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A town called Oswieim

In November in Poland, in the town called Oswieçim, or Auschwitz by the Germans who once occupied it, night comes early. By 4:30 in the afternoon, dull gray twilight has become darkness and the cold day has become a colder night. In the early winter of 1999, I was smoking a cigarette outside the gates that lead to the ruins of the concentration camp in Auschwitz. Beyond me, buses and taxis queued in a gravel lot to collect the day's visitors. Leaning against the wall, I slipped into a fantasy. It is 1944 and my mother, sick, starving, freezing, filthy, beset by violence and tragedy, surrounded by death, looks up and sees what I see. She walks through the gate, slides into a taxi, murmurs the address of a warm and safe place. The car begins to move and Hell recedes behind her.

I have no connection to Poland, other than it being the place to which my mother and her family were transported from the Trans-Carpathian area of Hungary in 1944, to be used as slave labor and slaughtered. During most of my life, I never entertained the notion that I would go see this place I had so often heard described. This seems strange to me now, as Auschwitz has permeated my life, not only in the symbolic way it has for many Jews, but also as a point of origin. Ostensibly, my family were Jews in a large--predominantly Jewish--suburb of New York, sporadically attending a Reform temple. But for me it was not Jerusalem that functioned as my mecca. As the Stations of the Cross are for a Christian pilgrim, so were the train tracks of Auschwitz for me. And the memory of the patriarchs, the stories of the Old Testament and the Midrash were supplanted by the stories my mother and grandmother told of their capture, enslavement and survival.

On an Internet listserv I belong to, dedicated to children of Holocaust survivors, one member yearly posts messages about a week-long retreat she attends at Auschwitz. The posts never fail to incite members to furious discussion. Some people object to Jews going to Poland at all--the history of anti-Semitic activity in that country is long (the last recorded pogrom was in 1946)--others exhibit terror, anger. I had never considered going on the retreat. But last year, I found myself following the path that led to the Web site of the Zen Peacemaker Order, the group that sponsors the retreat. There I came upon the terrible, beautiful and luminous photographs of Auschwitz taken by Peter Cunningham during the first retreat in 1996. For me, these photos served as portents. I told my mother I was thinking of going to Poland. Her first response was, "You will be murdered there."

Bernie Glassman, a Zen teacher, founded the Zen Peacemaker Order. Members are dedicated to pursuing an ideal of peace "through study, spiritual practice and social action." To this end, they facilitate the Peacemaker Community and Peacemaker Villages, defined as "a group of people engaged in social action, working toward justice, peace and the integrity of the Earth." One such village, founded by Bo and Sita Lozoff, well known for their work in the prison system, is located outside of Durham. The core tenets of the Peacemaker order are: not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe; bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world; and healing ourselves and others. It is the act of bearing witness that brings the Peacemakers to Auschwitz each year. The order is trans-denominational: At the 1999 Auschwitz retreat, there was a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Sufi sheik, and a Tibetan nun, all members of the Peacemaker order and Zen teachers.

I found the Zen Peacemakers' message compelling. I found their destination more so. In November 1999, with 150 people from 20 different countries, I went to Auschwitz.

Attendees were to meet in Krakow the night before the retreat began. My husband and I arrived four days early. Krakow is a magnificent medieval city, still miraculously intact: There is a perfect Romanesque church and a castle. We wandered the streets, sightseeing, buying amber. Every day, though, it seemed we were drawn to Kazimierz, a short walk away, the ancient Jewish ghetto of Krakow.

Kazimierz--named for the 14th-century king who offered the Jews shelter in Poland, and the place where the Jews settled after they were expelled from Krakow proper in 1494--was once the site of a thriving civilization. It had five synagogues, a large marketplace and, though relatively small, 70,000 Jews once occupied its broad square and tiny alleys. It is still lively, the hipster part of town. At night, cabs empty happy drunk people onto the cobblestone streets. Music comes from every restaurant and bar on the square. There are "Jewish" restaurants, serving a version of standard "Jewish" dishes. In the evenings, klezmer bands come to play, and pretty Polish girls sing phonetically to lilting Yiddish melodies. The synagogues are now museums. The ritual bathhouse has become a restaurant and bookstore. The re-enactment of Jewish culture is grotesque and dishonest: Today, there are no Jews.

Over the last 15 years, I've toured with several bands and seen a lot of roadside and tourist kitsch. In many parts of the South, you can find a particularly horrifying kind of kitsch, the happy pickaninny variety: statuettes of grinning black folk, their features greatly exaggerated. On a scale of offensiveness (rated from one to 10) these weigh in at about 11. The women are "mammies," with do-rags and flour-sack dresses. The men sit leisurely on fences, eating huge pieces of watermelon. I suppose one is to look at these statuettes and hark back to a simpler (imaginary) time when people didn't mind being enslaved, and every white girl was Scarlett O'Hara. I remembered these when I looked in a gift-shop window and saw a set of figurines depicting Jews as they are, apparently, to be remembered. The Happy Yid, hook-nosed, olive-skinned, curly-haired, reading his torah, prayer shawl peaking out from under his coat. The Klezmer Player, his eyes closed, sawing on his violin in a state of sentimental ecstasy. A sort of Mickey Mouse Chassid in a little fur hat dancing joyfully, perhaps at having made it through the last pogrom.

On Monday we arrived in Oswieçim. The first thing you become aware of is the immensity of the camp. After a while, the brick gate, the railroad tracks, the barracks and fences become familiar and less terrifying, but the horizon is full of shattered chimneys and layers of barbed wire--a relentless presence.

Each day, we would walk to the camp at Birkenau, to the railroad tracks that led to the selection platform where prisoners were chosen to live or die. Here we would form a circle and sit in meditation. At intervals, a shofar (ram's horn) would be blown, the sound that calls Jews to prayer on their holiest of days. At these moments, from the compass points of the circle, people would begin to chant the names of the dead. The Germans initially kept careful records of who they killed, and photocopies of these pages--bearing the names and numbers with which prisoners were tattooed, their date of birth and the day they were put to death--were given to us upon our arrival. Those with family who had died during the war added their names to the chant. Later in the week, some added the names of victims of other wars, other struggles, people who had died from AIDS.

Once a day, we would break into groups by religion and hold our respective ceremonies on the stone selection platform itself. The rabbi had prepared a special service and we sang and prayed with him. Across the platform, the Catholics were holding mass and giving communion. The Buddhists chanted, sang and drummed a ceremony called The Gate of Sweet Nectar. The Sufis formed a small, tight, revolving circle and from its midst I could hear their leader singing full-throated, her voice deep and wild. When the ceremonies ended, we would reassemble to say the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in Hebrew, English and Polish.

The selection platform stands between two gas chambers and crematoriums. The Germans had blown these up in an effort to hide their activities, but even in ruin, collapsed in on themselves, the buildings cannot hide their identity from you. "We are in the depths of Hell," the rabbi said when he saw them, but he said it with great tenderness.

"I was not prepared for the birch trees ... " begins a poem by Daniel Paley Ellison, who was also on the retreat. And neither was I. They were too beautiful. Beauty and humor were odd and incongruent in that place, but they happened.

On the third day, a group planning to hold a prayer vigil in one of the gas chambers assembled. A tiny, white-haired, very birdlike woman came rushing toward me, pointing at a bus and saying, "Oh my, I hope this is the bus to the gas chamber." I was shocked and just nodded. She began climbing the steps, then turned back to me and said, "Coming?" No, I thought, not getting on the bus to the gas chamber, no thank you, no. I just waved to her and she waved back, going to find her seat.

As the group began to draw together, I met other children of concentration camp survivors, among them my Polish counterpart, Dorata. Polish and Catholic, her father had been a Nazi prisoner, and most of her family had died in Auschwitz. Dorata was one of a group of girls I thought of as "the weeping Polish beauties." She was, for me, an unforeseen circumstance. She was there to bear witness to the suffering of the Poles in the face of the silence, occupation and subjugation. In her, I was forced to meet my anger and intolerance, finding my place in a kind of competition--the hierarchy of suffering--in this terrible place where intolerance had caused the death of millions.

I had told my mother I would look for her barrack. She knew the name, but said it so quickly, breathlessly, I wasn't sure what she was saying. Standing in Birkenau, with a map of the camp in front of me, I separated the syllables and realized that she had been saying, in German, 17C Fürnicht. She said the word Fürnicht bitterly. In Auschwitz, it was the place where one was less than a slave. Where one did not receive a tattoo. Where one was warehoused until there was room in the gas chamber.

I found the remains of 17C in a place where the wooden barracks had all been burned. All that was left were ruins, like burial plots, with a concrete floor and two tumbled-down brick chimneys on either side that probably never held fire in them. There were hundreds of these structures as far as one could see, separated by wire and more wire. I had a small group of people with me, but when I stepped into the barrack (I say "into," though it was open to the sky), I was alone. I had stuffed my pockets with Yarzheit (memorial) candles earlier, and I pulled one out, lit it and placed it on the chimney. There's a prayer for the dead, but no prayer, that I know of, for a life interrupted but not entirely destroyed. So we watched the candle burn. A white-tailed fawn appeared and stood watching us. It took off suddenly, vaulting walls, melting through barbed wire, till it was out of sight. We watched it go, and then the faraway blast of a shofar sounded. We were called back to our prayer circle on the railroad tracks.

Toward the end of our retreat, a woman came up to me and said, "You being here has made this more authentic for me, and I thank you." I thought it strange, but now I think I understand what she was trying to say--the presence of the child of a survivor made things more real for her, and in a way more bearable. It is impossible to stand in the middle of Auschwitz, looking at the miles and miles of rubble and barbed wire, and keep any kind of perspective on the experience of the people who had been interned there. It is too much, too vast, too far. It is possible to look at one single person and understand that what happened in Auschwitz happened to one person at a time, that each had a life, a name. In that way, one is able to concentrate on the act of remembering, of saying the Kaddish, of consecrating the ground as holy while at the same time realizing that one's efforts, one's prayers and songs and tears are drops in the ocean of suffering. EndBlock

  • Finding one's place in the hierarchy of human suffering.

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