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


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?"


"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.


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.

29 October 2011

Gemmon in Krakow

Never plan to see a friend you haven't seen for almost two years for the first time at 10pm if you want to get any sleep.

When I got back from visiting Luke, Gemmon was in the hotel. We started talking that night and stopped long enough to get a few hours of sleep before setting off first thing in the morning in search of Amon Goth's house, the infamous concentration camp commandant of the Płaszów camp on the outskirts of Krakow.

I'd forgotten that Gemmon had decided to become a Buddhist, in part, because of the Holocaust. About 40 years old now, Gemmon and her generation grew up in Germany with their faces shoved squarely into their country's culpability for the atrocities committed by their elders during Hitler's reign of terror and it's hard to imagine anyone more fearless and obsessed with owning the full weight of that responsibility than Gemmon. She knew so much more about precisely what happened than I did. To this point, I've learned only what I had to about the Holocaust, what came towards me at school and in popular entertainment but Gemmon told me she first began reading the accounts of Germans who lived through the period because she wanted to know "how in any possible way they could have survived this without feeling failed as a human." Then she began to read as many of the survivors' written accounts as she could as well as the diaries of people who were killed in the camps. "I kept asking myself: could I?  Would I?  Finally, this was the reason I got into practice."

Gemmon hadn't changed much in the year and a half since I saw her last. She no longer has the shaved head of a Buddhist priest, although she remains one, she says, "for now." After things didn't work out at the Zen Center, Gemmon went back to work as a hospice nurse, this time in Zurich. I asked if she missed the zendo, missed Los Angeles. She teared up. "I sometimes miss the Pacific and I sometimes miss Roshi but never the Pine House." (where Roshi lived and the workplace personnel conversations took place.) And Gemmon added that she didn't think she'd have a teacher like Roshi or live in a community like that again but that didn't mean she was no longer a Buddhist priest. "For me, my robes are alive."  While Gemmon had clearly processed her feelings of loss - much of into gratitude - still, after almost two years, Gemmon's hurt seemed fresher than I expected.

I cannot continue to feel this way for two more years. Perhaps it was just that, in catching up, my more recent parallel tale of job woe stirred up her old feelings...or maybe it's that, while I only lost a job, Gemmon lost a job, a home, a teacher, a way of life, and a country.

We'd come to the Auschwitz retreat for slightly different reasons. I'd decided to come to leave behind my tiny ego bruises, to plunge fully and completely back into this effort, and to begin my approach to Judaism. Gemmon's reasons, the questions she was asking, were much more complex. "I don't think it's difficult to have compassion for the victims, but the perpetrators? Is it possible to have compassion for them? I've read their stories. I've heard them talk. They don't have nightmares. They compartmentalize what they did. They killed people - for them it was just another day at work -- then they went home to their children. How do you have compassion for that?"

Am I supposed to have compassion for that? What happens if I can't?

This is the really tough part of Buddhism, the dark side of "we are all connected, interrelated."

Gemmon said, "You are right that it is tough but I think it is actually even tougher to be attached to our hatred as we are suffering under it." She sent me a verse of the Dhammapada about this which is below.

 I guess that's what we are all here to face at Auschwitz and Birkenau. For a week.

The verses of the Dhammapada that Gemmon sent 
Never here by enmity
are those with enmity allayed,
they are allayed by amity,
this is the timeless Truth.

Hatred is, indeed, never appeased 
by hatred in this world. 
It is appeased only by loving-kindness. 
This is an ancient law.

For hate is never conquered by hate.
Hate is conquered by love.
This is an eternal law.

1:1 (1)
The mind is the basis for everything.
Everything is created by my mind, and is ruled by my mind.
When I speak or act with impure thoughts, suffering1 follows me
As the wheel of the cart follows the hoof of the ox.

1:2 (2)
The mind is the basis for everything.
Everything is created by my mind, and is ruled by my mind.
When I speak or act with a clear awareness, happiness stays with me.
Like my own shadow, it is unshakeable.

1:3 (3)
"I was wronged! I was hurt! I was defeated! I was robbed!"
If I cultivate such thought, I will not be free from hatred.

1:4 (4)
"I was wronged! I was hurt! I was defeated! I was robbed!"
If I turn away from such thoughts, I may find peace.

1:5 (5)
In this world, hatred has never been defeated by hatred.
Only love2 can overcome hatred.
This is an ancient and eternal law.

1:6 (6)
Everything will end.
When I understand this, all quarrels fade away.

1:7 (7)
As the wind topples a brittle tree
So will temptation3 topple me
If I am lazy, unrestrained, apathetic, seeking only endless pleasure.

1:8 (8)
The wind cannot uproot a mountain.
Temptation cannot uproot me
If I am alert, self-controlled, devout, unmoved by pleasure and pain.

1:9 (9)
The saffron robe4 is perfectly clean
But I am not ready to wear it
When I have not cleansed my spirit,
When I disregard truth and neglect to practice self-control.

1:10 (10)
When I have removed all defilements,
When I am filled with self-control and truthfulness,
Then I am truly worthy to wear the saffron robe.

1:11 (11)
When I see the truth as false,
When I believe illusion to be reality,
I am unable to find the truth.

1:12 (12)
I must see the essential reality as real,
And discard illusion.
Only then can I find the truth.

1:13 (13)
As heavy rain will penetrate a poorly-thatched roof,
So passion creeps into an unreflecting mind.

1:14 (14)
The rain will not penetrate a well-thatched roof.
Passion does not enter a tranquil and reflecting mind.

1:15 (15)
I grieve now, and I grieve in the future.
When I do wrong, I am doubly-grieved.
I mourn and suffer when I see the results of my actions.

1:16 (16)
I rejoice now, and I rejoice in the future.
When I am virtuous, I doubly-rejoice.
I smile and give thanks when I see the results of my actions.

1:17 (17)
I suffer now, and I suffer in the future.
When I do wrong, I suffer doubly.
It pains me to know that I have done wrong,
And it pains me even more to see the consequences.

1:18 (18)
I am happy now, and I am happy in the future.
When I am virtuous, I am doubly happy.
I am delighted to know I the good I have done,
And I am even more delighted to see the consequences.

1:19 (19)
Even if I can recite large portions of sacred texts,
If I do not put those into practice
Then I am like a shepherd counting someone else's sheep,
No closer to enlightenment5.

1:20 (20)
If I know just a little of the sacred texts,
But I put those teachings into practice,
Casting off desire, ill-will, and delusion,
Practicing wakefulness and meditation,
Free of attachments to anything, here or in the future,
Then I may become enlightened.

The Visit

I could write about the beautiful town, another castle, a city park in autumn, but that's not the sight I came to see. I hopped on a the cheapest-of-the-cheap airlines to spend a few hours with Luke. Yes, I walked around, ate a few meals with him, met some roommates but, the highlight? The highlight is pathetic to admit, really. We meant to watch something on my Ipad but ended up napping. My hand was under Luke's cheek and I got to brush the hair from his forehead while he slept. That was my highlight. It made me completely and unreasonably happy.

All that cuddling and affection we're supposed to give freely to our children one day runs into the brick wall of adulthood -- and there's so little warning that it's about to happen. Suddenly I find myself required to  summon, out of this same mind and body that was squarely in the momentum of years of physical parental care, the ability to take my hands off, to step back, and to even give the loving nudge out of the nest a healthy parent must do. Wow, this is hard.

What's amazing is how many people do it okay, not that some people can't handle it.

How hard, arrogant, caustic, judgmental I was towards my parents when I was Luke's age. How pure and complete justice is. Luke and Matt have no idea how much kinder and gentler they already have been to me, at 18 and 20, than I was to my parents, how much wiser already. I watch them and I learn.

28 October 2011


Krakow - main square

So this big idea of mine's not going so well. This trip is supposed to be the end of wallowing in the hurt of losing my job and the reclamation and re-dedication to this project. I've been trying so hard to get back to this full-time, I should be thrilled, right?

To allow for jet lag, I arrived a few days before the Auschwitz retreat actually began. Maybe that wasn't a perfect plan. A little too much time alone to think...

Wawel Castle

Krak's Mound
Pedestrian bridge with lovers' locks
I walked all over Krakow this morning - through the market square just as the sun came up, to Wawel castle and down through the kitschy dragon's den, through the reviving Jewish quarter (Kazimeirz), all the way to the prehistoric Krak's Mound, then back across a pedestrian bridge covered with padlocks with lovers' initials carved or written into them that wasn't on my map, and finally back to St Mary's Church.While I walked and looked, I was fine. But, stop for a hot chocolate, and I'm a mess again. Still. I can't get myself back. The hurt won't burn itself out. Dented ego or work head that doesn't want to get it: it's over.


Move on.

Funny. The job was different than anything I'd done before, different than anything I thought I'd ever do, but I'd just decided to stop questioning my decision to be there. I could see the good it was doing in a place that had the money to have an impact and I was working with people I adored. So, just three weeks before the end, I bought two new suits.

I hate those suits.

I can tell you I am not wearing either of those suits right now.

I know, I know: it's a good thing the job ended or I wouldn't be walking around Krakow, I wouldn't be back working on this project, I wouldn't be able to get some cattle car cheap ticket to go visit Luke while he's on his semester abroad. But the hole I'm in is deeper and scarier than even the job loss. I'm having trouble getting back in to this project.

It took me so long to get comfortable with what I'm doing, to get over the embarrassment I sometimes feel when I tell people who have known me for a long time what I'm doing. A number of them have been supportive, some even enthusiastic. But I've also lost a few friends who think I'm nuts.

Before getting on the plane, I tried to sit down to catch up on some of the old notes that I haven't posted yet but I got nowhere. Instead, when I had any energy at all, I obsessed about a friend who hasn't seen me since I told her about this project several years ago. When I told her about The Heathen, she smiled. She tried to look interested. She was not a convincing actress. I haven't seen her since. I hadn't really thought much about it but, every time I sat down to work, I couldn't think about anything else. It feels like part of a wall of shame between me and returning to the work that really means something to me.

I feel empty.

Empty. Empty. Empty.

And I don't think it's the kind of empty Zen Buddhism wants you to feel.

I am suffering because I am attached to what other people think about me and to what I think about myself. And that sucks.

Outside St Mary's Church - point taken

27 October 2011

Beginning with the Holocaust?

Krakow - main square 

When I landed in Krakow, I started to think about my relationship to Judaism. Let's just say I think it was a good thing I decided to begin The Heathen with religions I knew absolutely nothing about:  Hinduism and Buddhism. The next three - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - are going to be a challenge because of what I think I know, what I don't know, and what any readers of The Heathen know and feel about these religions.

Why am I going through the training for these faiths in this order? To begin with, because of basic chronology. Judaism came first, then Christianity, then Islam. But the relationship between the "religions of Abraham" is deeper than that, of course: Christianity was built on the foundation of Judaism, and Islam was built on the foundation of both Judaism and Christianity. Makes sense to start at the beginning, right?

Okay, so it's important to bring out any baggage I've got before I begin. I've always thought that Judaism and Islam would be the toughest for me, the ones that would require a bit of airing out of old ideas so I can start with as open a mind and heart as possible: Islam because of 9/11, Judaism because of family.

My father, who is now a devout atheist and, in fact, against religion of any sort, was raised in a Jewish home. Sort of. He was a bar mitzvah at thirteen but more because of his grandparents than his parents. His wise-cracking, playful father and more sharp-edged mother cared about cards, family brunches and traveling. My grandfather died playing pinochle with friends. I don't remember my grandfather or grandmother in any religious event or ceremony. The most religious person in my father's life was his grandmother, Bertha. "She used to bribe me to go to synagogue with her," my Dad said. "If I went with her, she'd take me to the movies after, the ones with the show and cartoons before. So sometimes I'd go. She was a lot of fun."

I think if my father had married someone more observant, he might have gone along with it but he didn't. My mother has no use for groups of any kind or anything she considers weak and the need for belief of any kind,  she feels, involves both. Her father felt the same, a bah-humbug man, for sure. He was born in the United States in 1896, shortly after his family came here from Poland and grew up in Irish-Catholic South Boston, the son of a Jewish doctor. That couldn't have been easy. Her mother, Opal, was my only grandparent with any vestige of religious feelings left over from her Methodist up-bringing in far northern Maine, but it was a pretty pale remnant: she cared a lot about having the palm leaves in the shape of a cross in her home on Palm Sunday.

Together, my parents feel quite clear that things like 9/11 and the Holocaust -- and virtually every war going back to the beginning of time -- have been caused by religion. Far from being a positive force in the world, they really believe it is the root cause of dissension and hate. It's not hard to see why they think that.

As for me? I have felt completely frozen by this concept. Just because someone claims to act in the name of a faith, is the act caused by that faith? If I rob a store and claim that I'm doing it in the name of Mickey Mouse, is Disney to blame? But, given how little I know about any religious tradition at all, I've been pretty much stuck having to listen to pundits -- never a good place to be.

This explains part of the provocation for The Heathen but I need to get back to laying out my personal baggage as I begin to learn about Judaism. When it's family baggage, there's always more, right?

My father's sister married a guy who was in the Army with my father in the Korean war. My aunt and uncle became fairly observant of certain Jewish traditions, especially Passover. We were invited every year and, in spite of my mothers deep-seated discomfort with my father's family and with any religious traditions at all,  we went. We went and my mother made quiet quips about the proceedings to whichever one of us was next to her and spent the car ride home picking at the moments she felt were full of it. It didn't help that my uncle loved being the center of attention in a kind of creepy way and that we had other reasons to be deeply uncomfortable with him. So the only practice of Judaism I really ever witnessed was all tangled up in uncomfortable family dynamics.

Anyway, for better or worse, the little personal contact I had with any religion as a child were these Passover seders and the Christmas plays at my Episcopalian school. Which brings me to the final piece of baggage to trot out: shame.

I cannot mince words: I went to school in a deeply antisemitic, bigoted community. I know this because girls in my class would tell me what they thought of Jews in general and the Jewish girls in our class in specific. In middle school my friends all went to dance class, ballroom dance class with mandatory white gloves, at a club that did not admit Jews or blacks. Catholics were just getting the privilege of admission.  I was told that Jews ate funny food, didn't get to have fun at Christmas, and were cheap. "Drop a penny and see if she picks it up!"

Yes, girls in my school did this to classmates of theirs.

In my neighborhood, we played games nonstop including tackle football and our made-up game of Spy. Dory Strittmatter always loved playing the villains. His villain of choice: the Nazis. One day, when I was about eleven, my brothers and I were playing football with the rest of the guys on the cul de sac. My brother, Robbie, somehow mentioned that we were Jewish. On the way home I took him aside and hissed at him: "Never tell people we are Jewish because we aren't!"

When I got older and it became clear that I was, according to my school classmates, part Jewish, they thought they were paying me a compliment by telling me that "you don't look Jewish."

One of the few remaining
synagogues in Krakow
But, even if both my parents were Jewish, if they taught me nothing about it, why would someone consider me Jewish? Isn't faith something you practice? Something you believe? It makes sense that you tend to believe and practice the faith of your parents but it's not an inherited trait like eye color, right?

I used to joke that I wasn't Jewish enough for Jews but I would have been for Hitler.

So now you have all the baggage I come with as I begin Judaism.

Still, to start my Judaism studies with a visit to the epicenter of the hatred of the Jewish people (and Catholics, and gypsies, and homosexuals etc etc etc) feels a bit off. That hatred emanated from ideas that, really, had nothing to do with the teachings of Judaism. But, if the purpose of this project is to understand, in some kind of visceral way, whether hatred between people of faith has, in reality, anything to do with those faiths and what kind of response these religious atrocities demand of us, then perhaps Auschwitz is really the dark heart of the matter. And I don't think it's possible to learn about the practice of Judaism, as a child of the 20th century, without standing squarely in some earned knowledge of the Holocaust.

I'm not at all sure I'm equipped to handle this.

Memorial to the victims of the Krakow Ghetto
Plac Bohaterow Getta  

26 October 2011

On the plane...to Auschwitz

Why am I doing this? So many reasons. The initial provocation may seem odd. In early August, after about three days of full-blown grieving the unexpected loss of my job, of going from 200-miles-per-hour excessive -- truly excessive -- work to a cold, brutal full stop, I was tired of standing in my back yard and crying. But there seemed to be no end in sight. None. So I decided to go to Auschwitz.

As I write this, even I can see how crazy this sounds. Depressed? Lost your job? Helping your aging and frightened parents unhappily downsize? Facing a soon-to-be-empty nest? What better cure than signing up for a week as close to you can get to catastrophic evil!

That exclamation point should be puffy with a circular dot underneath. That would be, in part, honest.

Bernie Glassman
from the Zenpeacemakers site
But there is more. As bereft as I felt about the loss of the job at the same time I was helping both Matt and Luke get ready to leave for college, I also knew it meant I could come back to this project, at least for a while, full time. If I could get myself up off the couch. If I could stop compulsively staring at the Facebook posts of my former friend and supervisor.

But in the same Facebook news feed was this: a post by Roshi Wendy Egyoku's teacher Bernie Glassman, someone whose books I've read and have long wanted to meet, with a link to the registration form for the up-coming "Bearing Witness Retreat in Auschwitz."  A Zen retreat led for the last 16 years by a Roshi named Bernie Glassman in a place deeply associated with Judaism - the religion I intend to learn something about next. I filled out the form and sent in the deposit. At least I had taken some action to get back to this work and out of my self-pity festival. It was two months away. I had two sons and two parents to pack up so I got to the to-do lists. Nothing like the salve of to-do lists.

The two months flew by in a blur of packing and unpacking boxes...and more tears.

Yesterday, when I called to say good-bye to Matt, he said he was worried about me and this trip. "They're not going to shave your head or anything, are they?"

"It's not a re-enactment, Matt."

"Okay, but it sounds kinda strange, you staying at the concentration camp."

"I know. It will be, but I don't think our dormitory is right on the grounds but just outside."  Then, to put it terms he could understand, "Like the Trianon Hotel is just outside the gates of Versailles." My royalist child.

"Oh, okay. Will you call or skype when you get back to let me know you are okay?'

Now that I'm sitting on the plane on the way to Krakow from Frankfurt, Germany, I am a bit nervous, too. Coming in through Germany - an accident of the quest for cheaper fares - only added to strangeness. I've just had my passport stamped by a blond, blue-eyed German official whose grandparents lived under Hitler's regime.

Not long after I made the plans, I realized I was going to have a ridiculous sixteen hour layover on the way back, so I'd sent an email to Gemmon in Zurich (for those who haven't read anything else*, Gemmon is the German Zen priest who Roshi "fired", a woman who made me laugh a lot) to see if she was going to be home in Germany when I was passing back through from Poland or if she might be able to me me there.  She said she couldn't but why, she wanted to know, was I going to be in Poland?

I told her.


Gemmon was going, too.

~ ~ ~

* NOTE: the better part of my time learning Zen is not posted yet but will be before long so you will not be able to find the posts that tell this story right now...