For close to thirty minutes that first evening, we danced recklessly and with joy, clasping hands, twirling, and twisting to the beat of the “Havah,” reveling in our freedom and singing with abandon. Our dance line snaked up the auditorium floor and into the Museum’s lobby then circled ‘round the brightly colored kiosks. Forming three smaller circles, we laughed and sang and bumped without grace into one another until finally, as the music died down, we collapsed onto the benches against the wall, out of breath and exhausted. After a few minutes, one of the women who had stayed seated during our revelry approached me, her gray eyes cold and sad. She motioned for me to follow her to a nearby window. Pointing outside, she said, bitterly, “Work makes you free, not singing and dancing.”
Just across the lawn, not fifty feet from the building where we celebrated, stood the great arched gateway that opens into Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp, its deceptive message still clearly strong in the hearts of many: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Although now a State Museum, the grounds and most of the barracks are maintained as they were during the war; a few, like the one we were staying in, had been renovated to accommodate visitors. I understood what my new friend was saying; we were there to bear witness to the unspeakable acts of torture and killing that occurred there, and she didn’t think frivolity of any kind was appropriate. In fact, that was a subject our group would often debate during the week-long retreat. It wouldn’t be the last time we would dance, though, and we had just begun to sing.
It was near the end of Spring in 1996 when I first thought about going to the camps in southwestern Poland. A friend of mine had sent me an invitation to accompany the Zen Peacemaker Order out of New York on a retreat to “Bear Witness at Auschwitz” in late November, and I was immediately intrigued. I called one of the organizers to get some more information and was told, “Poland is very cold in November; you need to be sure to wear several layers of clothing.” A weather report was not exactly what I had in mind, but as I would soon learn, the true nature of the retreat was just not something that could be described over the phone in a couple of sentences; if I felt moved to go, I would, and the rest would come later. No one in my circle of close friends or family was supportive; it was too costly, too far to travel, too emotionally and physically demanding a trip to make. But even without any details, something about it resonated with me, deep inside. I was in a bad place emotionally, that Spring; I was in the midst of a deep depression, untouched by medicine or therapy. I cried a lot, and had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. I hated my job, but I felt so generally hopeless that I thought making a change was pointless. Then, one day a woman at work offered me tickets to a concert at Riverbend to see Mandy Patinkin. “We mostly get season tickets so I can see Barry Manilow,” she had said. “Neither of us really likes Mandy, and I know how much you do, so you’re welcome to them if you want.” Like was such an understatement. I’m not a huge concert fan – ok, I’d never been to a concert in all my 35 years of life – but I loved Mandy Patinkin, and so I, of course, accepted. I suspect I’ll be forever grateful to that co-worker and – in some weird way – to Barry Manilow.
Most people don’t get my admiration for Patinkin. Although I like everything from Bach to Guns ‘N Roses, and Tim McGraw to Enya, I mostly like show tunes, and almost his entire repertoire is from the Broadway stage. He has an expansive range, and can softly croon “Over the Rainbow” or belt out “Ya Got Trouble in River City” with equal aplomb. He also has a strong but subtle sense of the spiritual in both his acting and his music, a quality I look for in entertainers, and one of his most recent CDs, Mamaloschen, is entirely in Yiddish.
The night of the concert – July 16th, I doubt I will ever forget it – I was excited about seeing Patinkin, but still very depressed and contemplative. I needed to make a decision about the retreat and I was torn; it weighed heavily on my mind as I entered the gates to the concert that evening.
We had great seats – fifth row center, right in the middle of the orchestra pit. Patinkin was funny and sang beautifully, and even tried to capture the hearts of the children in the audience. Plucking a young boy from the crowd and putting him on stage, Patinkin tweaked his nose and ruffled his hair, making silly faces, only to be met with loud wailing. Finally, doing his best rendition of Inigo Montoyo, from “The Princess Bride,” he assumed a fencer’s stance and said, in a Spanish accent, “My name is Inigo Montoyo. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” This little boy’s eyes got really wide and a big smile followed. Patinkin had him.
But for me, it was his last song, one I never did particularly care for, that stuck with me. As he sat on the edge of stage, he pleaded with the audience, “Experiment…and it will lead you to the light…Experiment…be curious, though interfering friends may frown. Get furious at each attempt to hold you down…If this advice you’ll only employ, the future can offer you infinite joy and merriment…” When I heard those words, written by Cole Porter, I knew things were going to change. And, when I went to the travel agent the next morning to buy plane tickets for Poland, I set into motion events that would change the course of my life.
Just four months later and nearly 5000 miles away from home, I was sitting in the aisle seat of a Polish Lot jet en route from Frankfurt to Krakow. My companions were engaged in an animated discussion in German about the war and concentration camps. After several minutes, I interrupted and asked the woman seated closest to me, who introduced herself as Carole, if she and her friend were, by chance, attending the retreat. “Yes, we are both going. Do you know Bernie Glassman? He’s a wonderful teacher. And Auschwitz is a transformative place,” she said. Carole, who remains a good friend today, was right on all counts. Glassman was a Zen priest and the Order’s abbott. He was a quiet man, who led wisely, by example. Although my decision to travel to Poland and the camps was met with annoyance at home, I was getting frequent confirmation that it had been the right one. And after I had been there just a day, I came to discover that the silent, empty grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau were sacred, probably the most sacred I would ever tread.
One hundred fifty of us had gathered from the U.S., Europe, and Israel to better understand the roles of both the oppressors and the oppressed in the Holocaust of World War II. All of us had a connection to Zen, but we were from many different religious backgrounds – Christian, Pagan, Jewish, Muslim. Many had a history at the camps; some had parents, grandparents, and other family who had died there; a few had fathers who were in the SS and were stationed there. During one of our evening meetings, a young Jewish woman stood to talk about her family’s connection to the camps: Her father was a young man when he went into hiding from the Nazis. The woman who brought him food delivered a message to him from his mother in the Jewish ghetto that read, “Come be with us. Our blood should be spilled in one place.” Two weeks later, the ghetto was evacuated to cattle cars headed for Auschwitz. Another woman, telling a story she had only recently uncovered, described growing up in a family with a father who “was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Waffen SS.” “I had thought he joined late, but found out he had joined even before the war, and that tells me it was an ideological choice…Both my parents were of the age that they were in the Hitler Youth and if they didn’t participate themselves in murder, certainly believed in the ideological stance of the Nazis…that’s just something I just have to accept…” Story after story was revealed, some being told for the first time, and ours was a simple task: to hear, to give credence to, to bear witness to the pain, the suffering, and the secrets.
The persistent clanging from an early morning church bell began our long, structured days. We gathered together and walked through the tiny towns of Oswiciem and Brzezinka, through mostly empty streets, past farm houses and a small business or two, across railroad tracks, and arrived 2 ½ miles later at Birkenau, the largest and primary extermination site in the complex. It stands, still, silent and impenetrable, like a virtual fortress, meticulously designed to keep the enemy in. The horror at Auschwitz is in its tree-lined streets and its manicured lawns. It’s in the plain and tangible objects collected from the people taken there – the unpacked luggage, mounds of silverware, children’s shoes, piles of hair. But at Birkenau, it is felt in an unsettling starkness. Although it is a vital part of the complex and State Museum, few people visit this part of the camps, and fewer still go in the winter. There are no amenities at Birkenau, no auditoriums, no restrooms, no cafeteria. The buildings that provide shelter from rain and snow at Auschwitz are absent. At Birkenau, the bitter wind’s unforgiving bite pierces and numbs the skin. Snow is heavy and wet, and the railroad tracks are often covered with a treacherous sheet of ice. The misty gray days accentuate the oppressive desolation that lingers among the ruins. It embraces the very soul.
Sitting in a large elliptical circle around the railroad tracks, everyone meditated silently as we rotated, four at a time, to the center to simultaneously chant thousands of names of men, women, and children who had died there during the war. I remember the day it was my turn. It was snowing heavily and my glasses kept getting covered with ice so it was hard to see the pages of names in front of me. My lips were cold and numb, and my tongue tripped unceremoniously over the mostly Polish names; I read a last name three, four, five, six times. A family. I tried to read with respect, with dignity. There was so little else I could offer them.
Every morning and again every afternoon, we gathered at the main crematorium to say Kaddish. Rabbi Don was a fiftyish, white-haired, gentle and kind man from California who looked like he should be running on the beach with his dog instead of grieving and mourning the loss of so many of his people. But when he looked skyward with openness and anticipation, you almost expected God Himself to appear. At our first meeting for Kaddish, Rabbi Don began, “Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba,” then translated, “May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified.” He continued through the entire prayer so everyone would understand its significance. Kaddish became, even for some of us who were not Jewish, a way to connect to the sacred and to express joy and love in a place that bled hopelessness. The rhythm of the words first recited, then sung, helped carry us through the days and into the long lonely nights. We offered up praises to God, even as images of frightened mothers and their tired children filled our thoughts. That God would be at Auschwitz seemed, at the time, almost absurd to me. How could a caring God stand by and witness the brutal execution of even one of His children, let alone millions? And yet, as we recited Kaddish there was no question that He was near. Everyone carried within his or her heart some aspect of the sacred that allowed space for grieving the losses and, at the same time, a few rare moments of rejoicing even in such a dark, forbidden place.
Following prayers, some of us moved down broken concrete stairs into the ruins of the undressing room, and lit candles in remembrance of those who had died there. In an odd mix of peace and unified defiance we joined hands and sang folk songs in Yiddish and Polish. Each name that was chanted and every song that was sung was carried out into the fields and echoed off the ruins. There was a palpable spiritual energy that followed us throughout the week, but it seemed strongest here, where we spent most of our day.
Lunch every day was a piece of hard bread and soup we would drink out of a plastic bowl we carried with us. “No bowl, no soup,” I remember one of the organizers saying. I didn’t know if she was kidding or not, but she was the one who took away our spoons that first day and let us know liquids were not permitted on the grounds at Birkenau. Even though I managed not to lose mine, it cracked about halfway through the week and precious drops would dribble through onto the wet pavement below. My body screamed for more water during the day, but since our access to a bathroom was also limited, it was probably just as well we didn’t have any. I was left to wonder about the health of the prisoners, whose restrictions were far greater than ours and who sometimes were there for two and three years before death, or liberation.
Anger and defiance became, in many, as strong as despair but was often handled with humor. During another of our evening sessions, a gentleman rose to speak about the misconceptions regarding the number of gays who had been liquidated by the Nazis which was far greater than is usually reported. He ended, proudly, “Last night, in our barracks,…in the old SS quarters, homosexuals gathered and we cut pink triangles…” his eyes scanned the room and he grinned widely, continuing, “…as only homosexuals can do.” There was a silent, awkward pause in the group, then the crescendo of laughter. During the war, he explained, Jews were required to wear a yellow Star of David, gypsies wore brown, German criminals wore green, and homosexuals wore pink. “And I have some here in a packet that I’d like to pass among you… if we run out, we’ll gather again.”
My own feelings about being at Auschwitz were mixed; I’m very eclectic in my religious beliefs – a Buddhist-Pagan-Jewish mix, but I’m not racially Jewish and I don’t, as far as I know, have any family connections there on either side. Dawn brought tears and the night harbored loneliness, just as it did for everyone; what I did not feel, though, at least not until long after I returned home, was anger about the utter disrespect for human life. Instead, it was safer, I think, to be angry about the small, annoying things, like the intrusion of cameras into our sacred space.
Three film crews – U.S., German, and French – had signed on to accompany us during this retreat. Many of us found the constant presence of cameras and microphones distracting and invasive and it was a subject of constant debate whenever the group met to talk. At one meeting, early in the retreat, someone angrily confronted the U.S. director about the filming, “The cameras are so invasive. We are grieving. Don’t you understand that? We need private time to honor our loved ones.” He replied softly and with care, “I do understand. I feel your grief every time I sit around the railroad tracks at Birkenau. That’s why we’re doing this documentary.” He hesitated for a long time, looking around at the group. “How about this? We’ll make one day this week free from cameras. No filming on that day at all. How will that be?” Knowing what losing a day of filming must mean on such a tight schedule, I knew this was a generous offer.
I took the opportunity during one of our lunch breaks to watch the U.S. film crew working on a scene at Birkenau. The director for the U.S. crew looked familiar, but I hadn’t been able to place him. As he worked to get a flock of magpies to fly upward into the sky for the camera, running into the field, wildly waving his arms and then dropping to the ground so he wouldn’t appear in the shot, it came to me. Roseanne. He was her sister’s goofy husband. I still didn’t have a name, but I had made a connection. In fact, I didn’t find out until I got home that I had spent the week with Michael O’Keefe.
I’d had both casual and pretty intense conversations with Michael during the week; he joined the group for meditation and prayers, a tour of the Jewish ghetto at Kazimierz, and our group meetings in the evening whenever he wasn’t busy filming. Once home, I discovered Michael had a strong investment in Zen practice and socially engaged Buddhism, and had so for many years. As I watched both his older and new work on television and film, I sometimes wonder how he reconciles the ethics of Buddhism with the violent and dishonorable characters he sometimes portrays. Then I think back to Auschwitz, and our purpose there – to bear witness to the tragedies of that place by being attentive to the smallest details: the collection of toothbrushes and walls lined with prisoners photos, the writing on and around the execution wall, the stories of brutal medical experiments performed on small children. And I wonder if, by choosing those types of characters to play, Michael is bearing witness to the tragedies in our own society.
When I returned home from Poland, everyone was eager to hear about the trip. Were my flights on time? Did the airlines lose any of my luggage? How was the weather? What were the Polish people like? It wasn’t long before my answers came automatically, as if by rote. Yes, no, cold and snowy, friendly and gracious. Few people wanted to know about the retreat; those that did only wanted confirmation that the camps were, indeed, as horrible as they had imagined. And horrible they were. Horrible, blessed, sacred, ugly, beautiful, tragic, built with hate, filled with hope and peace.
On my last day at Birkenau, I took some time apart from the group and sat at the crematorium, closing my eyes and listening as the names chanted drifted out over the fields and fell to the ground as soft and steady as the snow Nearby, just behind me, was the pond, frozen over, where the Nazis dumped the ashes of the women and children exterminated there. In the distance, was a small group of women singing a Polish lullaby. Birkenau is a powerful place, full of a palpable spiritual energy. I hated it there, but I thank God every day for sending me.
Interview with Diane Baumer
One of the things I liked about this personal memoir is the way it shows how facing something terrible can become a personal experience. Can you say a bit more about how the spiritual aspect of this experience has stayed with you?
I certainly carried a renewed interest in Buddhism and Buddhist practice forward with me. Buddhist teachings strongly influence my daily life now. But I also brought a little bit of Judaism home, too. I’ve always had an interest in and attraction for the language and rituals of the Jewish faith. After spending time with so many wonderful people, learning their folk songs and dances, and saying Kaddish with them every day, I felt a kind of kinship with them. Over the years, I’ve been learning to read Hebrew and love listening to recordings of Jewish prayers. But in a deeper sense, I think I’ve tried to incorporate the practice of “bearing witness” – which I see as an integral aspect of spirituality – into my being. And that, perhaps, was the most valuable part of the experience.
Before undertaking this quest did you have any intimations in your life that this would be a good thing for you to do?
I don’t recall ever thinking about doing anything quite like this before. It’s funny, though, because the moment I read about it, I knew that I had to do it. And it was almost like I’d been waiting for something, and when this opportunity presented itself, it was exactly what I needed.
Can you talk a bit more about the singing – so crucial to the movement of this essay? Has singing always been important to you, or was this one of the discoveries?
Music and singing were a large part of my life when I was younger. I sang in chorus in school and choirs at church and fell in love with the musical through many years of dance class. Music has that amazing ability to unite people, no matter their differences, and that was so evident at the retreat. I’ve recently been reintroducing myself to my favorites, which I’ve not made much time for in the last few years, and discovering new ways I can bring music back into my life.
Would you say that your spiritual understandings now are the same as they were when you undertook this journey? Do you think you could say yes to such a quest now?
I went through a lot of changes spiritually after the retreat. I explored, with some intensity, a variety of paths including Egyptian Paganism, Unitarian Universalism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Native American beliefs. I’m comfortable today incorporating aspects of each into my spiritual life, but my core beliefs and ethical foundation are Buddhist.
I think these types of retreats, which are designed to bear witness to social and cultural ills, are very beneficial in helping us understand both ourselves and one another. As an extension to that, they give us an opportunity to see things from a completely different perspective and teach us tolerance and compassion. At Auschwitz we heard from, not only the families of people who were imprisoned in the camps, but also from families of SS officers. There have been and continue to be other opportunities to do similar types of retreats with Zen Peacemakers – to Rwanda, bearing witness to the 1994 genocide; on the streets of New York City; to South Dakota, to focus on the American Indian genocide. I’d welcome the chance to attend another retreat at some time in the future, but I think before I do that, I’d like to go on a personal journey, to address some lingering spiritual questions.
What I’d be really interested in seeing – and I’m sure someone is doing this in communities somewhere, but I’d like to see it on a large scale – is people gathering from all sides before a tragedy occurs. Spending time together, understanding we all come from the same fabric, and learning how to work through our differences in a non-violent manner.
How much was this experience mediated for you by the company of those you took it with?
The group dynamic was absolutely vital to this experience. Solitary retreats are helpful to renew our spirit or to come to an understanding about something in our personal journey, but when our intent is to bear witness to something like the Holocaust, the energy, support, and differing perspectives that can be found in a group are invaluable to gaining insight and developing compassion.
Did this experience lead you to further insights about the suffering that human beings seem capable of inflicting on each other?
I’ve always been acutely aware of the suffering human beings can and do inflict on one another. What I think this experience really opened my eyes to, though, is the incredibly forgiving spirit present in people who have suffered so terribly. And how it’s possible to find that within yourself, even when it seems there is no room for it to exist.
Have you had any other experiences that seem as deeply affective as this one was?
No, I can’t think of anything I’ve done that quite compares to the time I spent on retreat at Auschwitz. But since I’ve incorporated mindfulness practice into my daily life, I’m discovering that I don’t have to go halfway around the world to find those profoundly moving moments. In fact, I don’t need to go any farther than right where I am, in the moment. Watching a blue heron fly lazily over a lake, allowing myself to feel the intense grief over the death of a friend, or listening for each individual instrument in a full orchestra – all these provide that same intensity of feeling and experience, just by being fully present.Share this post with your friends.