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Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat 2007: Day #2

Day Two: Birkenau

As always, we began our morning with the small group councils at 7 am. I am facilitating Group 2. There are only six of us right now, five women and myself, because the three other men assigned to our group did not arrive. So I’m doing my best not to get in the way of the wonderful feminine energy and wisdom in the group. The sharing this morning was deep, both painful and nourishing to the spirit.

We all arrived together at Birkenau around 10 am and followed our official guide from the back entrance to the “sauna,” the building where prisoners destined for the labor camps were registered, listening to her description of the camp and how things functioned, how the people were systematically murdered, tortured and worked and starved to death. At the “sauna” building, our retreat rabbi lead us in Kaddish, a Jewish memorial prayer/service that we do every day of the reatreat. We then had two hours to wander our way back to the front gate of Birkenau.

The camp is huge, covering some 700 acres. My friend and fellow Zen Peacemaker Genro and I walked way into the woods at the back of the complex to do a service at the tree where Roshi Jishu Holmes’ ashes were place years ago. Roshi Jishu co-founded the Bearing Witness retreat with her husband, Roshi Bernie Glassman. We then wandered through the woods and finally through the gas chambers, crematoria to the railroad tracks, following them back to the famous tower and gate at the entrance to Birkenau.

By the time we finished the Kaddish service at the sauna, the weather had turned to freezing rain. After our traditional lunch outside the gate of Birkenau, soup and a piece of bread, we entered one of the barracks for silent meditation and reading the names of those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The rain was falling too hard and people were already too wet to sit outside at the Selection Site as we normally do.

Back at the Dialog Center this evening we spent two hours in deep council after dinner, hearing the stories of those who lost family members here and sharing our hearts with each other.

Finally late into the night we listened to Dora, an amazing woman from Rwanda, who joined our retreat this year Bear Witness with us and to share her experience of the genocide in Rwanda. We are working with Dora and others to bring a bearing witness process of some kind to Rwanda. It’s very late now and I cannot begin to do any of this justice. I feel like my heart his beating right through my chest in agony and my eyes are way in the back of my skull in awe and overload. I am tired and grateful to be allowed to rest in not knowing.

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