For years, I’d heard about the Zen Peacemaker order and the annual Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Though I was curious, I disliked large groups, and I’d already made three visits to Auschwitz. Plus, it was expensive. Nevertheless, at the last minute I signed up.
Roshi Bernie Glassman welcomed us on the first evening. His instructions were sparse: the teacher on this retreat would be Auschwitz. The five-day retreat began with detailed tours through the “museum,” immersing everyone in the sea of information that can only make a sane person begin to feel insane. The progressive overwhelm was compounded by the fact that we were a hundred people from different backgrounds, including Poles, Germans, Jews, Catholics, Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and Native Americans—each person with a different reason for being there—each with a different wound.
The three tenets of the Peacemaker order were Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, and Loving Action. Not knowing was the willingness to let go of certainty and the need for answers, something I was still learning. Bearing witness to the past took the form of meditating alongside the selection site at Birkenau while taking turns reading names of the dead aloud for several hours a day. Bearing witness to the present included small daily council circles before breakfast where we shared our feelings and experiences. The council circles were the only mandatory part of the schedule, and in a way, the most excruciating. Loving action was the natural, uncontrived response that arose from the first two.
People assumed we were here to acknowledge and pay respects to events of the past. But Auschwitz dredged up shadows of the present—the sense of one person having more or less value than another—the sense of isolation and of being other. It not only heightened the perception of one’s own pain, but everyone else’s. As feelings rose to the surface, the flimsy veils of distance and rational thought came unglued.
While facing familiar, old issues of not being seen, not finding my place, I had to simultaneously embrace the trembling fears of German hands grasping mine as we walked together through Birkenau. Auschwitz was indeed a powerful teacher, illuminating whatever one tried to ignore or conceal as only extreme darkness could do. The past spilled into the present, and the present spilled into the past. Nothing ever really vanished.
In addition to Bernie, the spirit leaders included his wife, Eve Marko, who guided the Buddhist contingent, Father Manfred Deselaers, the Catholic priest I’d met on my first visit in 2006, and a guitar-carrying Israeli rabbi named Ohad Ezrahi, himself a BuJew (Buddhist Jew) who wore a mala.
Since I’d inhaled enough Buddhism to last lifetimes, I followed Ohad around, or rather I followed the sound of his guitar and nigunem—the sweet wordless melodies we sang in lieu of prayers in dark wooden barracks or standing in the trees where naked bodies had huddled together waiting to enter the gas chambers. Somewhere inside, I knew those melodies. Was it imagination or memory that my godless father had sung them—or a far earlier memory? Hearing even one, it seemed that this place inside of me knew them all.
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