Forty of us, from 11 different countries began the Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat this morning, leaving Krakow early by bus and arriving mid-morning at the Auschwitz I museum. We are a diverse group along many dimensions, including age, our youngest participant 17 and the oldest among us, 82. Our retreat begins with watching two documentary films at the Auschwitz I museum theatre, one documenting the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russian troops and the other the liberation of Bergen Belsen by British soldiers. This is my sixth time on the retreat and if anything these horrific films are harder to watch each year. After the films, we step out of the darkened theatre into the Auschwitz I camp and walk through the famous camp gate, its archway emblazoned with the slogan, Arbeit Macht Frei, “work makes you free.”
This Peacemaker Bearing Witness retreat is a “plunge” practice, designed to plunge us into not knowing, the first of the three Peacemaker Community tenets. The other two are bearing witness and loving action. Coming out of the theatre I found myself in fractured state that I had no words to attach to, unable to do anything but bear witness in deep silence. We spent the next several hours touring Auschwitz I, the former Polish military barracks the Nazi’s turned into a concentration camp and punishment barracks, where they first imprisoned members of the Polish intelligencia and resistance, and later Russian prisoners of war. Eventually, they began bringing the Jews and Gypsies there as well, and when the camp was overflowing, the Nazis began the immense project of building Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau, with prisoner labor. Birkenau is 25 times larger than Auschwitz I, stretching over 600+ acres. It was planned to be twice a big, but expansion was eventually cut short when the Germans started losing the war.
Auschwitz I was crowded as usual, with bus load after bus load of visitors, many of them school children begin guided through the camps many exhibits, often jostling other groups for space as they pass through the narrow passageways in the barracks. Most striking were the Israeli school children, many wrapped in Israeli flags. It’s better to visit Auschwitz I in the early morning or late afternoon, so one can actually connect with this place and the presence of its past.
We finished our day with a large gathering of the entire group, followed by the first meeting of our small council groups, our first chance to share deeply with the 8 or 9 people we will meet with in this way every morning. Having slept badly for two nights now, I find myself somewhat on automatic pilot as I write this. In the morning we head for Birkenau, which is for me where the retreat really begins, sitting in meditation at the “selection site,” outside on the railway tracks, where Dr. Mengele and other Nazi doctors would send people, mostly Jews disembarking from the trains after long journeys jammed into box cars, either to immediate extermination in the gas chambers or to death by starvation, cold and overwork in the labor camps. We will sit there in silence and then read the names of those who perished there, honoring their memory and bearing witness to this human tragedy, so representative of the genocidal aspect of our human culture that continues today. In between sittings and readings, we will wander about the camp along or in small groups, making our own way into the depths of this place, perhaps discovering yet another layer of the unhealed human shadow, personal and collective.