With Tomek Wardega (from Poland) and Rose Stotz (from Germany) at the Closing Circle,
November 2005 Bearing Witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photograph: Peter Cunningham
We have now moved through the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the shattering that became the broader devastation of the Holocaust — and we continue to face the relentless shatterings of hatred and violence over recent weeks in our nation and our world. How do we face our own brokenness?
In Buddhist tradition, an ancient compassion-activist who vowed to liberate all beings from suffering became so overwhelmed with the enormity of that suffering that s/he shattered into thousands of pieces. The broken pieces were restored as thousands of eyes and arms — perhaps a reminder of how those who seek the world's healing must move through heartbreak into ever-expanding circles of connection and community.
In November 2005 I joined an international, multifaith Bearing Witness retreat on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Memories of that experience are emerging powerfully now — and they shine light through the clouds of today's pain, fear, and anger.
Barbed wire through Birkenau branches, November 2005. Photograph: Peter Cunningham
About 90 of us gathered in Krakow before the retreat: a third from the U.S.; about a dozen each from Poland and Germany; a handful each from the Netherlands and Switzerland; a handful from Israel; a few each from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland; one from Austria; one from Bosnia; one from Pakistan; one from Palestine. The retreat was organized by the Zen Peacemaker Order around three tenets of Not-Knowing, Bearing Witness, and Healing (now Loving Action). We were advised that we were likely to have widely diverse reactions to what we would experience.
Every day several of us walked from our local hostel to Birkenau, the main concentration camp, where each participant walked the grounds. We sat together around the tracks leading to the crematoria. We were silent. We brought and chanted names of those murdered; I brought the name of Rabbi Regina Jonas z"l among others. We were silent again; we walked again. We took midday soup and bread outside the gates. We kept vigil in barracks — one night in a children’s barrack, singing lullabies in our diverse languages. At the hostel we recollected, ate, sang, and slept.
Wearing my father's tallis (prayer shawl) at Birkenau, November 2005. Photograph: Leen van der Meij
We wept, raged, shared and struggled with each other. We shattered. Fellow retreatant James Powell shared these reflections: "I am in the barracks and something keeps telling me to lift my candle; I have no idea to say what....How do life, death and choice all relate to each other in my search for an understanding of what it means to be free?....The power of the question."
Back in Krakow on my own after the retreat ended, I spent a few precious hours bearing witness in the Jewish cemetery, where many of the gravestones are post-war memorials to entire families. When a taxi dropped me off at the wrong part of the Krakow station and I would have missed the once-a-night train to Prague, a young Polish stranger appeared to translate for me, accompanied me from building to building with my luggage, and even ran ahead to hold the train. I never knew her name, but I will always remember her anonymous kindness. In Prague, I retraced the footsteps of the prototypical sacred burial fellowship through its rescued cycle of paintings and a visit to the grave of Rabbi Judah Loew.
Thirteen years later, I have again become a bat mitzvah — a "daughter of imperative" — as my experiences and memories come of age on another level. I find it imperative to lift my candle, to listen for guidance, to reclaim the vigil, to walk the walk — and "First, do no harm."
Most of all, I find it imperative to sustain the poor, visit the sick, bury the dead, and console the bereaved — for these are ways of peace across the lines that continue to divide us. These loving actions send healing through space and time to all the shattered bodies and souls — past, present, and future.
“Peacemaking is the functioning of bearing witness. Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.”
— Roshi Tetsugen Bernie Glassman / Benyamin ben Chana ve'Albert z"l (January 1939 - November 2018)
Founder of Zen Peacemakers and the Bearing Witness Retreats
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