Letters from Auschwitz

Dear Friends,

What follows are two letters based on my participating in a five day outdoor retreat at the death camp known as Auschwitz. I have included some photographs taken during the retreat and, most importantly, I have done my best to talk openly and from the heart. Here we go:

November 4, 2012: Just before

Dear Sangha and Friends

some of you know, beginning tomorrow I am participating in a Zen Peacemaker retreat at Auschwitz, led by Bernie Glassman and Eve Marko. I have been in Poland most of the last week, visiting some dharma brother friends, and having some incredible experiences. I wrote a note to our Zen sangha earlier today and I suppose I feel like posting it here for you to read as well. Maybe there is something in this. I hope so.

Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath on Friday night) with Tanya Segal, a woman rabbi here in Poland, was amazing. She is the first woman rabbi in Polish history. She also has long flaming red polish/russian jewish curly hair, and her guitar and young congregation singing the service so wholeheartedly and with such joy filled my heart with a profound gratitude and serenity. The rabbi seems to be a somewhat introverted person – it’s in the way she stands and holds her body, and sometimes seems to disappear into an internal spaciousness with which she is familiar before speaking – but she was willing to come to Krakow to establish a small Jewish community in a place where many Jews still are reluctant to say “I am a Jew.” So courageous of her.

 

The service was held in a museum of Jewish history, which they use as a shul  (synagogue), so we sang and chanted in a room with photos of the Holocaust and Auschwitz around us, and I thought, “Yes, this is how it is and has been, a small band surrounded by images of some of its history, still dedicated to its practices, and thereby to the survival of the people and their Way.” This time the small band is led by a wonderful woman who has not let history or her natural introversion keep her from sitting up straight, being what she is, giving voice to the songs and prayers that have sustained her people and herself, and then offering such wise midrash, the teachings and interpretations of Torah.

The basis for the teachings is the weekly parsha (portion) of the Torah. On this night the parsha was about how every time god asked Abraham (the progenitor of the Jewish people). “Avram, where are you?” Avram would answer, “Here I am.” Or, “I am here.”

The rabbi pointed out that Avram did not refuse to answer, as if to say, “I am not here”, or make an excuse, or blame something or someone for his absence, or say, can you come back later when it’s convenient, but he stood up where he was and as he was and said, I am here. Here I am.

And because he did, he never missed a chance to be in touch with the divine presence that called him. As a result, he did not miss any opportunity to participate in life – with the divine, with Oneness, however you want to say it, supporting him every moment in the never ending dance of the relative and absolute working together. The rabbi told us “to live means to do your part, not to hold back, to participate.”

And so again I thought, “Here is the Sandokai that we chant every day in our Zen practice, with the relative and absolute, as the chant goes, meeting in mid air.” When I thought this, some of Chagall’s paintings came to mind, where the recognizably earthly figures from shtetl life float above the earth, sometimes with their violins in their hands, sometimes with their Beloved in their arms, meeting, and meeting meeting, because they too know the importance of saying “Here I am. I am here.” And, “I am Here.”

How perfect this parsha is for those of us going to Auschwitz tomorrow to bear witness, where it will do no good to back away, to hide, or to seek a personal haven of denial. Only I am Here will help us to withstand the rigour of this journey and go all the way through. So I felt deeply grateful to this rabbi who chose the celebration of shabbat (which, in the tradition, is the time the feminine face of the divine returns to the world to share her light and the peace of the sabbath) to remind us of where we are, and through where we are, Who we are as well.

It seems a good note to end on since early tomorrow we enter Auschwitz-Birkenau. I have avoided reading any of the information sent by the retreat so I would know nothing ahead of time. Maybe foolish, but I’m willing to be so.

And besides, the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order that sponsors this retreat, are:

not knowing

bearing witness

loving action.

Sounds nice – but not so easy to do. Already I see some of the fear constellating in different forms or behaviours of people. And I have been told to be careful by my Polish dharma brothers, one of whom told me that each time he has gone to Auschwitz, he was unwell for the entirety of the following year, and by the other who accompanied the Dalai Lama to Auschwitz and told me that the Dalai Lama just cried the whole time. Of course he did.

I may not have it right, but it seems that we will walk in the mornings, maybe 2 miles, from where we are staying near the camp called Auschwitz 1 to Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau – where more than one million one hundred thousand people were murdered) and then sit down in a circle and meditate on the train tracks that brought the prisoners inside the gate that mocked them with the words Arbeit Macht Frei (Labour sets you free.)

I believe that we will do this every day, along with saying Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for those who have died), sitting in council, performing rituals of various kinds, eating our soup and bread for lunch outside Birkenau Gate, etc. We will spend every day during daylight hours and no matter the weather conditions walking the horror ground in all of its particulars, bearing witness as we do, discovering what not knowing and loving action might come to mean, and, we will do many ceremonies of various kinds in the name of honouring life in its boundless manifestations. I have no doubt there will be surprises of every nature and kind over the next five days we are there.

One thing, because I remembered it just now, and then I’ll end. A young woman introduced herself the first night as being “from Germany, a noble family.” [There was an implication in the phrase, I was told by a native speaker, regarding the family's history during the war.] She is a lovely, open person, very warm, and referred to being happy to be able to attend, but she also said that, because she is somewhat disabled, she will ‘have to move physically slowly because it’s the only way I can move.”  So we will walk with her.

She ended her introduction by saying that during the retreat she was going to receive jukai (the Buddhist Bodhisattva Precepts) in Auschwitz. I took the opportunity to talk briefly with her afterwards and expressed how incredible I thought it was for her to be receiving the precepts there and how happy I was that she would receive them. She said, “I have no idea what it will be, but I want to do it so much.” I was deeply touched by her sincerity, and by her taking this important step exactly where and as she will. It is another kind of walking she will lead us in, and, after all, history turns when we turn it. As the old Zen saying goes: Wowser!

So much is here for us when we say, “I am here.”

with love for you all

Peter

November 14: A letter upon my return from Auschwitz

dear sangha and friends

thanks so much for all the love and care. it did and does get through, believe me. I’m pretty tired and I find, now home, I’m a bit of an echo chamber, not so much of the visual, though that comes in sharply as it wants to, as of the effect of our entire experience. So there is nonstop singing of a few healing songs in my head all through the day and night, no doubt because I need to hear them and, as well, because the actual moments when we sang them were so poignant and often overpowering since we sang them to those who perished at Auschwitz.

And there is the constant sound of german, polish, french, israeli, palestinian and english accented voices as a tape looping itself through my day; plus, the noticing vis a vis bearing witness continues as well, except now it is just during my daily living where it needs to be – and, yes, there is a difference in how things sound and appear.

I am  pretty tired, very, jet lagged and still not well since I remained feverish and  ill the whole time I was there. the cold and rain didn’t stop us from practicing, but they didn’t help, either, except in a way I can’t quite explain.

so the place and the people I was with at Auschwitz now populate this curiously empty room I find myself being, which only gains in size and volume as it fills, pushing off the usual senses of space and time and allowing the boundlessness of no-space, no-time to fill with so much human livingdying, insanity, cruelty, depravity, suffering, generosity, gentleness and love all mixed together in a way that is so visceral it is difficult from moment to moment to tell the voices and lives I now carry of those who perished from those with whom this journey was completed only days ago. in this way, the retreat is not completed, will never be completed, but continues taking place, and may always do so in its way, though no doubt with decreasing apparent presence. still, there is a vastness where it carries on and I hope it does so in future days as well.

but there is no way, really, to say it, at least for me. A writer, I did not write a single word while I was there. No need for notes, I suppose. No desire to objectify the experience in language rather than live it, which I went to do, or, maybe I just wanted to, as the saying goes, “get it while it’s hot” and keep it cooking as it would, trusting I would know what I needed to know when that knowing was needed. My joy is in knowing it will find its way into the world, sanely, modestly, to lend a hand. A poem of its own kind, perhaps, at the least.

a wonderful man from the retreat, Jay Hamburger, just wrote to say he took quite a few photos while we were there. [all of the photos on this entry are Jay's. I believe if you click on the photos they will become larger. Then use your back arrow to return to this entry.] here is one he snapped of me reciting the names I was sent by friends and friends of friends, to honour them and the people who went by those names before losing their lives in the holocaust or, specifically, at Auschwitz.

Part of each day we sat in meditation at the selection site where with the flick of a finger the SS doctor determined the fate of prisoners who arrived by cattle car transport. One of the cars from those transports stood on the tracks just meters away from where we sat, the sets of tracks on both sides of us hemming us in with the rigidity—dare I say it?—the gleaming perfection of unforgiving steel.

A flick of the doctor’s finger to the left, and those prisoners deemed unfit for hard labour were herded without hesitation down a long path between barracks to the gas chambers and the crematorium just beyond. Having just arrived at Birkenau, little did they know what awaited them at the end of that walk. A flick of the finger to the right, a few months or longer of unbearable living would be their fate. So this is where we sat and, each in turn, spoke the names we were given and the names we brought.

I was so deeply honoured to receive many names, and made a mala (like a rosary) of wooden beads, and then wrote each name on a small adhesive strip and attached the names, one to each bead, so I would have them to wear in Auschwitz. I did wear them the entire time, all 108 names, except while sleeping, as I did with my rakusu (buddha robe) and, when it was time for Kaddish or for any honouring, I also put on the talit, jewish prayer shawl, my grandfather gave to me 53 years ago for my bar mitzvah. You see them in the photo.

What you can’t see is another mala made for me by Markus (also known as Vikash) another wonderful man who lives here on Salt Spring. The beads of the mala are made of rose petals, each one hand rolled into an almost perfect sphere, and then attached to a cord. He made 18 such beads for me to wear just around my left wrist, over the pulse, so my own life could pulse into them and touch what remains of their fragrance. In mystical Jewish numerology, 18 is the number for chai, which means life. I placed this mala close to my face many times during the retreat, to remember life’s true fragrance. To never forget.

When it was my turn to pronounce the names, I found that I could not just say them. As I listened to others speak their list of names, loud enough for everyone to hear, I found I was frightened to hear them spoken in this way, despite the safety and silence our collective meditation brought to the site of selection. In my ears, the naming almost sounded like a roll call of the living soon to die instead of the honouring it was. I couldn’t–didn’t want to–bring myself to make such a sound of their sweet names though I knew the heart and intention of those good people around me who spoke them in a way that was as loving, honouring, respectful and true as anyone could hope for. Perception can shift at Auschwitz and mine seems to have done exactly that.

So when it was my turn I stood and just sang the names with as much tenderness as I could in a melody that came spontaneously out of my mouth. In this way the mala of 108 names I wore became a song whose lyrics were those precious names sounded fleetingly into the cold air.

After that period of meditation and honouring was over, a rather large German man with a very sweet and open face came up to me and asked where the melody had come from. I tapped my heart and said I didn’t know more than that; I had never heard it before.

He seemed surprised and said that the melody was almost exactly the same as one currently used by Chinese Zen monks during their morning service. “Perhaps,” he said, “you were a Chinese monk in your last life,” and he smiled. “Perhaps,” I said, “but I don’t’ know anything about those things. I only know that the melody came out of my desire to honour these people the best way I can. The rest is a mystery as far as I’m concerned,” and we laughed gently together in the mystery.

To laugh in Auschwitz is no small thing; a precious bit of  sustenance to be shared. Then he smiled at me again, sweetly, and gave me a strong and considerable hug. “Yes,” he said. “To honour is what we are doing in this awful place. And to bear witness to that honouring. That’s the important thing. To love.”

There was a great deal of love there among the members of the retreat; after all, what else was our pain made of beside our loving as it encountered the unbearable cruelty known as Auschwitz. Loving those we know, those we don’t, those who lost their lives to this human disaster, those we know and don’t know whose lives we want to secure and protect in the future: Loving and cherishing.

When poet Mary Oliver asks in her poem what we will do with our “one wild and precious life,” this loving and the actions that may come from it are not such bad replies.

On our last day at Auschwitz, after our meditations at the selection site, we made a journey through some of the stations of the camp we had lived with for five days, and ended up near dusk at “the pond of ashes” where we would hold jukai, the Bodhisattva precepts ceremony I mentioned in my first letter above. We also had come here to once again honour those who perished, and those whose names we brought with us, with one final recitation of the Kaddish as we placed one candle for each name at the memorial tablets and around the pond. Each of us carried one or more candles through the camp until we reached the pond.

The pond is a terrible site because it is one of the places where the perpetrators dumped the overflow of ashes from the nearby crematoriums. But it is precisely because of this that we wanted to be there, to support the receiving of precepts and vows during jukai while some of us made or renewed our own vows and others prayed, each of us engaging our own way of offering, remembering, and honouring.

After placing our candles, some of us began to chant, pray or meditate around the pond, while others gathered to support the receiving of the Bodhisattva precepts. It had been a long journey through the camp to the site and the woman who had traveled all the way from Germany to receive them had been lovingly brought there in her wheel chair.

As the ceremony began I chose to meditate beside another wonderful man, Genjo, a brother in the dharma who had pretty much practiced throughout the entire retreat in his robes and sandals no matter the external conditions of rain or cold. Once, however, the wind and driving rain got pretty bad and I was happy to see he had put on a bright purple hat with ear flaps. Zen in action! Right response to conditions. When I saw that he decided to be kind to his shaved head, and the actual head adornment he had chosen, it made my heart lighter and, again, the sweetness of the moment was precious.

In any case, he and I meditated close to each other at the pond, as did a few others while the air filled with the taking of precepts in German. I don’t speak or understand the language, except for the parts somewhat close to my limping Yiddish vocabulary, but it was extraordinary to sit in meditation at such a place while hearing that sound. To meditate at the pond of ashes and to hear the sound of a woman offering her life to the liberation of all beings, bar none, was a moment of great healing for many of us. “May it heal all the terrible sounds of this place and our world, past, present and future,” came to mind as I listened. “Despite what we know, what we have done, what we don’t know, what we have not done or failed to do, may the mysterious path of healing be our way.”

As it says repeatedly in the Kaddish, “And say Yes. Amen.”

 

4 thoughts on “Letters from Auschwitz

  1. matthew says:

    Thanks, Dear Peter

  2. Adrian Hill says:

    My thoughts are with you Peter.

    In friendship,

    Adrian

  3. Sheryl (Shisen Johon) says:

    “like to two arrows meeting in mid air” — from now I will see a Chagall painting when I chant this phrase.

    As Zen practicioners we’re told to see “things as they are”. Thank you Eihei Peter and all your dharma brothers and sisters, for bearing witness, for being there for all of us who can only be with you in our spirits and prayers.

    108 ringing of the bell, 108 deep bows

  4. Rosanna says:

    Thank you for sharing your poignant experiences and insights

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