October 7, 2010

Auschwitz Day 1 & 2: I am a Nazi.

What does it mean to be One with everything?

For 15 years, Zen Master Bernie Glassman and the Zen Peacemakers have lead multi-faith, multi-national retreats at Auschwitz in order to bear witness to the darkest parts of humanity.  I attended my first retreat in June 2010.

What follows are a series of posts chiseled from my daily journals of the experience.

You may wish to read the prologue, first.


Day One

We settled into our rooms a bit and then had dinner.

I discussed work and our training with some others. Later, Bernie and other retreat leaders discouraged us from getting into chit chat about who we are and what we do.  Its not a silent retreat, but we do want to focus on speaking from the heart.  He urged us to just listen and bear witness to what comes up in ourselves and others.

We got into our council groups for the first time and introduced ourselves.  I was moved to tears by stories of a young German woman whose grandparents were Nazis.  She was crying herself with guilt. When I told my grandfather’s story, I didn’t feel any particular emotion in that moment.

I felt initial discouragement with my lack of emotion, but decided to just let that be where I was let that be fine.

[watch the video below to learn the history of the retreat and then read on for day two] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrxgPhWFquo&feature=player_embedded

Day Two

Actually got over six hours of sleep at night, which felt quite nice.

We walked over to Auschwitz I.  We started with a video.  Images were certainly horrific.  Sunk into a grave state of solemn watching.  We funneled out of the theater exit straight into a group of uniformed Israeli soldiers also on tour.  That was weird.  A young Israeli on the retreat told me that the Auschwitz tours are getting more common for soldiers—called “Witnesses in Uniforms”.  The theme is “never again” and to boost the drive to defend themselves against their current attackers.  He was highly critical of that whole mentality. He is organizing the Israeli contingent for the November retreat.

I appreciate reprocessing how the Holocaust was first presented to me. The whole ultra-nationalism thing is a reason I was turned off from religion and spirituality all together as a youth. I do have memories of presentations of the Holocaust from Hebrew School and my Jewish youth group as they pushed us to keep the faith alive and fight getting assimilated-the new threat of extinction.  But I always wanted to remember everyone.

We got a tour, learning all sorts of details.  Seeing mugshots of the faces of Holocaust victims teased out my first tears of the day.

I guess that is the marker I use—crying indicates depth of experience, but I can’t be too attached to crying either.  We went over to a wall where people were executed and leaders of different faiths did prayers, including the Buddhist Verse of Atonement and we placed lit candles. With the verse of atonement, I thought about the words I said that made the woman cry the other night and I thought about the Nazi in me atoning.

Or, as my teachers say, “at-one-ing.”

Doing the Shmah (Jewish prayer declaring that God is One) several times was touching—the Oneness theme resonates with the language we use in Buddhism.  We did the mourner’s prayer (the Kaddish) in Polish, German, English and Hebrew.  I handed my liturgy book to the German guy next to me for his version- a fellow Zen student.  I cried during both the shmah and the German kaddish. Felt healing.  What I’ve always wanted to hear.  I was touched deeply by this wish of donating our voices to the deceased and helping them along their path to peace.  Reminds me of the hungry ghosts theme, which is so vital to the Zen Peacemakers.

We shared stories of family.  I shared my grandfather Tvi’s story, again not feeling connected.  I only met him once.  Once somebody mentioned a survivor with tattoos on their arm, I remembered that I did know someone with tattoos—not my grandparents, but the parents of my father’s first wife.  I previously hadn’t remembered them because, mixed up in old distinctions, I had built a wall and considered them separate.  However, I actually spent time in their household growing up, hanging out with their grandson, Mick.  I remember how the grandmother always wanted me to eat!  

Ran into Bernie at the counter—I was getting water, him coffee and asked him how to find balance between types of conversations.  “Sensei Eve urged us to not just have chit chat about our lives and what we are doing.  Should we be more like sesshin (intensive Zen meditation retreat)?”  As the words left my mouth, I anticipated what he was going to answer—“there are different ways of doing it.”

“I knew you would say that!” I told him.

So far, I’m learning and getting some tears jerked—practicing not following thoughts too much, but trying to listen deeper and feel that oneness.  Just sent an e-mail to Mick, asking about his grandparents.  I also have some judgments and defensiveness towards the folks who are so into their Zen robes and rakasus and for whom our meditation schedule (which hasn’t even started yet) isn’t good enough.  I talked briefly to one young woman, who is sitting in the silent room for meals and she is trying to keep more of a the vibe of a sesshin.

Actually, I could see the appeal of that type of experience, as well.

There is still space in the next retreat in November: learn more.  You can also support me in my attempt to return to Auschwitz in November.

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