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Field Notes from Auschwitz

Zen Peacemaker Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat Day 1

We are here at the Dialog Center in Oswiecim, Poland just ending the first day of the 18th Zen Peacemaker Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat, 110 peacemakers from many countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and North America, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Native People, Poles, Germans, Israelis, Palestinians, Rwandans, Belgians, French, Italians, Americans, Dutch, British and Canadians. We left Krakow early in the morning by bus for the 1.5 hour trip to Oswiecim and arrived directly at Auschwitz I, plunging immediately into the retreat with a ceremony inside the gas chamber at Auschwitz I. Later in the day sitting in our large circle for orientation and introductions here at the Dialog Center where we are staying, I was awestruck by the presence of all these brave people from around the world. This is my 12th time here on the Auschwitz retreat, but it may as well be the first. The reality of this place is never manageable and my fellow retreatants are all here in this place, now. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to serve in this way. Tomorrow, after our morning council groups and breakfast, we go to Birkenau where most of our retreat will take place these next four days. Just writing the name, Birkenau, plunges me into unimaginable pain, grief, sadness, anger and confusion. Time to take a deep breath … May all beings be free of suffering, May all beings be happy!

Zen Peacemaker Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat Day 2

We began our day at the Northeast entrance to Birkenau and walked along the northern perimeter of this infamous death camp to the Sauna, the rather strange name for the place where prisoners not sent to the gas chambers were processed into the slave labor camp. It was raining and very cold as 110 of us walk in smaller groups with our guides explaining the details of this vast death camp, which was intended to expand to become a death city for extermination of all Slavic people and others considered non-Aryan by the Nazis. The rain finally stopped in the afternoon, allowing us to set up our usual meditation and reading of the names circle at the “selection site” between the two rail-heads at Birkenau. It was bitter cold and windy as we sat through alternating periods of silence and reading the names of the victims. For me the challenging conditions help me connect to the horrors of this place. It actually feels weird to me being here when the weather is more comfortable. This evening we visited theLabrynth exhibition of Marian Kołodziej’s amazing artistic expression of the hell realm that was Auschwitz, for me the most powerful expression of hell and of the dark side of our human experience I’ve ever seen. Marian was a close friend of the Zen Peacemakers, we visited with him every year and he joined us to sit at the selection site every year. Marian died in 2009. His amazing wife, Harina, joined us this evening patiently answering our questions late into the evening after we had toured the extensive installation of Marian’s work. Tomorrow, after our morning council groups, we return to Birkenau to continue bearing witness to the inexplicable, the horrific and to our humanity, the light and the darkness.

Zen Peacemaker Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat Day 3

It was another tough, bitterly cold and wet day for the 110 of us bearing witness to the horrors of genocide at Birkenau. I found myself moving back and forth between intense awareness of my own physical challenge with the cold and the equally intense awareness of the voices and visions that permeate the grounds of Birkenau. Listening to my fellow peacemakers reading the names of the victims at the selection site as they stood shivering in the freezing cold and biting wind inspired me greatly. Hearing our Palestinian friends read the names of Jewish victims of the holocaust gave me great hope. Just a little while ago I finished leading a shadow (surfacing the shadow or unspoken) council in spiral format (people coming in and out of the inner council circle surrounded by concentric witnessing circles) with our whole group of 110 peacemakers. When I listed the countries in my first post, I neglected to mention Australia and New Zealand. Tonight we heard from a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, from Palestinians, Israelis, a German with a Nazi grandfather, and a Swedish man who lost all four grandparents to the holocaust. More than 30 people in all shared during the spiral council. It was edgy and at one point two people walked out, angry or offended. This is edgy work.

Peacemaking is not all love and light, obviously.

We are working with deeply conditioned and shared archetypes of enemy, of perpetrator and victim, of good and evil, and of rescuers and silent heroes. Hearing all the voices can be painful and disconcerting. I’m very grateful for this practice and retreat and for all of our courageous peacemakers including those who needed to leave the circle this evening.

May all beings be free of suffering,

May all beings have the courage to bear witness to their own and others suffering and beauty

May all beings find peace

May we all be peace.

#Auschwitz #BearingWitness #ZenPeacemakers

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