In touch with sorrow  (2010)

Published: 8/19/2016 7:26:50 PM

In Touch with Sorrow (Dec. 11, 2010)

The annual “Bearing Witness” retreats that Montague-based Zen Peacemakers do apply mindfulness meditation in a place that would seem impossible to entirely drop judgment. Without being there, I feel like I managed to bring the reader to this impossible place.


The very name of this place chills the blood: Auschwitz.

Especially in November, when the cold wind blows through the stark, open landscape, across the mud and through the barracks where hundreds of thousands awaited extermination, Auschwitz seems like the most unimaginable place for an annual pilgrimage for self-reflection.Hide Details

And yet, organizers and some participants of the five-day retreat to the Nazi death camp -- like the one the Montague-based Zen Peacemakers ran last month -- say it's an almost "sacred" place with potential to bring inner peace, even an "aliveness."

The site of the extermination camp, to which

1.3 million human beings were deported from 1940 to 1945 -- and where 1.1 million of them were murdered -- Auschwitz today is a museum near the Polish village of Oswiecim. It receives more than a million visitors a year. The 52-acre Auschwitz camp and the neighboring 425-acre Birkenau site a couple of miles away were the largest of the Nazi death camps.

Most of the visitors, who arrive in groups to examine the 46 buildings, wear on their faces a look that says, "This is horrible! Get me out of here," says Eve Marko, a meditation teacher and one of the leaders of the Buddhist order's annual Bearing Witness" retreats, which have taken place at Auschwitz for 15 years.

"Everybody else is coming and going," she says. "But if you stay, you find something else: It's a place of enormous energy. It's very sacred."

This spiritual energy, which other participants also point to, "is just there, to be felt and experienced -- and worked with. It makes you question everything. It inspires you. It rededicates you. It totally changed my life," says Marko, who is Jewish.

More typically, a peaceful, beautiful setting is imagined as the ideal place for meditation. But during the order's retreats at Auschwitz -- like those it conducts on the streets of New York, Boston and cities around the world -- the purpose of meditation "is to make you as alive as possible," says Marko. "When people are at Auschwitz, they do discover that quality of aliveness in a very strong way."

The retreats grew out of a 1994 convocation organized by area peace activist Paula Greene and involving monks from the Leverett Peace Pagoda on a trek to Hiroshima. At Auschwitz, Marko says, Zen Peacemakers founder Bernie Glassman meditated on the death camp itself and realized, "There are amazing things that happen in this place."

Glassman, who felt the presence of ghosts inhabiting Auschwitz, wrote in his 1998 book, "Bearing Witness," that the camps were dedicated to annihilating difference: wiping out entire communities of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, leftists, the mentally ill, retarded and physically disabled and other groups the Nazis labeled as undesirables.

The retreats, then, which Glassman and Marko began in 1996, were designed to embrace as many countries, cultures and religions as possible.

"Auschwitz was (the Nazis') solution to diversity -- just to destroy it completely," says Marko, "We recreate that. We bring so many different people from different countries. And they do get on each other's nerves, because that's what happens."

Retreat organizer Ginni Stern adds, "We celebrate diversity. I share a meal with somebody I'd probably not share a meal with, or sit and realize, Oh I can sit with this German woman whose father was a Nazi? And could maybe even share a room with her and share stories in the dark at night? Or share toothpaste?

"There's difference everywhere if you look for it," she says. "We could celebrate it. Or be frightened by it. Or see it as other' that needs to be changed, or be different. Or annihilated."

Last month's retreat, with 80 participants from Israel, Poland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the United States, featured the first young people's contingent, with 16 participants ages 16 to 24.

Over the years, the retreats have drawn participants from Latin America, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Ireland, Bosnia, Latin America and elsewhere. Among the religious leaders have been priests, rabbis, Buddhist monks, imams, wiccans and American Indian medicine men.

"It's a huge heart' that everybody feels here, from each other, from the staff," says Marko. "But I think it's all the place. We say that the place is the leader here."

"Emotionally exhausted’

The barbed wire perimeter around the desolate abandoned death camp seems endless as the camera travels its length, then turns a corner and pans every inch of its width in Cristof Wolf's award-winning 2008 documentary, "In Spite of Darkness."

The film, exploring "A Spiritual Encounter with Auschwitz," records a 2006 Bearing Witness retreat through the eyes of four of its 50 participants. Stern was among them.

There are waves of shock, of tears, of compassion. And much more.

Many other groups of visitors wince their way through a tour of the men's and women's barracks, the crematorium, the ash pit. Instead, these pilgrims linger for five days, wandering off to intimately encounter the ghosts in the shadows of this place where the cries and the stench in the cold air seem palpable, seven decades after the murderous reign of terror.

"I thought I was going to Auschwitz, but by opening my heart, I think I let Auschwitz come to me," says John Richardson, a 2006 participant from New Mexico, who admits to being "emotionally exhausted" and, at one point, filled with anger at the Holocaust's perpetrators.

"There was anger at the inhumanity," he says." But I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to get in touch with the sorrow."

Christiane Wenzl, a Swiss woman struggling to come to terms with her grandfather's Nazi past, tells the film's interviewer, "I felt my soul was called to Auschwitz. It's beyond words."

There, through reflection, she learns that the perpetrator/victim dichotomy is not absolute. This raised deeper questions about herself: "When do I go over limits and when do I hurt somebody, or when do I judge? Where is this limit when I'm not at peace with myself or others?"

Israeli Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi leads interfaith kaddish services, a mourning sanctification prayer, with participants in the women's barracks and at the outdoor "killing wall." In the film, he acknowledges, "Since we are not different, I could be a Nazi. I have a little Nazi in me. That's not easy to recognize or say. The potential of dehumanizing the other is there."

He returned to Israel after one retreat as it was being closed off to Palestinians and found there a refusal among many "to acknowledge the suffering on the other side. They jump to another subject: Stop! I'll have mercy on them and not be able to see them as the enemy."

Ezrahi plays guitar to accompany a group singing of lullabies in the children's barracks to comfort the souls of the terrified and murdered young victims. He also leads a controversial ceremony in an Auschwitz watchtower, in remembrance of the sentries who would shoot anyone who might be trying to escape.

"I collapse after this ceremony," he says in the film. "It just squeezes me."

The rabbi, who admits that no one in his family experienced the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand, rejects the way that some Jewish groups have claimed that history as theirs alone.

"Auschwitz is part of the history of humankind," he says. "I am tied to this place in some mysterious way. I leave with this holding of life and death and a commitment to serve God through both."

Very thorny questions

Auschwitz has a way of grating on people's nerves.

Some participants, anxious about the whole experience, describe how jarring it can be from the moment they board the plane to Poland and hear the German language from crew members.A lot of hot buttons for people are pushed in this emotional environment: Jews, Arabs, Germans, Poles.

Planning discussions, says Marko, probed the potential for impossibly charged realities: "Sending young people to different religious services, and what it's like for Jews to hear Allah' at a place like Auschwitz? It really is mind-blowing. It really is tough for people. It's tough for people."

In large evening gatherings, retreat members share openly and emotionally the horrors they come face to face with each day -- the selection yard where the Nazis separated women and men and their children, deciding who was strong enough to go into forced labor and who would be immediately murdered; the crematorium; the killing wall where prisoners were executed before the building of gas chambers.

The raw emotions fly.

"We've had people who were upset," says Marko: "How could you say this?' How could they feel that way?' Why do you let those people in the retreat?' And then there are just people with their own reactions, and they always offend somebody. We've had people say, You let that person speak, I'm out of here.'"

When a German staff member suggested one year that a ritual to memorialize the names of those murdered at Auschwitz be extended to include the names of guards, Marko recalls, "It almost tore apart the whole retreat. One rabbi said, If you're going to do that, I'm never coming back here, I'm never bringing any of my students back here.'"

One woman, Marko recalls, came to Auschwitz angry and left furious.

"She left saying, You know how I'm feeling? I wish I had 6 million bullets to kill Germans with!'"

Planning last month's retreat, with its first dedicated cohort of young people, organizers realized the political realities of Jewish and Palestinian participants, as well as Germans and Poles, might produce yet another powder keg.

"These are very tricky questions we're going to be dealing with, how to hold a big container (in which) people can express themselves because it's bound to offend people," Marko said. "We can't tell people to muzzle themselves."

(Ultimately, the Israelis refused to allow visas for the Palestinian students to leave the country. Arab-Israel youth, however, did attend.

Even for Jewish students from Israel -- let alone Arabs -- taking part in a retreat like those organized by Zen Peacemakers is extremely controversial, Marko emphasizes.

"For the Arabs, there's enormous pressure on them not to go there, not to acknowledge any Jewish suffering," she explains. "And even from the Israeli Jewish point of view, you go to Auschwitz as part of the high school groups that are very Zionistic. You walk in with Israeli flags, or with the March of the Living. But you do not go as part of a multinational thing. This is our place, nobody else's place.' The very fact they're doing that is really politically incorrect."

When past retreats gathered to meditate beside the railroad tracks at the selection yard, Bearing Witness coordinator Stern said she watched groups of students from Israel, from Germany and from Poland "walk by each other -- and they don't even look at each other. It really disturbed me How could the Israelis, in particular, leave Auschwitz without growing hate, without increased anger at the Poles and the Germans?"

Then an Israeli teacher suggested he could find grant money to bring a small group of Jewish and Arab teens to the camp before they reach the age of military conscription and begin to confront each other at checkpoints and conflicts.

For Stern, who has long wanted to bring teens together at Auschwitz, "It was just a dream come true."

If the point of meditation is to drop back to a state of "not knowing," where there is no "other," so we can actually "bear witness" to a deeper reality, then Marko says she doesn't worry about the conflicts that arise when participants speak their truths at Auschwitz.

"There's something so true and raw about it, you can't lie. My trust is of the place," she says. "They hear each other and they bear witness to their own reactions except in this retreat, it leads in a whole different direction than what happened there 70 years ago. It comes out of exactly the fact that there are all these different people: they dress different, they look different, they talk different languages and there's an enormous intuitive sense of oneness out of it."

Those personal truths

When Stern pushed into the crematorium's ash pit a stone she'd brought to memorialize killed family members, her hand came out coated in mud flaked with human bone fragments.

"My inclination was to wipe it off," she says. "But I didn't want to treat it like garbage. The dirt there is very, very powerful.

Yet the awakenings during the five-day retreats aren't just to the atrocities that happened there, organizers say.

"Everybody finds themselves there," says Marko. "But sometimes what they find has nothing to do with genocide, per se. Maybe what they find is lot of suffering they had as children, at the hands of a father, or a mother."

Though they might apologize to the group for bringing up an uncovered personal tragedy that seems to pale compared to the Nazi atrocities, these self-reflections that people confront are every bit as real.

Visitors to the death camp's barracks come face to face with the ghosts of the victims, wondering, "Who passed through here? What if it had been me? My wife or husband? My child?"

And those who spend enough time reflecting at Auschwitz find themselves in a place "tailor made for you to encounter the darkest parts of yourself," says Marko.

Just before Karen Werner of Montague took part in last year's retreat, she met with her parents in Krakow, visiting the area to see where her grandmother had been from. Her mother, whose family had fled Vienna before the Holocaust, was upset that Werner was going on to Auschwitz and gave her a pink scarf to "celebrate life" there.

"What was huge for me was bearing witness to my mom's inability to deal with that place, to hold the grief and the aliveness," recalls Werner. She left her parents and arrived at the death camp terrified by the dirt and the air -- "about touching the death there."

By the end of the retreat, Werner intentionally lay down in the dirt -- with the scarf. Then, she danced in line at a "truly ecstatic" Shabbat dinner in the Polish village and left Auschwitz able to reconcile her feelings toward her mother. "I forgave her, in a way, for her inability to grieve.

For Stern, who grew up with an abusive father, a Holocaust survivor, each year's retreat holds a new discovery.

"I feel a shift about holding compassion for him," she says. And after rejecting for years the notion she might have "a Nazi within," Stern discovered that she had cut herself off from co-workers and family who have upset her.

"I don't do that anymore," she says. "I feel I really want to challenge that in myself. It's been an exploration of who do I perceive as the other?' I've become more courageous in having a dialogue with people about their war experiences or the ripple effect of those experiences."

One German participant at an Auschwitz retreat, Bettina Kaut, who'd kept to herself for the first four days of the retreat, revealed at the end the secret that was silently eating at her:

Her grandfather had been the mayor of a small town, Goch, near the Dutch border. When the Nazis came to Goch demanding to know which were the Jewish homes, her grandfather turned their names over. All of the Jews were taken away.”

"She said, This is my story. And I love my grandfather. And now I have to deal with this," Marko recalls. Kaut returned to the retreat two years later. "It was like she was another person. She came to me and was just beaming and full of life."

Kaut spent the two years researching what had happened to the Jews of Goch. All had been killed but one. Kaut tracked down that survivor's son in Israel. She traveled to Jerusalem to meet him to tell him who she was and to hear who he was.

Kaut had a memorial erected in the village and wrote an account of her search.

"She told us what she had done," said Marko. "It's like she had gotten her life back. In a place like Auschwitz."



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