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Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat 2007: Day #3

As we boarded the bus this morning at the Dialog Center for the short ride to Birkenau, it looked like we were in for more of the same, sub-freezing temperatures and freezing rain. As the bus made the final turn and the eerie and in some ways bizarrely beautiful landscape of Birkenau came into view, I felt the familiar heaviness descend on my spirit, a kind of sobering seriousness that says, Pay Attention , or as the line in our Zen Peacemakers Gate of Sweet Nectar liturgy says, “Attention … Attention!” As we gathered the meditation cushions and entered the gate of Birkenau, beneath the famous tower one sees in all the pictures, the sky began to clear a bit and we were blessed with several rain free hours, allowing us to do our meditation and read the names of those who perished here at the Selection Site, the train platform between the two sets of rail road tracks, where the Nazi doctors sent people to their immediate death in the gas chambers or to a slow death by starvation and overwork in the forced labor camps.

We formed our meditation circle around an altar, the center piece of which is a beautiful wooden box where we place our sheets of names after reading them, bowing in respect before returning to our seat. We sat in silent meditation or prayer for the first 30 minutes. It was bitter cold with a strong wind, but at least it was not raining. Flocks of big, black crows flew about adding to the eerie and strange beauty of this place of unspeakable horrors. It is not just the killings, rapes, experiments and tortures that happen here, horrific enough, but also the daily relinquishing of humanity that it took to survive in the camps that created the dreaded legacy of this place.

After a short break to stretch our legs and warm our bones, we sat down again and the designated readers for this session, positioned in the four directions each in turn read their names, four participants reading at once, one standing in each of the cardinal directions – the tower gate to the south, Crematoria I & II to the north and to the east and west, the vast landscape of barracks, most in ruins, with their brick chimneys standing like rows of sculptures against a grey sky and framed by the barbed wire of the once electrified fences. As we sat down, our brother Andrzej Krajewki, leader of the Polish Peacemaker Community and principle host for the retreat, arrived assisting our dear friends Marian and Halina Kolodziej to their seats. Marian is survivor of Auschwitz and a national treasure in Poland for his amazing art, the most graphic, visionary representations of the Holocaust imaginable. His wife, Halina, is a renowned Polish actress. Both frail and in their 80’s they sat there with us in the bitter cold and wind. Halina rose to read here names, and bowed deeply at the altar after placing her names in the box there. The rest of us sat in silence, bearing witness, each in our own way, to these human beings who were murdered here, to the energy of this place, to the barbed wire, ruins and black crows, to whatever arose in our hearts and minds … sorrow, agony, communion, fear, peace … no emotion is out of range here. As the last readers finished honoring the people whose names were all we knew of them, one young woman with a painful family history here at Auschwitz began sobbing, and just cried and cried as others gently held her and her sorrow.

I called out the names of our clergy, asking those who wished to attend the Christian service to follow Fr. Manfred, our old friend, a German Catholic priest, who lives here in Oswiecim, ministering to those who visit Auschwitz. He has labored her for more than 10 years, living and witnessing to the truth of his country’s terrible burden as the builders and executioners of these camps. I asked those who wished to attend Jewish services to follow Rabbi Phyllis Berman, here at Auschwitz for the first time, and those wishing to attend Buddhist services to follow Sensei Genro Gauntt, who is here for the 12th time.

I followed my fellow Zen Peacemaker, Sensei Genro and small group to the back of Crematoria I, at the steps descending into the dressing room, where the unsuspecting victims left there clothes and all their belonging, thinking they were about to shower, only to find themselves trapped in a gas chamber and gasping for air in the final moments of life. Genro led us in the Gate of Sweet Nectar, our Zen Peacmaker Liturgy, adapted from the Kanromon, in which we make offering to all the hungry spirits, seen and unseen, including ourselves.

We were able to complete our afternoon sessions at the Selection Site as well, though now in a freezing rain, just light enough to not send us to the barracks for cover. We finished our day with a Kaddish service their at the Selection Site.

This evening the group visited Marian’s art exhibit at a Franciscan Monastery near Birkenau, one of the most impactful parts of the retreat, a descent into the psychological hell that was Auschwitz. Having seen the exhibit many times and not feeling so well this evening I stayed behind to rest and work on our program for the next several days. Just a little while ago, they returned with many variation of awe and wonder in their eyes, softly talking about the amazing world they had just entered with Marian, who after guiding them through his extensive art installation at the Monastery, talked with them for several hours about his first hand experiences, as an Aushwitz survivor, who was one of the first prisoners sent to Auschwitz and one of the few to survive.

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