by Swami Saradananda
just returned from a ‘plunge’ into the unknowing. The ‘Bearing Witness’
retreat in Auschwitz, organised by the Peacemaker Community, was a momentous
experience on a personal as well as a spiritual level. Also, from a practical
point of view, after organising programmes for the Sivananda Organisation
for more than twenty-five years, it was quite an eye-opener into the ways
that other people organise things.
While speaking, Bernie mentioned his annual ‘Bearing Witness’ retreat at Auschwitz. For some reason, I was immediately intrigued and mentioned to him that I would very much like to be part of that experience. His reaction was completely open and inviting. The retreat is meant as an inter-faith event, but they had never had any Hindu representative – or any yogis.
When I learned the dates, I realised that there was one big problem – it exactly coincided with the dates of the executive board meeting in the Himalayas. There had to be major changes in my life to enable me to attend.
often work out as we least expect. When I returned from Mount Kailas, I
found a email awaiting me from Genro, of the Peacemaker Community, saying
that Bernie had suggested that I might like to take part in the retreat
as a member of the clergy.
enjoyed ourselves walking around the medieval streets, sightseeing and
drinking coffee in elegant cafes. I could only wonder what the people of
Krakow must have thought when the ashes of Auschwitz dirtied their lace
curtains. The beauty of the city that weekend made it even harder to imagine
the horror that we would begin to confront on Monday.
Many people had come from the U.S.; many participants were from Germany and various parts of Europe; there was a contingent from Japan. We were an unusual assortment of people, who probably would never have met if this retreat had not brought us together. The informal experience of walking around the now-unused synagogues and old cemeteries of Kasimiriz gave us the opportunity to introduce ourselves and to form underlying friendships. We asked each other the same questions, “Why are you here? Why did you choose to come on this retreat?”
Kazimierz is a ghost town which is slowly reincarnating as a tourist attraction.
The Nazis had turned it into a ghetto, and then annihilated the inhabitants.
The Soviet era had seen continued pogroms, and in the late 1960’s all Polish
Jews were offered a one-way ticket to Israel. Very few remain, mostly older
people. Now the area is being rebuilt, mainly with American money. Jewish
restaurants and clubs playing Jewish music are appearing; every summer
there is a Jewish cultural festival.
The artist, Marion Kolodziej, is a survivor of Auschwitz. After the war, he worked as a scene designer in the Polish theatre. Many people knew him as a loving, kindly man – and he never mentioned his experiences. Then one day, many years later, he turned up at the Franciscan Monastery and started painting. His pictures cannot be put into words – they are the stark representations of humanity’s worst nightmares, somehow manifesting in physical form.
Marion himself spoke with great warmth, and apparent lack of animosity towards his former oppressors. He told us that “the only way to stay alive is to stay active. Never let the fire go out. Always stay human and work for the future of humanity. Never become like a robot.
I have painted is my own inner experience. These monsters are within each
one of us. Therefore it is important to have an inner scale and constantly
measure each action we do.”
My first impression of the camps, as there were really three parts of Auschwitz, was one of vastness. As we drove by, it seemed to stretch on and on. We did not go into the Camp on the first day, but went to our rooms. Half of the group stayed at the Centre for Dialogue and the rest of us at the Youth Hostel. Conditions were very basic, but with all basic comforts. We were asked to keep our lives as simple as possible for the next few days, out of respect for those who had suffered here.
After registration, we settled ourselves and rested a bit before dinner. The food throughout the retreat was vegetarian and simple. We began each meal with five minutes of silence – and one table was designated for people who wanted to eat the entire meal in silence.
Most people sat together and chatted. It was an opportunity to bond with our fellow pilgrims. I realised that this retreat was a healing journey. Often, when we experience violence, a part of us seems to depart. In many traditional communities there are shamans, people who go into that ‘other world’ and bring back the missing part of the spirit. Family and friends would be waiting to welcome the spirit back. It is important that the spirit return to a loving environment. Otherwise, it feels that ‘nothing has changed’ and again departs. In the modern world, we often lack this support. One great beauty of the Auschwitz retreat was the feeling of community. This provided the necessary safety net, for each participant to go out into the unknown and bring back some missing part of him/herself.
This sense of security was one of the main components of what I experienced as the most extraordinary part of the retreat. We were 141 pilgrims, travelling together. Yet we were told that there were 141 personal retreats going on. In order to enhance each person’s experience, we were divided into small groups. With ten people in each group, we followed the native American technique of ‘Counsel’. There was an experienced ‘facilitator’ in each group, as well as an assistant or trainee. Each person was given the opportunity to speak, but only the person holding the ‘talking piece’ could speak. Thus only one person spoke at a time. There was no cross-talk or interrupting. Each person was asked to speak from the heart about what she/he was experiencing at that precise moment. The others in the group were asked to listen from the heart. No intellectualising was permitted – no talk of what we had heard or had read in books. We were to speak from our hearts, not from our heads.
to this technique, I felt a bit inhibited at first. But as the retreat
progressed, and we became more comfortable with each other, I was amazed
at the outpouring of Truthfulness. Each person expressed his/her own Truth,
but somehow we felt that we shared the experience. This was amazing in
itself, as there were so many different people there – so many different
types of people. There were Auschwitz survivors, and survivors of other
concentration camps. There were people who had had their entire families
disappear in the camps, and people whose parents had been SS officers.
There were people whose parents had survived Auschwitz, only to commit
suicide many years later, and people whose parents had been shot by the
SS for harbouring Jews. And there were people whose entire family had comfortably
sat out the war.
We entered Auschwitz through its famous gate, on which had been cynically emblazoned the words “Work is liberating”. We toured the barracks, saw the maps and heard the stories. Finally we ended up standing next to the execution wall. There in the place that had been dedicated to the extermination of differences, we celebrated our differences. There were calls to prayer in six religious traditions: Jewish, Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist and Native American. The Nazis had killed Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the handicapped – anyone who was different in any way from their ‘Aryan’ ideal.
and Russian dissidents had been brought to the execution wall to be shot.
Men and women of the underground resistance had been hung. Ninety per cent
of the people who died in Auschwitz had been Jewish – but many others died
as well. In that place dedicated to the extermination of Jews, the Kaddish
(Jewish prayer for the dead) was celebrated in six different languages.
9 – 10 am Breakfast
10.30 – 11.30 Meditation at the ‘selection site’
11.30 – 12.30 Religious services
1.30 – 2.30 pm Meditation at the ‘selection site’
3 – 4 pm Kaddish (Jewish prayer for the dead) near the gas chambers
7.30 – 9 pm Evening programme
The retreat schedule was a beautiful balance of meditation, prayer and personal expression. We began each morning with our small group counsels at 7 am. This lasted for an hour and a half, and was followed by breakfast. Then we walked, or took the bus, to Auschwitz II, the biggest part of the Camp. Daily we sat on the ‘selection site’ and meditated.
It is just over fifty-five years since the last cattle car arrived. They had come from all over Europe, from as far away as Istanbul, Athens and France, carrying Jews for extermination. The Germans in their efficiency had built a railroad track right into the Camp. This has been featured in several movies; the best known are ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Sophie’s Choice’.
When the trains reached their destination, people were herded out by the thousands and made to line up. Men on one side; women and children on the other. They were then ‘selected’ by the SS doctors. The old, children and the weak went directly to the gas chamber. The young and healthy lived in the Camp as slave workers; most died from cold, starvation, exhaustion, disease and subsequent ‘selections’.
At one time there had been 400,000 people living in Auschwitz II – the population of a medium-sized city. The efficiency of the gas chambers increased. We saw the early versions, which could kill ‘only’ seven hundred people at a time. However, the problem was disposing of the bodies – eight could be burned at a time, and each body took almost half an hour. We were told the statistics and found ourselves doing the calculations. By the end of the war, efficiency had greatly increased; seventy thousand people were being murdered in Auschwitz each day. Towards the end of the war, in order to destroy as much of the evidence as possible, the Nazis had blown up most of the gas chambers. Now, only the ruins remain.
Each day we sat and meditated at the ‘selection site’. We chanted the names of many of those people who had died there. Then we walked to the ruined gas chambers. It was a pilgrimage to the abode of God in His destructive form, a glimpse at the face of Lord Siva dancing in the cremation ground.
Religious services were held by six clergy – Jewish, Christian, Moslem, Buddhist, Native American, and Hindu. As the Peacemaker Community is dedicated to the equal partnership of women and men, the clergy representation of each sex was equal.
Daily I sat amidst the ruins of the crematorium and performed Siva puja. I worshipped the beautiful crystal Siva lingam, which was given to me at the end of the Kailas yatra. Each day, at the end of the puja, I marvelled at the many blessings within my own life. In June, I had darshan of Lord Siva in His Himalayan abode, Mount Kailas. In November, just 5 months later, I had His darshan in Auschwitz.
‘All is God’ that means that we must learn to see Him not only in sunny
skies and happy faces. It is easy to ‘see’ God in those who are nice to
us. But it is an extreme spiritual test to really behold Him in ALL names
Lunch was always served outside of the gates of Auschwitz II (actually Birkenau). We were given bowls. These were to be used, kept, washed and brought back the next day – otherwise there was nothing to eat out of. Each day a truck came with soup and bread. It was a simple meal, but as we ate, each of us thought of the ‘hungry spirits’ who still inhabit the Camp. We can no longer give them physical food, but our prayers and good thoughts nourish their souls and help them to find a bit of peace after their long ordeal.
The experience of so many restless spirits is most tangible. Each day, after lunch we returned to the ‘selection site’ for our second sitting and chanting of names. Then we walked to the ruins of the gas chambers for evening Kaddish (Jewish prayer for the dead). People sang songs, people cried, many remembered ones who had perished and/or suffered here. We lit candles around the pond where the ashes had been dumped. Some days, after the Kaddish, many of us walked down into the ‘undressing’ area just before the gas chamber itself. People had come here after a long and distressing train ride. They had been told that they would have a shower before entering the Camp. They were promised a shower and were given a cruel death. They were forced to undress and were herded into the ‘shower’ rooms. In order to reinforce the promise of a shower, the rooms had even been fitted with shower heads. Then the doors were locked and the gas pellets dropped. I’ve read reports that it often took up to fifteen minutes for everyone to die. There was panic and a mad rush for the door. Many died in the stampede.
walk into the ‘undressing’ area was a chilling and unnerving experience.
I found it hard to breath. The air was still full of the panic of the many
who had died there.
Sofia, a delicate Polish sculptress, had survived the infamous Ravensbruck Camp. She, along with many other young woman, had been chosen for the dreaded medical experiments, but had run away. She believed that “Only one who loved and knew that he was loved could survive the horror.”
One afternoon, towards the end of the retreat, I found myself emotionally exhausted. As we finished the Kaddish ceremony near the gas chamber, I suddenly experienced a great wave of negativity. What was I doing here? What good would it do anyway? I thought to go to a movie as a sign of rebellion. Instead, I walked away from the group and through the Camp. I walked and walked, finally boarded the bus and fell asleep. When we reached the Youth Hostel, I went to my room and slept through until morning.
was the night that many people kept vigil in the women’s barracks; it was
the one programme that I did not attend. Most people sat, chanted and talked
until around 9 pm, but many stayed the night to sing and meditate.
I was impressed by the work, planning and money that must have gone into building and maintaining this place of death and torment. Yet out of the ashes of the pain, when we allow ourselves to come face-to-face with the Unknowable, and do not try to judge, great joy can arise.
The final programme, the Shabbat dinner was a manifestation of that joy. We had been together for only five days. Yet we had experienced many lifetimes together. We had laughed and cried together. In my morning group, one of the participants had said something very beautiful, which I felt summed up many of the revelations I had had. I hope that I do not break confidentiality by sharing his words, but they were so beautiful that I had to write them down:
“Love is not about being nice. Love has power to it that is not just sweet. The root of the power of love and that of hate are the same. Hate is only perverted love. The energy that gives someone the power to annihilate falsehood is facing the Truth within him/herself. When this happens, one is free to do anything. One is totally alive with the energy of Love.”
It is important to for each of us to remember the negative activities which we are capable of engaging in – personally and collectively. To make real spiritual progress, we must honestly look at our own defects so that we can know how to remove them. This is an on-going progress.
I would like to thank Bernie Glassman for his incredible, creative vision – which has given so many people the tools to engage themselves in this process. Thanks to Andrzej Krajewski, the Polish co-ordinator, who was really the key to the retreat. Also, my deepest thanks to Eve Marko, Genro, Teju and all the other people who worked so hard and made this transforming event possible. My love goes out to my fellow pilgrims. May the Lord bless you all with great joy.
in His Service
we always have the courage to bear witness
authour of this article is Swami Saradananda, a direct disciple of Swami