Some years ago I attended a Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz concentration camp. It as a sobering, but deeply stirring experience.
>When I announced I was going to do a retreat at Auschwitz, I met many responses. Some people were shocked, as if uttering ‘Auschwitz’, was an intrusion or an assault. It is a harsh sound, which I, too, soon started to avoid. A look of pain crossed my father’s face when I told him, as if I had touched a wound. ‘What good can come of it? What will you do with that experience?’ One Buddhist friend asked, ‘It is bound to be traumatic, but what is the value of trauma? And what effect will it have on your state of mind?’ Jewish friends said, ‘I couldn’t go myself. I couldn’t bear it.’ But others were fascinated by the idea. Many people turned out to have family connections with Jews or Germans and felt fear, guilt or fascination with the Holocaust. For some it was a living presence in their lives, as it has been in mine: not a historical event; not a moral conundrum; not a metaphor for personal suffering, but a part of the world. A shadow. A possibility.
When I heard about the retreat my response was instant: I wanted to go. This was the third retreat at Auschwitz/Birkenau organised by the Zen Peacemakers’ Order (zpo) and led by Roshi Bernie Glassman. I had met Glassman the previous year and liked him. As a Buddhist from a Jewish background I felt intrigued by his freedom in mixing the two traditions. While I have left Judaism behind, I have never stopped feeling a sense of Jewishness – a cultural and historical association rather than a religious one. My Jewishness seems to manifest whether I like it or not, in the friends I make, my sense of humour, and my way of expressing myself. I have never known what to do with that connection, but in the us a movement has started, inspired by Glassman and others, of Jewish Buddhists exploring their identities. I was also attracted by Glassman’s philosophy of ‘bearing witness’, which means facing the truth, and seeing one’s response to it without any desire to fix things. That seemed the right way – the only way – to approach Auschwitz.Then there was my family connection with the Holocaust.
Shortly before leaving I visited my father and we took out the photograph album of his childhood in Berlin. The more questions I asked about Fritz, his father, and Sarah, his grandmother, the quieter he grew. What had happened to Fritz? My father only knew that he had been deported to Minsk in the Ukraine, and that the letters had stopped. Sarah could have gone to Palestine but she chose to stay, and in the end was deported to the Warsaw ghetto. And then? ‘Who knows. She was 70.’ My father left Germany in March 1939 aged 10, travelling alone to England under the kindertransport scheme. His scars are plain to see, but I wonder how they have been passed on to me. How I have been affected by this family history, by growing up with the knowledge that the world could contain such cruelty?In the weeks before the retreat I read some of the extraordinary literature that has grown up around the Holocaust. After reading the accounts by Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi I would dream about concentration camps, as if my mind needed to replay in unconsciousness what it was being told by the books. I felt I was not large enough to contain this truth: the systematic murder of millions of people by dedicated state machinery. I lacked the imagination or the depth to encompass it. Going to a concentration camp was an extension of this encounter; and the retreat, I hoped, would be a chance to work it through.
As people gathered at the hotel in Krakow on a clear November day, I saw there would be another dimension to the retreat: the other people, and all the complexities of being with 150 strangers. More than half of those attending were Americans; around the same proportion were Jews, and most were Buddhists, of many denominations and with various overlaps between these groups.
On the first evening a bunch of us visited a restaurant in Kazimiertz, the old Jewish quarter and I talked to Jinny. Her father had been in Auschwitz, but he had never spoken about it, and he exerted a tyrannical discipline over the family. When he did mention the camps it was as a basis for emotional blackmail. ‘Why do you need new shoes? When I was in the camps we would have done anything for shoes like you are throwing away!’ Now she runs an organisation that brings together the children of survivors and of ss officers. In her terms I qualified, as she called my father ‘a survivor’. I’d never thought of him that way.
Over the next few days I met many people with similar stories. There was Eva, who had left on the kindertransport, like my father, but she had travelled on to the us where she had become a literature professor. She was now finding the courage to explore the fate of the family she left behind. Early on I made friends with Rod, a Theravadin Buddhist from Manchester, and also Jewish – a kind, quiet man who felt drawn to attend but confused about his reasons for doing so. I also got to know Nancy Baker, a philosopher and Zen teacher from New York, who spoke of her near-death experience as a child, after she was thrown through the car window, and who has worked with dying people for many years. For her, coming to Auschwitz was a further encounter with death.
Many of those on the retreat were from Zen groups connected with Roshi Maezumi, Bernie Glassman’s teacher, and some came each year. Soon I felt like a stranger at a class reunion, a party where everyone knew everyone except for me. In the restaurant Jinny was talking to Heinz, a German Zen teacher, and they swapped tales about last year’s retreat. ‘It’s funny to see you looking happy and relaxed in a restaurant,’ she said. ‘For five days last year you looked like you wanted to commit suicide!’
On the first day of the retreat we visited the Jewish areas of Krakow. A guide described how the Nazis had gradually increased the restrictions on the Jews. After the laws banning them from working came the yellow stars, and then transfers to the ghetto, where a few streets housed 15,000 people in incredible squalor. Finally the ghetto was cleared and they were deported to Auschwitz. At every stage the inhabitants retained a vestige of optimism, and even believed the Germans when they were told that they were being sent to a new life in the Ukraine. Things seemed so bad that people thought they could not get worse. Few had the courage or the insight to realise just how bad they actually were.
The sense of being trapped by a vast, insuperable power was my overwhelming impression from the Holocaust accounts I had read. On my first day in Poland I read Fragments by Benjamin Wilkomirski, an evocation of childhood memories of the camps, which gave me fresh nightmares. After the war Wilkomirski believed the outside world was, in fact, the camp, but disguised. It is a peculiar, infectious mentality and on the journey to Oswicien (the town the Germans renamed Auschwitz) I found myself jumping at words like ‘transport’ and ‘Reichsbaum’. It was as if all the hidden, mysterious forces that make the world function, and on which we depend without awareness or comprehension, were turned hostile and malevolent. Later I read that Wilkomirski’s memories were most likely fantasies, and he had never been in a camp at all. But the book retained its hallucinatory effect. The bus travelled on through a thick fog, past increasingly bleak landscapes, weather-fended buildings and straggly pine forest. I dozed most of the way, then woke with a jolt and a rush of anxiety, the severe brick buildings looming outside the window: ‘This is Auschwitz’.
We were assigned rooms in a flurry of confusion and then assembled in small groups. Frank Ostaseski, the group leader, established an atmosphere of openness and warmth: ‘Speak from the heart’, he said, ‘speak spontaneously’. He is an impressive man who founded a Buddhist hospice in San Francisco. Each morning at 7am we met as a group to share our experiences. When my turn came I was moved, even choked, speaking of my family and my motivations for coming.
The next day we toured Auschwitz and Birkenau. Auschwitz was the original camp, housed in a converted Austrian barracks, and now maintained as a museum. The displays have the artificiality of any museum, but still they overwhelmed me with a mass of impressions. Spectacles taken from the dead, like a huge pile of insects; human hair in an incredible quantity, all the same colour – shocked white by age, fear and chemicals; a standing cell in the punishment block where four people were squashed together, upright for days on end; the famous sign ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’.
We gathered at the Execution Wall. The square in front of the wall is a place of unutterable bleakness, surrounded by sheer walls, their windows blanked out – a prison inside a prison. One woman buckled at the knees, tears streaming down her face; and Rabbi Don Singer led Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. At first I bridled at this, with my old resistance to Judaism, but as the singing continued I realised, to my surprise, that I knew the words and I joined in, moved by their melancholy beauty.
Birkenau was the concentration camp of my imagination, the one I had been dreaming about for weeks, the one I had pictured from films, documentaries and photographs. When the Nazis decided on the Final Solution of the ‘Jewish problem’ in 1942 they chose Oswicien as its centrepiece, and two miles from the original camp they constructed Birkenau. It was both a work camp and a death camp. While Auschwitz housed 20,000, Birkenau eventually contained three times that number.
Rows of barracks stretched beyond the barbed wire fence, and the railway tracks stretched ahead. I was unprepared for its vastness, or the desolation this brought; for the camp’s oppressive orderliness: the barbarous symmetry; the hideous symbolism of the rails leading through the camp to the gas chambers; the barbed wire taut and implacable; the wretchedness of the barracks. Yet the occupants were the lucky ones, saved from immediate extermination to form a vast slave army and worked to death for the sake of the German economy.
As I walked beside the tracks I recalled the pictures and books I had read, and tried to open myself to what had happened here. This is where the trains stopped and the selections took place – right for labour, left for death. This is where they walked, the condemned, thinking they had been chosen for light work. And this is where they died, where the tracks end at the gas chambers, which now lie in ruins. One and a half million people, in an endless stream. A huge factory of death. But even standing on the very spot of their deaths I could not encompass such suffering. People around me cried severally, each sparked by a specific detail – or a different point in the accumulation of details. By the end of the afternoon I felt numb.
In the evening we met as one large group and Eve Marko of the zpo stood in for Bernie Glassman, who had not arrived. She spoke movingly about the Peacemaker precepts. The first is ‘Not Knowing’, staying open to the reality of the situation, free from preconceptions. She said we all had a question in coming here, whether that was ‘How could people do this to other people?’ Or ‘Why did this happen?’ ‘Stay with that question,’ she said, ‘and don’t try to answer it too quickly. That question is also the question of your life, the mystery at the heart of you.’
It had been a long day, and Eve was exhausted. She asked Rabbi Singer to sing from the Psalms. Then, in an ecumenical gesture, he asked two Christian nuns to join him. They seemed rather on show, so they got some others to stand up. Then someone said, ‘Come on! Everybody join in!’ and suddenly the whole mass of people was on its feet, dancing in a huge circle around the auditorium. I left. It wasn’t possible to stay without joining in, and others left, too. Only Rod stayed sitting in the middle, crying quietly and oblivious to what was happening. Eva came out in tears. ‘I joined in because everyone else was having such a good time and I didn’t want to spoil it.’ In past years a sense of celebration had mysteriously emerged from the contemplation of the darkness in Auschwitz. Now people seemed to be trying to recreate that transcendence of suffering, but it felt to me like an evasion, an escape that inadvertently became a descent into schmaltz.
The next day we set up our meditation cushions in a ring around the tracks at Birkenau. This was the focus for the next three days. We sat in a circle, buttressed against the Polish winter by layers of clothes. Some of the time – not enough for me – we just sat quietly, absorbing the atmosphere. Each day we chanted names of people who had died from a book that lists 60,000, a mere fraction of the victims. But chanting names personalised the statistics: ‘Stephan Kulczyk, Joseph Kulda, Wladislaw Kulejwski’. Each one seemed for a moment to stand before us. Sometimes the same name was read again and again: ‘Max Cohen, Max Cohen, Max Cohen’.
One day as we recited names I heard, ‘Bloom, Bloom, Bloomberg, Bloomenbaum.’ My heart skipped a beat as the reader approached my family’s name: ‘Blumenfeldt, Blumenfeldt’. I could not make out the first names. Could Fritz have been there? When the readings ended I jumped up to find the reader. She had gone, but I explained what I wanted to the people who had been next to her. My knees weakened and tears came.
Later I wandered through the camp sitting in the ruins of huts, in the barracks, by the gas chambers. The buildings have hardly changed, and the former inhabitants seemed close by. Birkenau is an awesome product of massive energy and powerful intelligence; testimony to the human capacity for methodical, premeditated sadism. Forgiveness seemed a distant idea – premature, even impertinent. How could I forgive on behalf of the dead? In any case, what I felt was not hatred as much as sadness and bewilderment.
Each of us, it seemed, was struggling to make sense of our experience. One man described asking a German on the retreat if he could imagine having been a guard. The German replied that he could well imagine that. ‘So if we were both back there. I think you would have shot me.’ ‘Most probably, yes.’ Another wondered how he would have acted if he had been in the camp. ‘Would I have been a kapo (a prisoner organising camp affairs for the Germans)? Would I have learnt how to survive?’ Another Jewish man described walking through Auschwitz with two non-Jewish friends thinking, ‘If this was back then, you’d be all right, and he’d be all right, but I’d be in deep shit!’ We are all troubled by the ignorance of the people who went to the gas chambers thinking they were taking a shower. ‘Why didn’t someone yell out: “You are going to your deaths!”?’
Auschwitz was a spiritual test. People talked about the moral issues it raised, or what it told one about human nature. But for me asking ‘How could people do this?’ seemed an abstraction. I wanted simply to witness the suffering that had taken place in the camp. Sometimes, as I sat, I was confronted with images of that pain, and felt a raw, visceral sympathy. I wanted to stay with that rawness, without evading or interpreting it. But my mind would slip off into its usual preoccupations, or be attracted or irritated by others on the retreat. When a German man said to me, ‘Being here reminds me that I have a concentration camp inside myself,’ I felt insulted, even angry. ‘He may have some emotional blocks,’ I thought, ‘But how can you equate the two? Is Auschwitz for him just a psychological metaphor?’
The next day I expressed my frustrations to my group. ‘I feel critical of the ways we make sense of our experience: of the tendency to psychologise, as if the significance of Auschwitz is that it puts you in touch with your personal griefs; or to dramatise, making stories out of our responses, with moments of pathos and irony to provide appropriate light and shade; and of the desire to move beyond horror into love and joy. I just want to stay with the reality of what happened. But I can’t; it keeps slipping away; I can’t maintain that state for long.’ Frank said, ‘Be mindful in all of your actions. If you are walking, walk more slowly – halve the pace. And have a sense of continuity, the flow of experience. Savour each moment in the short time we have here.’
Meditating in the grounds I experimented with different practices. Before leaving Britain I had taken up the Vajrasattva practice, invoking a Buddha whose healing radiance blesses and purifies all beings. The mantra of Vajrasattva is a potent invocation, but at Birkenau the sounds seemed empty. I reverted to simpler practices – radiating love, or just sitting with my experience. Sometimes in meditation I had a sense of a vast, brooding, unquiet spirit, or a distant moan. I saw images of writhing bodies. One day as I meditated I felt that roots might grow down from my body, deep into the earth, and that I could not be overwhelmed by Birkenau’s horror. That evening I was filled with exhilaration and energy. Spending my time meditating and reflecting, seeking to understand myself, and to gain a sympathetic understanding of others, I was doing what I most want to do with my life. Tantric yogis in India would live in cremation grounds, surrounded by the remnants of corpses and the spirits of the dead, and there they would confront their deepest fears. Birkenau is a modern cremation ground in the most literal sense.
As the retreat drew to an end, I spoke to others about their experience. Nancy Baker told me it had helped her to resolve issues she had been struggling with for years. ‘I felt I came into contact with a bottomless well of tears, and I was overwhelmed by a compassionate weeping, without knowing why. This seemed to wash me clean of whatever aversion I have to death. I feel I have come away as a bigger container for suffering.’
Frank Ostaseski drew on his hospice experience. ‘In my work I look at death and I believe that to be fully alive means to be prepared to see death. It is the same with evil. I don’t believe in ‘the Hitler within’, but I can be cruel and critical, and unchecked these tendencies could lead to evil. One way of bringing awareness to that is to look at evil outside – it helps us to see what is good and whole and makes us face ourselves very frankly. This is a raw place, and it needs to be kept raw, not tidied up or made comfortable. There are places of great inspiration in the world, but here we see the wound, and that helps to make us more whole.’
The most moving part of each day for me was reciting the Kaddish. It seemed to possess a profound resonance that the Sanskrit chants lacked here. Standing by the gas chambers, we chanted in Hebrew, and read the verses in many languages. The words of the Kaddish continued to echo when I returned to Britain. ‘Oseh shalom bim’romav, hu ya’se shalom, alenu v’alkol Yisrael, v’imru amen.’ (The one who has given a universe of peace gives peace to us, to all that is Israel, to all humanity. And say, yes. Amen.) We lit candles for the dead. ‘Fourteen thousand a day,’ Rabbi Singer said. ‘A vast stream of humanity, men, women and children, all jostled together. And they knew. Some at least knew what was happening. “What’s that coming out of the chimney”, one woman asked. “That’s us,” came the reply.’
Bernie Glassman arrived late, coming straight from a solitary retreat he had been on for the seven months since his wife’s death. He did not take a lead, but when he spoke on the retreat’s penultimate night he drew many strands together. He quoted the advice of his friend, the Jewish Cabbala teacher Zalman Schachter, about the retreat: ‘Go for the souls, not for your own transformation’. That crystallised what I wanted to do myself,: to remember and to grieve. Primo Levi writes that the ss guards taunted the prisoners by saying that not only would they be killed, but that all evidence of their fates would be obliterated. And, if by some chance, word of the camps got out, it would not be believed. That threat of oblivion was the worst humiliation. One thing I could do was bear witness to the Holocaust through my silent vigil
This article is also published in the book, Challenging Times: Stories of Buddhist Practice When Things Get Tough