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Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat 2007: Reflections

I’m sitting on a plane, flying from Munich to Washington, D.C. on my way home to Colorado. Though exhausted from little sleep and a week long plunge into the hell realms of human violence and degradation at Aushcwitz-Birkeanu, I also feel a little of that peace and strength that sometimes follows surviving a difficult ordeal. I’m happy to be heading home and sad to be leaving Poland, this country I’ve grown to love more with each visit. I’m also full of questions and disbelief. How could they do it? I just don’t get it. I’m sure part of me doesn’t want to get it. I just can’t imagine that the perpetrators of these horrors and atrocities didn’t somehow wake up in the midst of this insanity and experience the horror and revulsion that I imagine to be the only natural, the only possible response to the specter of starving prisoners, burning bodies, smokestacks sending plumes of fire and smoke from the burning flesh of human beings into the sky. I have studied the literature, I understand the psychological theories, and I still just can’t get my mind around this, much less any other part of my being. How could they do this? How dare they do this? I believe that for this to have been possible, the capacity for such indifference to evil must be in all of us, must be in me; but I can’t imagine it.

I can understand to a degree the atrocities committed by mobs gone mad, by soldiers on a rampage; but this was carefully planned out, systematically and calmly carried out mass extermination of human beings. I know that the Nazis somehow convinced themselves and their soldiers that these people, the Jews. Gypsies, homosexuals and other unacceptable people in the new social order, were some kind of subhuman pests, vermin to be exterminated; but how does this happen? How do you look at another human being, who looks just like you in so many ways, who has the same basic needs, and not see their humanity? I know this happens constantly, I experienced it directly during my long years in prison, where as an inmate I was regarded as a substandard human, and expendable human, a thug by many of the guards; and yet I still just don’t get it. Maybe I am just naïve. That would be a surprise to me. Naïve is not how I see myself given the tough places I’ve been in life, but maybe I am and maybe that’s a blessing or maybe it’s a curse. I don’t want to be naïve, maybe innocent in a genuinely adult way, but not naïve. I need to be able to see and stand up to truth not matter how painful, horrific or overwhelming.

From the first time I became aware of this Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau, from the first time I saw the film, Raising the Ashes, documenting the first retreat in 1996, and from the first retreat I attended in 2001, I always knew it was the perpetrator energy that I had to deal with. I know in my gut there is no “them.” I know this is in me, in our culture, and that I have to own it. And maybe I am farther from owning it than ever. My heart and mind scream out in agony … No oooooooo!

I thought I knew something about this retreat. I pass myself off as one of the retreats leaders, holding space for others to plunge into this darkness, into not knowing, and into the deep shadow of evil. I don’t know anything. I have no answers.

Just the weekend before coming to Auschwitz for the sixth time, I led The Event with my friend & brother, Purna Steinitz, the founder of The Event–an extremely intense training, where we take people deep into their shadow, deep into the toxic inheritance we have all received to one degree or another, struggling together to shift something, to undo our victimization, undo our shame, and find a way to stand tall and vulnerable, owning our inheritance and its impact on us and others and clear enough to break the chain and not pass it on to anyone else, especially our children.

I have done The Event and the Auschwitz retreat back to back for a number of years now; and it’s teaching me something. I haven’t lost faith in humanity, my own or anyone elses, not even the Nazis, not even the father, uncle, brother, or grandfather who rapes the young girls we meet as adults in The Event, their spirits shattered from the age of 5 or 8 or 12. In prison all those years, I was sure time and time again that I had found someone, a guard, a prisoner, who lacked humanity, who lacked basic goodness, who did not possess Buddha nature; and time and time again they would find a way to reveal their humanity to me, their hearts, their vulnerability, their goodness. In the Raising the Ashes film, the naturalist, author and Zen master, Peter Mathiesson, raises his voice dramatically, calling us not to forget that man is an animal, that man is a terrible animal, as well as a beautiful animal.

I’ve always cringed a bit hearing this, each time I watch this powerful film, feeling the implication that this evil is inherent in human nature. This is not my experience.

My gut tells me that human beings are basically good, and that absent the effects of neglect, abuse, and shaming, our natural goodness will always shine forth. I do agree with Matthieson that there is something “terrible” in us, but I believe it to be more like a virus, a terrible and evil virus, that circulates in human culture, just like the flu or other viruses. It is passed on through neglect, abuse, shame and violence, especially against children, at that time when we are most vulnerable. When we did The Event in prison, inevitably 80 to 90% of the prisoners would in the protected space of The Event, held by their brothers, reveal, often for the first time, that they were victims of severe child abuse – emotional, physical and sexual abuse, often beyond the imagination. One no longer wondered how these men ended up in prison, or how they had come to do the harm they had done to others in many cases.

Even though, I am all but lost in not knowing when it comes to understanding how the Nazis, how these otherwise ordinary men and women, could have planned, built, lived in and maintained this highly organized human extermination factory, where they systematically murdered millions of human beings and just as systematically harvested everything of value, from clothing and personal effects to gold from their teeth and human hair to be used for textile production; even though I cannot or will not bring myself to understand how they got there, I know it is part of this same cycle of abuse and shame, that it is this same virus, that plagues us with child abuse, violence, war and genocide. And I know it can be stopped, it can be wiped out, or at the very least contained, just like we have been able to largely contain small pox and other viruses that killed millions in the past. I have witnessed the breaking of the chain time and time again in The Event. Just like the successful AIDS drugs keep the virus from replicating itself, the work we do in The Event training prevents this terrible human virus of shame from replicating. I believe the Bearing Witness work we are doing at Auschwitz and other places also has this potential.

While the fight against AIDS and other biological viruses is critical, the fight again the virus of shaming, the virus that creates what we call evil in human society, may be even more critical. How do our national and world leaders make decisions to send thousands, millions to their death in war, to displace millions as refugees, to ignore the cry of the poor and disenfranchised? We ask ourselves this again and again in disbelief, and yet the answer is simple. These men and women, mostly men, have been systematically hardened, they had been trained and shamed into not feeling, they have been trained to fear vulnerability as a weakness, they have been trained to be tough, to make the “tough” call, and most importantly to never cry. They have also been trained to believe in enemies. They are the victims of child abuse. We are all victims of child abuse to one degree or another. We have all been raised in a shame based, punishment-reward paradigm based on the insane notion that we can shame each other into social goodness.

There is actually a theory of constructive shaming, a theory that says there is a good kind of shaming that reinforces pro-social attitudes; and that absent that, we would all be uncivilized beasts. This is nonsense. Shaming of any kind is toxic and destructive.

Fortunately, just as with the biological viruses we have struggled successfully against, there is a powerful inoculation against this terrible virus of shaming. The inoculation is Love. Children who receive sufficient unconditional love and who are not directly abused can ward off the culture of shaming, the punishment-reward system that even benevolent parents and educators ignorantly foist on us as children. And people can be healed with love as well. However, just as with the successful Truth and Reconciliation process undertaken in South Africa, before healing must come truth telling–bearing witness.

Both at Auschwitz and in The Event, we unflinchingly bear witness to the impact of evil on individual human lives, not just collections of people but individuals. In The Event we journey with one person at a time into the very roots of their trauma and shame, holding them there with fearless compassion as they find a way to de-victimize themselves and rediscover and trust in their inherent goodness and the goodness of others and life. At Auschwitz we do not just bear witness to the extermination of millions of innocents, we actually read the names of those who died there and bear witness to the truth of each murder, each loss of our individual and collective humanity.

In both cases, we refuse to turn away. Bearing Witness is the practice of not turning away.

So I have what my gut is telling me. I have a theory of sorts emerging from my ongoing experience in this work, the Bearing Witness Retreat, The Event, the street retreats, prison work …; but essentially I have no answers. I just trust that the answer lies in facing this evil, not in turning away. So as peacemakers, we will return to Auschwitz, where we hope to establish an ongoing center or institute for bearing witness and reconciliation work; and in the coming year we will go to Rwanda, because we must.

And hopefully we will find a way to bring this practice of bearing witness to my own country and culture – bearing witness to the holocaust we perpetrated against the native peoples in the Americas, bearing witness to our legacy of slavery and the truth and reconciliation work that has not even begun for African Americans who live with the horrendous impact of this trauma and unimaginably deep shaming; bearing witness to the havoc, trauma and shaming wreaked up upon the world and our own people by the self-perpetuating war machine known as the military-industrial complex; bearing witness to the racist and profoundly shaming and destructive prison-industrial complex that not only sends one out of three African American men to jail or prison, but destroys families and communities, while stealing the resources we must dedicate to children’s health and safety, to education, and to all the support services and resources that might actually detour a young person from a path to prison in the first place.

When I reflect on how we are so systematically structured and organized to perpetuate this culture of shame and virus of shame and evil, I flirt with hopeless; but my personal experience of rising above this myself and seeing others break the chain as well does not permit hopelessness. Hopelessness is a cop-out, and understandable feeling and part of the journey, but a copout if we dwell there. We can and must do better. We must not turn away, we dare not turn away.

My friend Laura Carboni, who works for the Zen Peacemakers in Montague, MA sent this to me during the retreat:

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To

never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity

of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue

beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or

complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above

all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And

never, never, to forget.

-Suzanna Arundhati Roy, Indian novelist, writer and activist.

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