I got The Call when in Marrakesh, Morocco. Rabbi Geelah Rayzel was leading a Jewish tour of Morocco. We had spent the day touring, visiting the palace, and enjoying the exotic treasures in the Bazaar. It was a great day. Out of, what seemed nowhere, I said to her, I have got to get to Auschwitz.” “Hmm,” she replies, “I think I have something for you.“ She called her husband, Reb Simchah Raphael, and he put me in touch with Ginni, and the next thing I knew, I was organizing a ticket to Krakow.
OUR RETREAT ORGANIZERS
GINNI STERN AND FRANK DE WAELE ROSHI
Our retreat organizers, Ginni Stern, from Burlington, VT, USA, and Frank De Waele ROSHI, from “Zen Sangha” in Ghent, Belgium, had each participated in or led more than 20 interfaith, international retreats at Auschwitz. They are master artisans creating and maintaining a safe container to bear witness. They cultivated a safe, sacred space of non-attachment, not knowing, and a deep desire to serve the greater good. Their leadership spread with the loving support of the leadership team and the participants. We were all participants. It was a “dream team.”
Auschwitz loomed large
This was my first time at Auschwitz. This place loomed large in my imagination since I can remember. My Hungarian-born parents and aunties were prisoners there, and three of my grandparents were murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. My mother’s father, the other grandparent, died in the Soviet army during WWII. It fills me with awe to consider that both my mother and father were prisoners. This means that the egg I came from was physically in my mother in the camp, and the genetic material in the sperm that fertilized the egg had endured time in the camp. These factors are known to impact the next generation. Going to Auschwitz was a homecoming for me in a way.
THE RETREAT BEGINS
On the first day, we went on the official tour of Auschwitz 1. We saw the famous gate with the German inscription, “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Work will make you Free.” It is not a true statement. We found that many of the names the Nazi regime used had a sarcastic tinge to it. We visited the museum, several barracks, and the execution wall. This was a peek into the reality of Auschwitz.
COMMUNITY OF HOLY SOULS ON THE ROAD TO BIRKENAU
Holy souls from Europe and the United States came together to bear witness in Auschwitz. The group of 45 people came from 7 different countries. We were a colorful mix of Zen Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and Gnostics. The individuals were widely diverse in age, spiritual practice, and lifestyle, yet we were unified in intention, not knowing, bearing witness, and holy service. I had not met any of the leaders or participants before arriving, yet I felt calm and decisive about serving this group.
The next day we walked to the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau from the retreat center, where we spent most of our time during the five-day retreat.
Interfaith Clergy Circle
Inclusivity was vital in our group. There were times during the retreat participants could choose from an assortment of prayer services. Reverend Diana Vernooij (The Netherlands) led Christian prayer services; Sensei Teiju (Jeana Moore, USA) led Zen services with depth, and I led Jewish prayer. Other times we gathered the whole group together at a location, and each leader of the Interfaith Clergy Circle shared with the entire group. It was profound. It was a special treat when Roshi Frank led us in Buddhist chants; some were translated from Jewish liturgy—all practices we did align with Jewish values and methods.
Our group included people from Poland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Finland, France, and the United States. We read Kadesh translated into these national languages as well as English and Aramaic, the original form. It was comforting to hear Kadesh passionately chanted in many languages.
THE DAY ON RETREAT
Small council groups gathered just before 7 AM every morning to listen and speak from the heart about what was stirring inside them. Some of the most meaningful moments and connections came from those morning circles. I tend not to be a morning person, but this was well worth getting out of bed.
Then, after breakfast, those who wished would walk to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and everyone else was driven.
SELECTION SITE 1
We then created a large circle on the Selection Site used in the earlier part of the war using benches, cushions, and chairs. These were stored in a storage room that used to be Adolph Eichmann’s office.
After we settled, we initiated silent meditation with blasts from my shofar. I used the same sequence used for Rosh Hashanah. The sound of the shofar pierces time and space. It arouses and awakens. The sound of the shofar calling attention in the exact physical location where many Jews were sent to their death.
I loved walking to Auschwitz-Birkenau wearing my tallis and t’fillin. It was empowering to outwardly show my Jewishness on the same soil where people were my family members were murdered for being members of this tribe. Eighty years ago, no one would have thought this would ever be possible. It felt rebellious and it felt good.
After sounding the Shofar, I prayed near the group on the Selection Site tracks. Prayer was difficult for me at times in Auschwitz. It was particularly difficult to say words of praise in Psalms in my private practice. I paused and wept. Soon, I had the sense that God was weeping too.
We are all children of the Creator of All. We are gifted freedom of choice. How can it come to pass that humanity creates efficient mass production? How can humans murder an intentionally torment and torture other human beings?
READING THE NAMES
After 30 minutes of silence, the reading of names began. Name after name was chanted, sometimes sung respectfully. There is a set of books, with names of some of those murdered recorded in it, that the Goldberg brothers, Serge and Stefan, had gifted to the group. Complete records were not kept; these books are the best available.
Pages and pages of names of those who died were chanted. Many family names shared by our communities or researched in the Archives were chanted. “Name Unknown” was repeatedly chanted in multiple languages. It was particularly moving. In this small, yet significant way, we did bear witness to the countless people whose murders were not recorded, many with no one left to remember them.
We prayed and shared stories in barracks, by cattle cars, gas chambers, monuments, ash ponds, the execution wall, and the open field where bodies were burned when the crematorium was packed.
The suffering in Auschwitz is so vast; it is beyond understanding. I led Kadesh often. It is a list of praises, elevating and appreciating God. What else can one do but give it up to God? As a leader, it was easier to praise God than when alone. This is the power of holy community. I am grateful.
Most captured Jews were sent directly to the gas chamber. It is estimated that about 20% of arrivals merited to work. Those prisoners were randomly shot, tortured, starved, and frequently subjected to sexual abuse – there was a brothel at Birkenau. Auschwitz was a factory – the product was mass production death, relentless torture – making death an option, and ongoing terror.
We chanted many prayers in Hebrew since most of those killed in Auschwitz were Jewish (app 1,300,000 out of approximately 1,600,000 total). Chanting Kadesh, El Malay Rahamim, the Ana B’khoah, and more was meant to tend to the many souls who never were granted dignity in their deaths.
I led an impromptu Shahareet (morning prayer service) near that entry gate, within an eyeshot of the ” Work Will Make You Free” sign. We prayed using Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s English translation of the weekday prayers in the Holistic Jew Siddur. It was moving. We stayed silent for a time after prayer; there were no words.
Upon arrival, prisoners were given a bowl. It was used for food, as a pillow, and as a toilet when needed. The bowl was necessary. Losing your bowl meant you would likely die.
On the second day of the retreat, we were each given one bowl to use for lunch for the week with no utensils. If we lost the bowl, no replacements would be given. We were served vegan soup and bread outside the camp. It was noticeably challenging to get to the veggies without a spoon. I spilled soup on my clothing.
We woke early daily and were in the sun from 10 AM to 5 PM. After a few days, my lips were uncomfortably blistered, and my skin burned. Our practice was a very small approximation of the prisoner’s reality. It served to help us bear witness.
SELECTION SITE 2
Below is the selection site used later in the war, when the Jews from Hungary were deported, they came here first. They were jammed together in cattle cars frequently for days at a time, with no food, water, or toilets. It is likely the spot where three of my grandparents, uncle, and great-grandmother were sent to the gas chambers. They were in their 30’s. My parents, aged 14 and 19, were sent to work.
My mother told me that when she arrived, the Capo (person in charge, usually another Jew who worked for the Nazis) asked her how old she was. Fourteen, Mother answered. The Capo said, “You are 18; never tell anyone anything different,” and pointed her to the line, which turned out to be one for work and life. I thanked that Capo at that cattle car.
BARRACKS AT NIGHT
The entire group held a Council Circle in the barracks one night. The enormous door shut tightly behind us with a loud “clang,” locking us in. It was terrorizing. I knew then there was no peace in Auschwitz – even at night when the prisoners were left alone. We spoke and shared important matters that evening.
The poison of the Nazi regime lingers. A few of us spoke about second-generation’s challenges. It seems ungrateful to complain. Nothing is relevant compared to parents who have been prisoners of the Nazi regime.”You have food on the table and clothes on your back – you got nothing to complain about. “Giving voice to the second (and subsequent) generations’ experience is essential.
CHOOSING PLEASURE OR SURVIVAL
Emilie Conrad z”l taught me; Survivors trade pleasure for survival. This means that the ability to cultivate pleasure tends to remain dormant in survivors’ and their children. Survivors tend to stay in “fight or flight” mode, and reaching “settle and rest” is more difficult. Working hard is typically valued and encouraged. Fun is considered frivolous and unnecessary.
The forest adjacent to the gas chambers is where Hungarian women waited in the snow for days. The Nazis took their clothing to make it more difficult for them to escape their inevitable death. They were allowed only a shawl, many of which were colorful. The Nazis called this place “Mexico” because of the festive shawls.
We paused the space to store the valuables of those deported, undressed, and murdered – gold from teeth, prosthetic devices, hair, and more were recycled. They made warm blankets out of human hair. The Nazis called this area Canada, pointing to the richness of these resources.
We prayed at what remained of crematoriums, the ash ponds, and the field where bodies were burned when the crematorium had no more room for bodies. We sang lullabies in the children’s barracks and told stories of courage in the women’s barracks.
Frank Roshi led a ritual to witness the pain of the descendants of the perpetrators and the people living in the local towns. We gathered at the guard tower pictured above. Whoever was moved shared an offering of a few words.
A woman in our group shared that her mother was a Nazi woman. Her mother took pride in disciplining her children with severity. Her mother often beat her to make her healthy and strong.
Can you imagine a Nazi for a mother or parent? These souls are survivors too.
Most everyone suffered at the hands of the Nazis – the prisoners, capos, guards, and the city government. If a mayor, for example, resisted the Nazis, not only would they be murdered, but their family and loved ones would also be killed. If they tried to appease the SS to leave their town alone, they were later labeled a Nazi sympathizer and punished by the community. Nazi sympathizers’ homes and farms were often torched.
This is the way of the ongoing poison of the Nazi regime. It continues to manifest through many branches. As Rabbi Chaim Beliak shared, the poison still manifests significantly today through Jews, through the lineage of the perpetrators, Polish people, and everyone living under the Nazi regime. This poison manifests differently in different groups. Healing takes intention, awareness, love, and time.
We remembered Roshi Bernie Glassman here and honored him for initiating five-day retreats to Auschwitz with Zen Peacemakers. Roshi Bernie was also a student of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l
WE ARE ALL SURVIVORS
The truth is that all (most?) humans are survivors of trauma. Everyone deserves to be treated with great curiosity, caring, and tenderness. There are no exceptions. We have no idea what another person has been through. We cannot even imagine.
Kindness, patience, and understanding go a long way to soothing traumatized souls, making connections, fostering friendships, and cultivating a kind community. As a result of this retreat, I will carry more kindness, patience, understanding, and curiosity with every person I meet, even when I feel stretched. This gift is a direct result of bearing witness in Auschwitz. Everything else is secondary.
Anna Smulowitz, a second-generation survivor on this retreat, has created a play and movie to share what her mother z”l, SS Adolph Eichmann’s secretary, experienced during the war. Her mother later testified against him. You can learn more about the play at www.Terezin.org.
We visited The Labyrinth, an art exhibit by Marian Kolodziej, a Polish prisoner who worked in the crematorium for five years.
Marion suffered a severe stroke in 1993. After the war, he became a successful costume and set designer. He began rehabilitation using pen and ink. At first, he could not even hold a pen, so his wife taped pens to his fingers to enable him to begin to draw. He had a lot to share. Marion’s drawings are profound, tender, and horrifying.
My parents both were prisoners in Auschwitz, as were my aunties. Magdi, my Hungarian cousin, shared that they stayed in Barracks C-10. I, accompanied by Marga Van Ree, a wise and kind woman from The Netherlands, looked and found the remains of that barrack. We prayed together, sat in the ruins, walked seven sacred circles, and chanted the Ana B’khoah there.
There were difficulties in my extended family. There was a lack of support and kindness. It seemed some relatives were jealous of what they saw as “success.” They acted out in ways that caused my family deep pain. Today I understand that much of it results from their enormous trauma in the Shoah. Trauma survivors often respond by embodying the qualities of their tormentors. It was hard to witness and unpleasant to engage. I kept my distance from this part of the family. This is a second-order effect of the Shoah.
A sense of letting go, acceptance, and forgiveness came forward after visiting the site and completing this ritual. I am grateful.
STANDING WITH THE PRISONERS
Every prisoner was forced to have their hair cut, head shaved, and was assigned a number. This was designed to dehumanize the prisoners and make everyone look similar. Harry and Arjan, pictured, decided to stand with the prisoners by having their heads shaved.
Kristine, pictured standing on the right, cut her long pretty hair to offer children who have lost their hair in cancer treatment and stand with the prisoners.
Our final night together was Shabbat Eve, and we celebrated wholeheartedly. The table was set with fine linen and tableware; candles, wine, and challah were served, and a beautiful meal was prepared. Everyone in our group dressed up. Shabbat is one of the best aspects of being a practicing Jew. Everyone is invited to take a break from working, stop manifesting, elevate in sacred space, and celebrate the gift of life once a week.
We lit candles, sang, and prayed ancient Jewish prayers; we made Kiddush over wine, acknowledged the blessing of our hands and the freedom of choice that goes with them, and blessed the challah. The mood was celebratory. It was a meaningful way to complete our journey.
“In Auschwitz, honoring Shabbat was an act of rebellion. ” Ginni Stern
freeing Light within the dark
We went to Auschwitz, not knowing what to expect, to bear witness to the horrors that happened there. We grieved, wept, we did the work. Together, we took action with our presence, prayer, meditation, and acts of kindness. Most importantly, we created an intentional community. We built a caring community. The sense of trust, ease, and competency was palpable. We worked well and played well together.
It is humanity’s opportunity to delve deeply into darkness, to free Divine Light trapped in “klipot,”; hard shells. A sense of ease, a coherent field, came forward due to bearing witness. Our retreat community was privileged to sample a taste of Paradise, like the Divine first light in the Garden of Eden.