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  • Skribentens bildPake Daigen Hall

Bearing Witness in Auschwitz-Birkenau

By Pake Daigen Hall

(This text was published in the book "Pearls of Ash & Awe: 20 Years of Bearing Witness in Auschwitz with Bernie Glassman & Zen Peacemakers)

The wheels of the train clank slowly along the poorly maintained railway lines. I stand there with my forehead pressed against the window and look out over the Polish landscape, with its stunted pines in sandy soil. Sometimes the motion rocks me gently, other times my head is thrown against the edge of the sleeping platform. My journey is happening in multiple dimensions. I am travelling in space, from Gothenburg to Oswiecim, the place in Poland which is better known as Auschwitz. I am journeying in time from the present to the past, from the past to the present. I am making an inner journey of body and mind.

Together with over a hundred persons of different faiths and nationality I will be spending five days in Auschwitz I and Birkenau in a Bearing Witness retreat. In the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, between 1940 and 1945, around 1.3 million people were murdered in a calculated and systematic way. We are here in the November chill to bear witness to what happened, to how we are part of what happened then and what is happening now. We are here to bear witness for those who died, those who survived, those who committed the murders and those who knew what was happening. To bear witness to our own involvement in what is happening today. To bear witness is to see clearly – both suffering and happiness – without any filter, without separation between ourselves and the world. To experience the world in its rawest rawness.

After passing through the gate which has the words Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free) wrought into the ironwork above it, we go straight to the first gas chamber in the camp. The one which was preserved because it was used as an ammunitions dump just before the camp was liberated. We enter the small concrete bunker, lifting away the barrier which normally blocks off the gas chamber itself and we fill the room. There are a hundred of us in there today. It is a tight squeeze. The guide tells us that when the first people were gassed here, there were about seven or eight hundred of them. Then the metal door slams with a harsh clang. We look at one another. The pain from the past is very palpable. Then the lights suddenly go out. Someone yells out the pain and sorrow of the generations into the pitch darkness. And so we stand there in proximity to death. Unable to do anything but experience the pain, sorrow and fear which reverberate through time and space.

We spend the days that follow in meditation on the selection platform of Auschwitz-Birkenau. We sit where the train stopped and soldiers and guards shoved men, women and children out of the cattle wagons onto the platform where they would be sorted and directed to go left or right. To slave labour or the gas chamber. We sit there though the rain, hail and cold and the occasional ray of sunshine on our faces. There are remembrance ceremonies and we read out the names of people who were murdered here. Sometimes we walk around the vast camp, guided by a Polish woman survivor who spent five months in the camp before being forced onto a death march towards Germany. On one occasion, we walk along Death Road, a long corridor lined with high barbed wire fences which starts at the selection platform and divides two parts of the camp. The road is muddy with the grey clay which sticks to everything at Auschwitz. We visit two large gas chambers. It was here that most of the new arrivals were forced to strip in a nearby grove of pines for want of a changing room. And then they were herded to their deaths. As I stand there I feel the pain and sorrow as a blow to the chest and I know that I have to come back by myself.

A little later that day I am sitting on the ground under the pine trees. The air is heavy and the sky grey and I am close to tears. As I sit there on the ground, I start chanting the purification ceremony. Suddenly there is an opening in the leaden cloud cover and the sun warms the grove. I continue chanting and notice that I am not alone. Everywhere around me I see women and children taking off their clothes, their eyes wide with terror and their hands frozen. There are soldiers shouting harsh words and jabbing the hard butts of their rifles into soft flesh. And I am filled with compassion for them – the frozen terror of the children and women, the hate-filled numbed actions of the soldiers. I chant and they disappear into the forest around me. A crow is gazing at me from a branch and I get up and leave too.

The next day as I meditate in one of the men’s barracks, I see myself as a thin prisoner. My clothes are thin and do little to keep out the bitter wind, we have just received our ration of bread and watery soup. Hunger gnaws at me and I know I have to have more food. My fifteen-year-old son is with me, weaker than me. He escaped the gas chamber at the initial but now he is at the end of his strength. I see myself take his bread and meet his gaze. His eyes register disbelief that this, the ultimate betrayal, can be happening. I look him in the eye as I slowly eat the bread. I am the starving prisoner.

On the selection platform I am meditating as evening draws in and suddenly I become aware that I am wearing a uniform and have a gun in my hands. Some ragged children, newly arrived, are walking in front of me. I lash out at them, using my boots and my rifle by turns. The children in front of me continue on their way and I think about my own family. The wife and children who wait for me at the end of the day’s work. I am also a soldier in the SS.

I came here to make a journey in time and space, in body and mind. I see that I am part of what happened. Those who died were me. The soldiers who murdered them were me. Those who knew about it were me.

In Auschwitz I come face to face with pain and terror, but also love and caring and the pines which rise above the plain and the gaze of the crow, filled with curiosity. Auschwitz is beyond all words. There is no language, no word for this place and yet I have to say something.

Perhaps this invocation from the Gate of Sweet Nectar will serve:

Calling Out to Hungry Hearts

Calling out to Hungry Hearts

Everywhere through endless time

You who wander, you who thirst

I offer you this Bodhi Mind

Calling all you hungry spirits

Everywhere through endless time

Calling all you hungry hearts

All the lost and left behind

Gather round and share this meal

Your joy and sorrow

I make it mine...


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