan is a lawyer and writer whose work has appeared in Best African American Essays, Transition, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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buddhasoup's picture

Part of what I took away from this review was the idea that there may be an element of something akin to spiritual bypassing occurring at these "bearing witness retreats." Aside from the possibility that these retreats are largely profit centers for the sponsors, so much of the feedback from people "bearing witness" emanates from themselves and their own need to feel as though they are doing something or feeling something profound. A very "me" focused approach, vs. one that truly motivates one to action. This boils down to the difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy is bearing witness at the death camps; compassion is using the money you would have spent on the retreat and instead funding meals for a Jewish refugee now entering her old age in a UK nursing home. This kind of dana is compassion based...it has so little to do with "me" and how deeply I feel, and converts empathy into action for the benefit of others. Isn't this what Peter's book, and Hawa's review, are driving at?

goodwoodstudios's picture

Ravensong, Thanks for your response here. Can you say more about your approach to dropping the I and You in accessing suffering? I sense there is some good wisdom here. For instance, has this insight been inspired by particular teachings or teachers, beyond Peter and Bernie perhaps?

Kind regards,

jackelope65's picture

Since the closing of Auschwitz, genocide has continued unabated throughout the world. Bearing witness may have more to do with eradicating it in the present for all cultures, religions, and races.

ravensong397's picture

Thank you for this review. I met Peter at the first annual Bearing Witness retreat at Auschwitz, many years ago, and purchased this book when it came out because the notion of "bearing witness" has remained a strong one in my life. One of the things I learned as a retreat participant was that it is absolutely essential to drop the "I" and "you" to try to be in someone else's suffering. While I cannot truly understand what the prisoner experienced or what was going through the guard's mind, I can make an effort to hear them in a deeper, more mindful and present ways through the stories they leave behind. Also, by being in greater touch with the suffering that occurred at that place - by being more attentive to the physical and tangible articles that hold years of pain and torment - I was eventually able to meet my own suffering at a much deeper level and begin to heal in ways that I never had before.