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