01 August 2012

Massacre of Buddhism: Ongiin Khiid


I had no idea, when I agreed to help my friend Susan celebrate her 50th birthday by going with her to Mongolia, that I'd end up standing in a place that would make me feel some of what I felt in Auschwitz-Birkenau: the ruins of the Buddhist temple complexes of Ongiin Khiid in the Gobi Desert.

Susan and I had just finished a three-day horse trek to the lakes of Naiman Nuur so we were mostly focused on getting a hot shower and a restaurant meal -- the short walk to see the local sites was an afterthought. And it was a pretty raucous walk at that, what with peals of laughter from three small boys who kept sneaking up behind us and then running away again when we turned to look. I bother to tell you this to explain how blind-sided I was by my feelings as I began to understand what I was looking at -- and the scale of it.

Ongiin Khiid is now mostly just the smashed remnants of two enormous monastery complexes (Barlim Khiid and Khutagt Khiid) on either side of the only year-round river that runs through Dundgovi province in southern Mongolia. They were destroyed in 1938. What's left of the original buildings and the communities that supported them are the foundations of countless buildings, a few feet of wall here, some broken bits of adornment there.


In person, the ruins of Ongiin Khiid were devastating but, because the buildings were made of the earth at the site, the vast and overwhelming scope of the wreckage is difficult to convey in photographs. There were  ruins as far as you could see. The wrecked altar alcove that once housed a Buddha icon overlooked it all. 

I cannot explain the effect of this site on me. We'd already been to two other ruined and slightly rebuilt monastery sites, Erdene Zuu (pix here) and Tuvkhen.( pix here) They were a mix of sad and hopeful, touristy and sacred, run-down and beautiful. But the raw violence of the destruction at Ongiin Khiid was still visible, still palpable, even though it happened over seventy years ago. 

Mongolian Buddhism had its roots in Tibetan Buddhism and, like Tibetan Buddhism, it incorporated some of the indigenous shamanistic traditions as it evolved. 

In the first decade or so of the 20th century, Buddhism was at its height in Mongolia, with over 2000 temples, more than 700 of them resident monasteries, with something like 115,000 lamas. And it was then that its persecution by the Soviet-backed government began and escalated.

Mongolia is now an independent parliamentary republic but, in the early 1900s, it was fighting off Chinese control and even a brutal invasion by a renegade division of White Russian soldiers led by Roman von Ungern-Sternberg - the Mad Baron, so they turned to Russia for help. While the Mongolians we met believed that their country would not be independent today if it weren't for their long relationship with the Soviet Union, the Soviet-backed government all but wiped out Mongolian Buddhism for fifty years.


The attack on Buddhism began slowly, with requirements that all Buddhist lamas, temples and monasteries register. Then came the restrictions - on teaching, on replacing the Eighth Bogd Qaan (the national spiritual leader) when he died - and the propaganda campaigns with images of lamas as pillagers and parasites, the confiscation of property, the purges of Buddhists from government positions, etc. Sound familiar?

Not that anyone told us this while we were in Mongolia. The details were remarkably vague when we asked what happened and why. It never went beyond "it was part of the Stalinist purges." So, when I tried to read more about it when I came home, I felt like I felt when I walked through the horrific exhibit of orders and propaganda the Germans plastered all over Polish cities after they invaded -- the drip, drip, drip of one ordinary freedom after another stripped away, all of it the methodical and planned separation of one group from another, of individual human beings from their humanity. Then came the final orders to destroy and close all of the monasteries, remove all of the lamas, and outlaw Buddhism.  By 1939, the work was complete.


The pretext the Stalin-puppet regime of Qorlogiin Choibalsan used for the final order in 1938 to do this was the threat of invasion by the Japanese: they were supposedly using the Buddhist infrastructure to infiltrate and undermine Mongolia.

Every one of the lamas who hadn't disrobed in the preceding years was either murdered or arrested, sent to labor camps or conscripted into the army. Some estimate that between three and four percent of the population was slaughtered, among them 18,000 lamas. There are accounts of lamas shot in the head at the edge of the graves they'd just dug.

Standing on the foundation of one of the ruined buildings at Ongiin Khiid, I felt I was looking at the dark heart of what's driving me to do this project, wanting answers. Again.

My parents know, with certainty I envy, that religion itself is the cause of things like this, of most wars, of group hatred, of the Auschwitzs and Ongiin Khiids throughout history. But is it? Maybe that's just the rotten figleaf of an excuse given by those who are really trying to grab land, money, power. If not, if faith is in some way the cause, is it faith itself or something that happens when belief and faith are misunderstood or misused? Or maybe it's just something that goes awry sometimes when groups of people get together and religion is just one of the reasons groups of people get together.

I know I am pathetically attached to getting my hands on a clear cut, defined story to tell myself, to find some way of ducking the stark facts of the Holocaust, of Rwanda, of 9/11, of the slaughter of Native American tribes, of early Christians, of Muslims during the Crusades, of Ongiin Khiid, etc because I no doubt believe that effects have causes so find the cause, find the cure, no? I mean if you can find the wheel spinning that tends to lead to suffering, wouldn't it be worth it at least to try to jam a stick in its spokes? I think that may be the unfortunate underpinnings of my drive to do this project: the desire to find something To Be Done.

I want to find The Reason, to assign Blame, to find The Cause as though that will mitigate the horror and give my story-telling brain the bedtime story it so craves. Were the lamas at the time too close to political power? Had they grown corrupt? No, even if any of that were true, it's no excuse for the murderous violence of what happened. Perhaps it wasn't faith that was to blame for the jagged walls and the broken buildings and all they signify, but an insane world in an insane time; Stalin was at work in the Soviet Union, Hitler in Germany, the second World War about the begin.

No, no I can't tell myself that either. I can't tell myself that it began and ended there.

After the deeds were done and Buddhism outlawed, the Choibalsan government used the few temples left standing as storage facilities, barracks for Russian soldiers, or prison camps. In 1944, one monastery just outside Ulaanbaatar, Gandan, was reopened, staffed by lamas who were specifically banned from teaching anyone or talking about Buddhism. The stories say this was staged, initially, for the benefit of a visit by United States Vice-President Henry Wallace in 1944.

That so few people know about these massacres is small wonder: before Choibalsan began getting rid of Buddhism in earnest, he threw foreign visitors and organizations out of Mongolia and then instituted laws that prevented Mongolians from talking about Buddhism or the massacres.

But Mongolia is open again. People became free to practice religion again after the democratic revolution in 1990 and Buddhism is on the rise. It is, once again, the most widely practiced religion, followed closely by shamanism. Many of the sites have a rebuilt structure or two and some, like Erdene Zuu and Tuvkhen have lamas living there. There didn't appear to be any lamas living at Ongiin Khiid but there was a rebuilt temple, a ger with some items recovered from the rubble, and a monument to the lamas who didn't survive the massacre.

I went back alone to the site again the next morning, long before the village boys were up. In the little time I've spent in the shallow beginning of learning about Buddhism, I keep hearing that everything is Buddha. Even this. 

No Buddha is Buddha, too. 

I don't know if that answer is good enough for me.

But it is better than making up some story to pretend that any of this makes sense.


ruins of Ongiin Khiid, Dundgovi Province, Mongolia



16 June 2012

09 May 2012

25 years


This "heathen" got married twenty five years ago today.

When I see that look on Kevin's face just after my dad walked me up the aisle, it makes me want to cry. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen that look and heard the words that come with it. That look is one of the reasons we are still together today. It's also what almost did us in.



There's this idea about romantic love, about finding your "soul mate" as that man of mine surely is, that makes us think that our lives should be entwined, enmeshed, our happiness entrusted to another. I think that idea does more to undermine good relationships than almost any other. The underbelly of that notion is: so, if I'm not happy - and who is all the time? - it is my partner's responsibility to at least try to make me feel better, happier.

I won't speak for other people but, in our determination to put how we felt about each other into practice, we kinda got it wrong for a while. In the misguided attempt to make the other happier, we contorted ourselves and our lives into painful and unrecognizable pretzel shapes...or felt guilty when we didn't or couldn't. We thought we were responsible for each other instead of to each other. The result? We had about two years of hell that stripped our relationship right down to its foundation. I remember standing on a street, looking across the top of a car at him and thinking: I am willing to lose this but I am not willing to not be myself anymore.

I was lucky. He was braver and more determined than I was. He took the first steps to break our dynamic. At the time, it felt like he was retreating to his corner to work on his own issues, but it gave me the room to do the same. I would never, ever, ever want to go through that again (have I said "never" and "ever" enough?) however, the new relationship that was built on what remained, that foundation, that look, is everything I ever wanted and more.

An article about the work of psychologist Dr. David Schnarch put into words what Kevin and I learned by running into our own brick walls. Schnarch says that marriage isn't about attachment, about becoming fused into one, but about learning how to be yourself in the presence of another, how to soothe your own bad feelings without the help of another, to pursue your own goals, and to stand on your own two feet. That, to me, to us, is the secret of a marriage worth having.

Boy, I love you, I admire you, I like you and I'm grateful for you and to you for our quarter century together.

Your Girl.











13 April 2012

"We are our own S.S. men..."


The artwork of Marian Kolodziej
Auschwitz prisoner #432

While this post is actually reaction and commentary to the post Auschwitz One , I am posting it here so it's easier to find for anyone who might want another way to address suffering, their own or others'....

The Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat is multi-faith but the very idea of going to a place like Auschwitz to "bear witness" is a very Zen Buddhist practice. Gemmon and I spoke after she read and helped me fact-check the post, Auschwitz One. She liked that I caught myself, mid-post, avoiding my feelings about standing in the gas chamber by telling facts. And she added,  "I liked your breakdown about the expectation phase. See, Auschwitz still has something to tell you: maybe how hard you are on yourself? Aren't we our own worst SS men?" 
Gemmon leading one of her
Caregivers Workshops 


Yes, Gemmon, I am. I am brutal to myself and, when I sit with dear friends and we really tell each other the truth about how we talk to and feel about ourselves, I'm quite sure I'm not alone in this. I would not let anyone speak about the people I love the way they sometimes speak about themselves. And I know they would defend me against anyone who might judge me as harshly as I judge myself. I can bear witness to that.

But, months after the retreat, I still have no simple answer for the people who ask why I went "really" or "why anyone would put themselves through that?" In other words, what's the "purpose" of "bearing witness" and, when you do, how to cope with all that comes up?  Zen Master Bernie Glassman, who organized the retreat more than sixteen years ago, explains the purpose this way: 
Much of Zen practice, including many teaching techniques used by Zen masters, is aimed at bringing the Zen practitioner to this same place of unknowing, of letting go of what he or she knows. After walking through Auschwitz and Birkenau, there is an end to thought. We are numbed. All we can do is see the endless train tracks on the snow, feel the icy cold of a Polish winter on our bare hands, smell the rotting wood in the few remaining barracks, and listen to the names of the dead.  
Fine, but I still am left with some oxymoronic paralyzing need to act, to DO something when there is nothing to be done, at least about what happened to the people murdered at the Auschwitz camps.

12 April 2012

When everything crumbles, what is left?

Bernard Enginger was a member of the French Resistance when he was captured by the Nazis and put in concentration camps for a year and a half. After he was released, he spent years in India, among many other places, where he was given the name Satprem by his spiritual teacher. One of the Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat participants heard an interview he gave much later in life and transcribed what he said. It's astonishing...


…. A man only starts to BE when he reaches the complete nothingness of what he is, what he believes, that he thinks, what he loves. When we reach this complete nothingness, then something must BE, or we die, right? 


I experienced this in the concentration camps. There was nothing. All was destroyed, broken. Even I was broken. All the ideals, the nobility, everything was broken. There was nothing, nothing, nothing, You see? No politics, no religion, nothing to hold on to. So when there is nothing, what is left? What is left? There is a centre of strength, of being. There is something left. And that is the key. It’s not all that we think, all we feel or love. It’s not our ideals or God. It’s none of that! It’s something poignant, as if the whole being was wrapped up in an anguish that is so intense that it becomes a prayer. Or like love, it is warm, powerful. There are no words to describe it. It is our being, what we are. That is the question, the thing that everyone reaches. When everything crumbles, what is left?


Everything is broken to force us to reach that human moment, where we are what man truly is. What is man, really? We are completely fooled by philosophies, religions, politics. They are only outgrowths that were added from one century to the next, They have nothing to do with human reality. So, what is human reality? A man in a cell who will get shot the next morning, knows what that is, sometimes. 


In the morning, in my cell, I often heard steps in the hallway.

19 March 2012

"Marigolds in my mouth"


Illustration Andrew Zbihlyj

This essay by poet Kazim Ali published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin is a gorgeous piece of work worth experiencing.

A quote:
I believe the "self"  is a risky conjecture... a weird coalition of celestial and spiritual matter, a wobbly and wild thing that quivers through life ... the way a compass needle quivers as it searches for the "real" magnetic north, which a scientist will explain to you is a floating and not fixed point.  
You are half yourself and the other part is just a set of notions -- some of them brilliant, some of them ridiculous, but in any case you will have to think hard in order to sort yourself out and sometimes it will take a stranger in the middle of another city to explain something to you.
And another:
As a human body, I have the privilege to be like dirt listening.  

18 March 2012

The power of storytelling...



"By telling a story, things don't control me anymore: it's in my vernacular, it's the way I see the world. Our stories ask our big questions...what's funny in this world, what's sacred -- And, even more important, by asking them in front of people, with people, even if we don't find the answer, by the asking we find we are not alone and I find that's even more important than the answer." 

I found this interview that Krista Tippett did in her radio program On Being with Kevin Kling inspiring and moving, especially this short excerpt from one of his shows in which he says:  "Every scar is a monument to a battle survived. Now, when you're born into loss, you grow from it but, when you experience loss later in life, you grow toward it."  Kling is a performer and writer who was born with a defective left arm followed by a motorcycle accident in his forties that almost killed him and paralyzed his good right arm.

That first quote of Kevin Kling's about questions without answers reminds me of something Bernie Glassman said in a talk he gave in Germany this year. In starting a conversation with a group, he invited people to ask him questions so he could get to know them better. "But I'm not going to answer them. Because I don't believe answers are useful. In fact, answers can be very deadly. Questions have a lot of energy, they have a life. With a question, you can go on."    

The trick is getting comfortable living without answers. I think Kevin Kling has it just right: asking questions in front of and with other people does make you feel less alone.

15 January 2012

Packing lunch


Auschwitz-Birkenau: selection site
Matt went back to college today. It's a long trip for him: a plane, a subway, a train, and then a taxi. I got up early to pack him a lunch he could take with him.

Packing lunch -- an ordinary act I used to take so for granted when the lunches came two a day, every day. Now, it's almost a sacred act, feeding my children when they allow themselves to be fed by me. But, in that quiet kitchen, the rectangle of torn wax paper on the counter brought with it all the mothers who carefully packed food for a trip they didn't
Auschwitz-Birkenau: end of the tracks
want to take. They had no idea where they were going or what they'd find when they got there but they did what mothers do -- they packed food. They probably stood in their kitchens, terrified, but they did what they could do.

Long after the carefully wrapped food was eaten, too many of them sat on their suitcases, with their children all around them, in the stand of beautiful trees, and waited their turn.

It would be a lot easier to move through life wrapping sandwiches in oblivious peace...but I'm not sure I can do that ow that I know, now that I have seen.

For the moment, contentment with not knowing, not realizing, not seeing what happened, feels like sleepwalking to me.


Auschwitz-Birkenau: the woods near the gas chambers


01 November 2011

Dream argument


That first night in the dormitory room in the Center for Dialogue, after spending a day at Auschwitz, my dreams were the most mundane ever. In it, Kevin and I argued about whether or not Matt, much younger than he actually is, should have to come with me to buy something he wanted to entertain himself, perhaps a movie, or should we allow him to stay home while one of us went to get it for him. It wasn't a heated argument, just all-encompassing. Confronted by Auschwitz, my brain natters on about the inane, the unimportant, the trivial.

Do we argue because don't want to feel? Because it makes us feel safely and permanently alive? Important? Immortal? Because these petty but oh-so-important clashes distract and cloak the reality of our existence and the incomprehensible facts in it? Could people kill other people because it makes them certain, at least for that moment, that they will never die?

31 October 2011

Stacks of paper



After dinner, I came early to the first group meeting and the room was empty except for Andrzej Krajewski, the coordinator of the retreat from Poland. He was busy sorting stacks of paper so I asked if he wanted help.

"Yes, take from here," he said, indicating the box next to him filled with stacks of paper, "And please count twenty or twenty-two pages and put them in piles here."

Okay. I started to count, to stack. I assumed I was creating piles of twenty-two copies of the same document. But, as I counted, I started to notice that, no, each page was different. They weren't the same document.

"What are these?"

"These are names of the people who were recorded at the camps, the ones who made it through the first selection and actually worked at the camps before they died. No one knows how many actually died at Auschwitz because many were sent directly to the gas chambers so their names weren't recorded. There is no record of them."


There were at least twenty to twenty-five names on each page and a box full of pages. We were making piles of the names we were going to read aloud over the course of the retreat.

When we were done making all the piles we needed, the box was still full of paper, still full of the names of the people who had died in the Auschwitz camps, many more than the pages we had counted out. Andrzej picked the box up and walked towards the back of the room to put it away for another time. I wanted to grab them from him, to tell him no, not again, we can do it, we can do them all. We have to.

But we couldn't. We couldn't do them all. There were too many for the time we had.

There's a reason why people don't come to places like this. Whatever you do, you have it ground into your face, into your gut, into your bones, again and again, that it can never be enough. There is no matching this horror with anything "appropriate."

I sat down in that big empty hall filled with chairs and couldn't even cry.


Auschwitz One...











The Polish coordinator of the retreat, Andrzej, a tall, gray-haired bear of a man with warm sad eyes, opened our first meeting as a group with these remarks:  "Tomorrow is a very special day. It's the most important holiday in Poland: it's the day of all the saints. You go out to the cemeteries to honor your families, your dear ones, so Poland is in a very special state of mind these days.

"One more thing. Oświęcim, the name of the place, is an old Polish name that means 'enlightened place or place which is made holy.'"




Holy place. Enlightened place. Auschwitz?

We came to Auschwitz I for the first day of our retreat to hear and see what happened here.

I didn't realize that Auschwitz (the German translation of Oscwiecim) is really a constellation of three concentration camps: Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Monowitz-Buna. Auschwitz I, originally a Polish military barracks, was the administrative center for the camps. It was also, they told us, where the use of Zyklon B gas to kill people was developed and perfected.

We walked underneath the "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("work sets you free") sign and to our first stop: the original crematorium, the first one the Nazis built for the purpose of killing people with gas. Once the entire group crowded inside the poorly lit room, Bernie Glassman who started the Bearing Witness Retreat more than 16 years ago, said, "This is a gas chamber. At Birkenau, where we will spend the rest of our days, it was much more efficient, many more people were able to be gassed at once. We're about 105 people. Normally the gassings that took place here there were 700 people...in this space. And the largest that they know of was 900 people. The crematorium is next door."

The first gas chamber

The official description of the retreat says that our main teacher is this "Place", these camps where unimaginably horrific things happened. While the retreats are organized by Glassman who is a Zen Roshi (abbot) and the Zen Peacemakers, they are explicitly multi-faith. In addition to the many Buddhist leaders, with us were an Hasidic rabbi, the German priest who ran the Center for Dialogue and Prayer where we were staying and even a Native American tribal elder.

Okay, I note that I just tried to duck writing about how I felt in that cement room by giving you admittedly relevant information but not the most important information. The important information is that I was afraid, that I kept not just imagining what went on in that room, but also the how and the why of it. The important information is that I kept trying to stand inside the brains of the people who didn't die here, the people whose job it was to run this place, the ones who came to work here each day day, and who, on occasion, joked around a little with their co-workers, who ran out of paper clips or ink for their pens and had to go get more, who took a break from the gassing and burning of bodies to eat lunch, who sometimes stopped off for a beer with friends after work, then went home, washed their faces, brushed their teeth, and got in bed to rest for another long, hard day at work. The important thing is that, if Auschwitz was the teacher, I was terrified of what it was going to teach me.

In Zen Buddhism, the stories we tell ourselves are something to notice and then leave behind. But what is there below, beside, or beyond this story? On its own, this "story" is so impossible to take in, to know, that I was quite certain at that moment I did not want to go beyond the facts of what happened, that whatever is beyond, beside or below it, felt like The Unnameable dread that lies inside our worst nightmares, our existential fears, our moments of terror, not just that there might be no meaning or point but, worse, that there is some shapeless malignancy just beyond what we can know. What I knew, as I stood there in that place of horror, was that I did not want to learn what this Teacher had to teach me.

We followed our guides out. Below are photographs of what we saw, ending at the execution wall where we had a ceremony. Because it was All Saints Day one of Poland's most important holidays, people had left memorial candles and flowers at most of the killing sites, especially the execution wall. One final note: I was completely unprepared for how beautiful it was, especially with the fall color. The guide told us many of the trees were there at the time, some were planted by prisoners, so they had this fall color to look at, too. However, it was only high overhead. We were told that none of the trees had leaves within reach of the ground because people had eaten them. The grass, too.

(A note to my retreat-mates or anyone who might be reading my blog for the first time: this entire effort is a work in progress and depends on the corrections and additions of people who know more than I do. Please do not hesitate to give notes, to comment, or to send any additional thoughts ...) 


Zyklon B pellets & canister  

Our Polish guide





No one spoke as we walked through
and we were not all in one group
...yet everyone who had a camera ended up taking
a picture of this shoe

How can one specific pair of shoes
have the power of a pile of thousands of shoes? 




Note that the windows overlooking the execution wall are boarded up
so people in the building won't be disturbed by the sight








Execution wall on All Saints Day














Mortification...#742


Now I'm not sure whether or not to share this but I guess the truth is the truth and it's hopeless to hide the enormous and mortifying depths of my pockets of ignorance.

We were all warned that the weather would be unpredictable and variable and that we'd have to sit out in it for hours no matter. I wanted to pack light so I essentially brought layers of black or dark gray clothing, one of them a hoodie sweatshirt I'd bought in the Los Angeles airport on a previous business trip when I'd forgotten to bring something to keep warm on the plane. I'd gotten compliments on it when I wore it around fun people from work so I thought nothing of it when I wore it to this first meeting.

As we went downstairs after it ended, a sweet man named Eric, a furniture-maker from New York, quietly pulled me aside in a way no else would notice. "May I ask you a question?"

"Sure."

"Did you know that that is a Nazi symbol?" he said, pointing to this image on my sweatshirt.

I had been sitting in the opening meeting for a retreat at Auschwitz wearing a sweatshirt with a Nazi symbol.

Mortified.




To the buses...




Krakow, Poland

The buses to take us to Auschwitz weren't allowed on the streets near our hotel so we met in the lobby and walked to where they were parked. Aside from Gemmon, I knew no one else and, as we made our way along the narrow streets hauling our luggage behind us, it seemed improbable that I would ever know any of them. Most were wearing dark clothing with one splash of color - a scarf, a hat, or an oddly-colored suitcase. The list said about half came from the United States but the rest came from many other countries: from the Netherlands, Israel, Poland, Brazil, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Hungary with many from Germany.  

Sometimes I wonder if I have an erasable memory.  It's the only reasonable explanation for the fact that here I am in middle age having been new in college, in camp, in hobby groups, in different congregations or in various retreats for this project, in parent groups for my children when they were in school, etc. etc. etc. yet I still forget that this beginning phase is so brief. When I'm in it, it feels permanent, like it's the definition of my life, like I will always be moving through a city I don't know, feeling invisible, with people I can only describe as a group.


Krakow, Poland


Walking down the streets in this many people, each with our belongings, it was impossible not to think of the masses of people driven from their homes, hauling children and heavy leather suitcases, who were jammed into trucks and trains without enough space or food or water, and the terror, helplessness, and rage they must have felt. And, sometimes, the days they were taken away were probably this beautiful....

On the bus, headed towards Oświęcim , the town where Auschwitz is, sunlit yellows and greens out the window and, inside, a bus full of amiable people chatting and getting to know each other, one of the retreat leaders, a young woman from Poland, finally took the microphone and said, "Auschwitz is a great teacher. We will go the rest of the way in silence."




30 October 2011

The House

Gemmon looking for Amon Göth's house
Gemmon came to Krakow with one site she wanted to be sure to see: Amon Göth's house and I went with her. She knew about the Plaszow concentration camp commandant from the survivors' stories she's read as well as a book by Harold Welzer, that hasn't been translated into English yet: Täter or Perpetrator: How Ordinary People become Mass Murderers that she's been unable to read more than fifty pages of -- it was too painful. Plaszow was just outside of Krakow. Gemmon said she wanted to see the second floor balcony where some accounts -- including Stephen Spielberg's movie Schindler's List - say Göth stood and shot prisoners when the mood struck him.**

We found the house the guidebooks list as Amon Göth's house fairly easily: 22 Heltmana.

It's for sale.

Amon Goth's house

I wonder how long it's been for sale...and who on earth would buy it?

But it was the balcony on the back side of Göth's house that we came to see and it sure wasn't easy to figure out how to get there.

We walked back down to the entrance of the Plaszow concentration camp site.The Nazis tried to wipe out any evidence of the camp before the Russian army came so all that remains of Plaszow is an empty expanse of land with awkward man-made hills, worn signs marking the perimeter, and some memorial monuments.  The sign asks that people "please respect the grievous history of the site."



One of the signs marking the site
where Plaszow once stood
What the Plaszow site looks like now

It was just before All Saints' Day so there a few candles and some fresh flowers by the stone marker near the entrance. But there were no markings, no path, and we had to wade through brambles and low scrubby brush to be able to a place where we could see Göth's balcony through a chain link fence.

The back of Amon Göth's house.
It's hard to see but the balcony
is in front of that second story wondow 
From the back, it was clear that someone is living in the house -- there were clean lace curtains over the windows. I don't know why I found this so shocking, but I did. Then I remembered that, when the Germans invaded Poland, they took over most of the buildings so, when the war ended, there were few buildings that couldn't have been set aside as scenes of atrocities or, at the very least, occupation. Still, that the house is listed in guide books as the former home of Amon Göth yet someone is living in it and anyone can buy it as if it were just another house.

In the Schindler factory museum, one fourteen-year-old girl's note described being taunted and jeered as she walked down the street."It's not good being Jewish," she wrote. How often have I felt that way, relieved that I wasn't "fully" Jewish, embarrassed that I was partly? More often than I'd like to admit, even to myself. The Holocaust made one thing very clear to me as a child: there was something very, very wrong about being Jewish if an entire nation of people would want to kill you - or look the other way while others killed you - just for being Jewish.

And I can't even write this off to a crazed group that doesn't exist anymore. I went to school in a community that did not allow Jews to join their clubs. In the late 60s and early 70s. I had classmates in elementary school, in high school and even at Harvard who ridiculed Jews in front of me...and I kept quiet, I am deeply ashamed to admit, because part of me was relieved because it meant that they didn't know I was part Jewish. I have been told, on more than one occasion when someone's found out that my father's family was Jewish, that I don't "look Jewish." What does that mean? Was I, am I Jewish? To whom? We celebrated Christmas (presents) and Easter (candy). I was never taught a single thing about Judaism. Yet if I lived in Germany in the 1940s, I would have been Jewish enough to end up in Amon Göth's camp.

I don't really know what not looking Jewish has actually meant except that, because of it, I have been privileged to hear just how antisemitic some people are. I have heard people say that Jewish people "eat weird food", are "money grubbing", and that "if you throw a penny, a Jew will chase it."

I'll never forget one afternoon in the summer after my freshman year, my preppy boyfriend and his best friend came to my house to stay for a weekend. Both were classmates of mine at Harvard. I'll call Preppy Boyfriend's pal "Paul." "Paul" was the wise-cracking grandson of a prominent New England politician. When my best friend from high school, Naomi, came over, "Paul" made it pretty clear he wanted to sleep with her. Naomi was Jewish. She was gorgeous. Yet, when Naomi was playing the piano, her attention on her fingers, "Paul" put his two fingers up over his own tiny up-turned nose to mimic the shape of her's. My boyfriend laughed.

I did not kick them out of my house. I did not break up with my boyfriend right then and there. I watched all of this and said nothing.

Within a few years, Naomi got a nose job.

But what does all this have to do with faith? With religion? With belief? Does it at all? Just because there are antisemites, people who dislike Jews, they say, simply because they are Jewish, (and others like me who say nothing while it's going on) does this really have anything to do with religion? When religion is used as a pretext for war or atrocities, are my parents right, that religion, itself, is to blame? And, while this kind of hatred makes the desire for a separate land filled with only people of your same faith make sense, where do you get this land free of others? Can you get it without doing to others what was done to you?

I just cannot go here, into the confused place where land and faith, property and religion, power and belief  get jumbled together...at least not right now. But is it meaningless to try to understand the beliefs and practices of faith while ignoring some of the ways these groups of believers have behaved towards others? The way I stayed silent while group hate and disrespect happened right in front of me?

As a religious blank slate, I really have no choice but to start at the beginning: what do people believe and how do they manifest that faith in their every day lives? But the question of what goes wrong after that -- and why -- is always lurking.

I am so confused by all of this and I'm starting to realize just how much of my ignorance has been self-inflicted, a choice I've actually made as if the less I knew about these horrific actions and times, the less it has to do with me and my little life. Well, it does have something to do with me, whether I choose to know something about it or not, whether I choose to look at it, to see it, or not. Human beings like me did these things. Human beings are still capable of doing these things. Human beings are still doing these things in large ways and in small ones, every day, so it does, right now, have to do with every one of us. And it certainly has to do with me. I am capable of the kind of personal cowardice that allowed the Holocaust to happen.

~ ~ ~

**There's an argument about where Amon Göth actually stood when he shot people.  Stephen Spielberg's movie, Schindler's List, shows Göth shooting people from the balcony of his home but others argue the location was elsewhere. A documentary in which Amon Göth's youngest daughter spoke shows the balcony of the house at 22 Heltmana. Under any circumstances, Göth was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people and even the Nazis considered him mentally ill. He was actually taken into custody by the US military from a mental institution where the Nazis incarcerated him in 1944. Here's the United Nations War Crimes report about Göth which only says that he did shoot people himself but doesn't go into any more detail than that.


The concentration camp in Plaszow near Krakow 
erected by nazi-Germany in 1942.

Amon  Göth on the balcony of one of the
places that he lived.
Clearly this is not the same balcony
as the house Gemmon and I saw.


Amon Göth's daughter, Monika
She was interviewed in a documentary about
her father in front of the balcony Gemmon and I saw




Oskar Schindler's factory...



On the way to find Amon Göth's house, Gemmon and I stopped by Oskar Schindler's factory.

I don't know where I thought Oskar Schindler's factory was but I know I didn't think it was just on the edge of Krakow. In fact, if you walk from the central market square, you walk through the old Jewish community  (Kasimierz) to get there. Nearby is one of the two remaining sections of the old ghetto walls that are still standing.(for more about the Krakow Ghetto...)

One of the two remaining sections
of the Krakow Ghetto wall
Their tombstone-shaped cement still looks oddly fresh more than sixty years later.

The permanent exhibit at The Schindler factory is called Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945 and it's devastating. It's a fairly confusing exhibit in that you feel like you are supposed to walk along in proscribed direction but it's never all that clear which way you are supposed to go and most of the ways to go are narrow, wind around small exhibits in a warren of tiny rooms, some with staircases between them. Twice, I followed a staircase to a complete dead end. It's made even more challenging by the fact that many of the museum exhibits aren't explained or set in context.

One example is this exhibit of marionettes... 

Puppets in the Schindler Museum

Whose were they? Why were they made? Who used them and where? Without that information which I could find nowhere -- either in the museum or online -- it's hard to know how to react to these puppets.

Another example is the very first exhibit I saw, a black and white film that played in a monitor set on a slant. It was a documentary about Jews made for who knows what purpose that may have meant to be supportive but the subtitles talked about how "they" "scurried to work", "liked playing in the park" and "of course, talked about work." It had no label that explained the source of the film, or even when it was made, so it compounded the horror of walking through room after room of evidence of group hatred by making me nervous that the museum was trying to stake out some separate, defensive position for the Poles -- either that they were just as victimized as their Jewish citizens or that they were, ultimately, heroic. Mercifully, this didn't turn out to be the case at all - the museum was an incredibly powerful and moving experience - so I can only think this museum is new enough that it hasn't the money or manpower to work out all the kinks quite yet. I write all this to say that, if you go, walk through to the end. I was so put off and confused by the beginning, I almost didn't.

I was especially happy to be there with Gemmon because I would have missed the full horror of the hall of proclamations that were issued by the Germans when they took over Poland in 1939. Before the Nazis got  their public address speakers installed all over Krakow, they issued orders to the populace through orders plastered on the walls in both Polish and German. The Schindler factory museum has created an exhibit you walk through with those orders from floor to ceiling on either side of you. Gemmon translated them for me..





"All Jews and Poles are required to bring their cars to be inspected and registered."

"No one who isn't Jewish can go in to a Jewish business and all businesses whose ownership was more than 50% Jewish must prominently identify themselves as a Jewish business."

"Everyone must turn in any guns or uniforms they have. Anyone found with either of these after (a certain date) will be shot."


It went on and on. And there was a horrific snapshot of a couple of jocular Nazis, smiling for the camera, as they took scissors to chop off a random man's beard and side curls.

By the end, Gemmon and I couldn't speak. We sat, for a bit, near some production stills from the Spielberg movie in the museum's "Movie Cafe". To be reminded of Hollywood felt a bit incongruous but, if it hadn't been for Stephen Spielberg, his movie and his money, there probably wouldn't have been a museum there at all. We then set off to find the house of Amon Göth. Gemmon has the address from a guide book and she led the way.