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Meditating in Auschwitz

By Dorle Lommatzsch on
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jan 31 in Engaged Buddhism

MEDITATING IN AUSCHWITZ

Translated from the German by Judith N. Levi

January 2014

 

 Meditating in Auschwitz

Five days of meditating in Auschwitz. I believed that I was going to the most terrible place on earth, but what I found was a sacred place. A place of luminosity, intensity, a place of pure silence. A place of prayer and mourning. Here a part of me that until then had been wandering around restlessly, seeking and sighing, came to rest and came home. I felt thankful and still feel that thankfulness. Something in me can finally heal.

 

The Zen Peacemakers

One doesn't cope with a retreat in Auschwitz by oneself. I felt myself supported by many others who were in my thoughts. I experienced this as a great help. I also felt supported by the international group of participants, with whom I meditated every day in Auschwitz. At the beginning they were strangers; at the end, friends. Through this group I also experienced strength and support in order to transport myself into the monstrous suffering that human beings have the capacity to do to other human beings. By being carried in this way in the group, it became possible for me to recognize that I also carry in me the seed of treating other people cruelly [brutally, terribly].

The team of Zen Peacemakers (www.zenpeacemakers.com) that conducted this retreat accompanied us during these five days. None of them played the role of teacher. The teacher was Auschwitz itself. We   listened to what Auschwitz had to tell us: we meditated, recited the names of those who were murdered in the camp, performed rituals, and prayed at the barracks, the gas chambers, and the crematoria. Three tenets accompanied us in doing this.

Three Tenets

 

  • The first is Not-knowing. This means: I am ready to let go of my concepts, my assumptions, and my convictions; I am ready to recognize as a concept my distinction between good and bad, and my assumptions about what life is and how it should be. I am ready to come to my experiences with an open mind [without preconceptions]. This Not-knowing is different from turning away and shrugging my shoulders. It is much more the humble recognition that life is a miracle – with both horrible and wonderful sides.
  • The second tenet is bearing witness. To be a witness to the suffering and the joy in life. Not to turn away, be distracted, or become numb, but to let myself be touched. To be totally simple.
  • The third tenet is loving action. When I am ready to meet my experiences with an attitude of openness, when I have the courage to bear witness, then a calmness arises in me which leads to loving action. This is where compassion, strength, love, and insight arise, as well as the creativity to embody these properties through loving action.

These three tenets touched my heart deeply. They were effective tools, which helped me during those five days in Auschwitz. The longer the retreat went on, the better I understood these tenets. Each day, they became more important to me.

The Retreat

Auschwitz today is composed of two parts: concentration camp 1 with a museum on the Holocaust, and concentration camp 2, called Auschwitz-Birkenau, where we sat every day in a large circle on the ramp and meditated (see photo). This was the ramp to which the trains came in Auschwitz, and on this ramp some people were sent to the gas chambers and others to the work camp.

Every morning around 10 a.m. our group came together to the ramp to meditate. We were around 100 people – an international group, young and old, from the USA, Israel, Palestine, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, and France. Four Native Americans participated, in order to practice healing rituals here for the genocide of the native peoples of America.

The first part of the morning, we sat in silence. I don't think I've ever meditated so simply and easily. The intense stillness and openness on this patch of earth led me immediately into a sensitive, powerful, and alert awareness.

In the second and third meditation periods, the names of people murdered in Auschwitz were read out loud by four retreat participants, facing the four cardinal directions. Each of us had a list of about 50 names for this purpose. We could expand the list with names of people whom we ourselves knew [or knew of] who had become victims of the Holocaust or another genocide. I myself had three lists with me: from my family in Israel, a family list from a Dutch friend and colleague, and a list of names from one of my women students. On this third list of people murdered in Auschwitz were also names of children, of whom the youngest was just six months old, which especially disturbed me. For me personally, this was a very poignant moment— to read out loud at this place the names of those murdered, to honor them, and to mourn them. I experienced this especially with the names that I had received from my family in Israel and which I was allowed to read out loud. When I think back to this, I feel touched once again and thankful that I was trusted to honor them here and to commemorate them.

At noon each day we conducted a ritual in a barracks of the work camp or at the gas chambers and crematoria. One could participate in a Jewish, Christian, or Buddhist ritual. The Kaddish [the Jewish prayer for the dead] was recited there, most of the time in all the languages of those present. The ritual and prayer at the gas chambers, and the ponds into which the ashes of the murdered people had been scattered, moved me very much. The rawness, the suffering of the souls, the intensity of the suffering at this place were almost unbearable for me. And yet I wanted to come back precisely to this place. And so, I decided to go by myself on our last day to one of the gas chambers (which, by the way, all lie in ruins, since they were all destroyed at the end of the war, in order to eliminate evidence of the extermination camp).

The last day's ritual

I needed to perform a totally personal ritual. Although I don't personally carry any guilt, I have felt the guilt of the German people in my cells for as long as I can remember. For a long time, I didn't know that, but I became conscious of it in the course of time and after a lot of inner work. Because of this feeling – and perhaps also, because our parents felt very guilty as Germans – I carried a feeling of remorse in my heart. I can't explain it, but it came straight from my heart. I came to understand that my remorse as a German is one step toward the healing of the murdered souls – and also one step toward my own healing and that of our family, which had been deeply damaged and traumatized by the war.

For this reason, I went to Crematorium V on Friday. At the edge of the crematorium, I erected a small altar with a candle and several symbols that were valuable to me. On the altar I also placed a drawing of Marian Kolodzieja. Marian Kolodzieja is a survivor who began to paint his terrible experiences in Auschwitz only when he turned 70, after having kept silent about this his whole life. I also added a photo of my parents in their wedding year of 1943.

I conducted a Buddhist ritual, at which I was able to mourn and to weep. It did me good. I understood that this place of atrocities had become a place of healing too – a place of reciprocal healing.   My prayer helped the souls and at the same time, I felt healed and comforted by them. I can't explain this, but my experience of this impressed me deeply.

Gratitude

 

Since I have come back to the Netherlands, I sense that a lot still needs to be worked through and to find its place. Filled with gratitude, I think of the Zen Peacemakers who made this retreat possible. I am also thankful to the other hundred courageous participants, all of whom I have taken into my heart. And I feel great gratitude to all those who want to hear and share my experiences. That is also a part of my healing.



The German version of the original essay (also available in Dutch) is from Dorle Lommatzsch's website, at: http://www.openbewustzijn.nl/de/mindfulness-en-oorlogstrauma/mediteren-in-auschwitz.html . It describes her participation in a Zen Peacemakers Bearing Witness Retreat in Auschwitz (Poland) in 2011.

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