Notes on returning from Auschwitz 12/1/96
by Peter Cunningham

I have just returned from 12 days in Poland. I went as a photographer and participant in an interfaith meditation retreat at Auschwitz organized by Roshi Bernard Glassman and his new Zen Peacemaker Order. During American Thanksgiving week a group of 150 people - Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Sufi Muslims - gathered for meditation and discussion, to bear witness to what happened at Auschwitz 50 years ago, and to listen for the ways in which those events echo in our lives today.

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A couple of days in Cracow A great undestroyed old European town. Invest here. Visit as a tourist. From Cracow it is an hour by taxi or train to Auschwitz-Birkenau where many of us spent 7 full days. Most people who come here stay for only a few hours. If you ever get the opportunity, try to come here for some extended time, and you may discover parts of yourself that you never expected to find in a place like this.

Our group assembled from Poland, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Israel, Holland, Great Britain, and America. In attendance were Buddhist teachers and priests, Catholic monks and nuns, Jewish Rabbis, and a Sufi Imam. We slept on the grounds of the Auschwitz I Concentration Camp. My assigned roommate was a veteran Zen practitioner from LA, born in Argentina, whose grandparents, a German Lutheran and German Jew, emmigrated in disgust from their country in 1933. We laughed and cried together, he denies he snored. I averaged 3 hours of sleep and lost all desire for coffee, alcohol, and food.

Each morning we walked an hour from Auschwitz I (now a plain & powerful museum complex) to Auschwitz II better known as Birkenau ("place of birches" -the Poles pointedly never use the famous German name, they call it "Brzezinka"). Birkenau is a vast complex of ruins left exactly as it was the day the Nazis blew it up(to destroy evidence of their crimes. The rail line, which enters the main gate from the South, bisects the camp - women's barracks and children's barracks to the West and men to the East. Trains from all over Europe would stop at the center of the camp where the "cargo" was unloaded and lined up; German doctors, often led by Joseph Mengele, would do a visual inspection and point them to the work camps on the east and west sides or to the gas chamber at the North end.

Homosexuals and gypsies were separated. One of our group, Nolan from South Carolina, objected loudly when an otherwise exemplary tour guide failed to mention the homosexual prisoners in his brief introductory talk.
He also brought great laughter to the grounds of Auschwitz by observing, with a hint of glee, that "in the barracks where SS men once lived and worked, homosexuals are now gathering to sew pink triangles". With a similar tone of joyous defiance, one evening ended (controversially) with most of us dancing the hora around a statue depicting the suffering of a prisoner. For me, it was an audacious act of laughing in the Nazi's faces as if to say, you tried your best to wipe us off the face of the Earth, but you failed miserably.


On arrival in the morning our group split for separate services - Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim - and then assembled around the tracks at the place where these life and death decisions were made. We would form a large ellipse, about 75 yards long, and sit in meditation for about 45 minutes. We were each given a list of names from the Nazi Death Books (lists compiles by the Gestapo of names of prisoners who were put to work but subsequently died; lost are the names of over a million deportees who went directly to the gas chambers). We took turns of 10 minutes each reading aloud names from list and names we wanted to add from our own experience. I added the the names of two of my friends' families, and of my own great grandmother who died at Bergen-Belsen, a fate I had only learned a month before.
It was cold, it was warm, it was sunny, it was gray, and it snowed nearly every day. We sat still, outside in the winter, feeling the changing light, and sounds, and weather all around us. We were mostly comfortable, dressed warmly, but during the war the prisoners here passed colder winters than this dressed only in light striped cotton uniforms and shoes that didn't fit.


After the sitting period we did kinhin (slow walking meditation) to the gas chamber-crematorium complex 200 yards to the North, where a Rabbi led the entire group in reciting the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in Hebrew and in a new English translation as well as in German, French, Polish, and Italian. Back outside the main gate for a bowl of soup (no spoon) and a hunk of bread, and then we return for another meditation period and interfaith service where there was singing and the offering of candles. On the last night we descended into the ruin that was the crematorium compound: the undressing area, the gas chamber, the gold extraction area, and the crematorium itself. We offered candles in the snow to the victims who died in that place and whose presence was palpable to everyone. Swiss nuns led us in a lullaby. We walked back from Birkenau to Auschwitz in the dark.


After supper each night the full group met and people spoke from their hearts. After supper each night the full group met and people spoke of their experiences. A German economist, Stefan Collignon, spoke eloquently of the koan he received from a Korean master, "Why do we eat". Thinking of the potential he sees for the repetition of this horrible history, and reminded of the goddess-columns supporting the Acropolis in Greece, he concluded, "We eat to hold the roof up."

A French Zen Priest, Michel Dubois, spoke of the pain that comes through his heart and how the more Pain he feels here, the more Joy and Love he feels coming through the opening portholes. He felt love arising from the souls trapped in this place, and felt grateful to his relatives and all the others who died here.

An Austrian and a German spoke of recently learning they had fathers in the SS and mothers who were Jewish, and another German, Heinz-Juergen Metzger, said "It was always taboo in my family to speak about the war, silence prevailed. But this has left me in an impossible position: I cannot really to be proud of my family for not taking part in something, but I also cannot forgive them because I don't know what they did". And a Polish woman recounted how she only recently found out she was Jewish and was groping for her identity in an Eastern European world that is changing so quickly around her.

Sleep was scheduled after the talks, but several of us soon learned that the security at the Auschwitz Camp was really a trompe-l'oiel (the Polish officials handle this delicate question very well: all barbed wire has places you can pass through if you look hard enough and the seldom seen guards are never heard). We found the way into the maze and we would walk slowly through the camp for hours in the darkness. The silence was often pierced by the wailing of a Shofar (traditional Jewish ram's horn); we would trace the source and find Brian Rich (a Buddhist Priest and now Sufi Muslim just back from 4 years study in Turkey) and Don Singer (Rabbi & Zen teacher) at the execution wall blowing the Shofar as loudly and as often as they could inside these walls of death. I do not yet understand, so I cannot fully express the reasons, but we felt a complete sense of freedom and love on those walks inside the barbed wire. It was if the souls of those who died were handing over to us the feelings that were prematurely taken away from them, that they never got to use themselves. This gift of life was completely unexpected and exhilerating.

I would typically sleep 2-4 hours, wake at 5, wait for the bell to ring at 6 (108 chimes), and attend a small group meeting at 7 (before breakfast). I was fortunate in my small group assignment: the leader was Peter Matthiessen,writer and Zen teacher; to start the meetings Peter invoked an old Plains Indian tradition of holding hands silently in a circle until someone was moved to speak. Also in the group was Bernie Glassman - widely regarded as the leading Zen visionary in America, and now founder of the 'Zen Peacemaker Order', and a woman named Reza Leah Landman who dresses like a gypsy and bills herself as a Jewish nun. Reza Leah is an intellectual who argues that there will be no healing until Christians understand that every Jew killed was another Christ crucified. Also in the group was a Polish woman, Marzena Rey, who was exiled in Germany because of her activities as an organizer with Solidarity and was only able to return to Poland three years ago. During the week, she was instrumental in encouraging the Poles at the retreat to find their own voice....they seem to have developed habits of withdrawn silence after years under the Nazis and then the Communists. And there was Eve Marco, a remarkable woman who pulled off the difficult feat of being primary organizer for the event and elegantly spare master of ceremonies, while at the same time addressing the emotional legecy of her own family many of which had been killed here. We were also joined briefly by Danny Goldberg, the president of a major American record company and principal in an organization called the Social Venture Network which is dedicated to making business more socially responsible. At first I was intimidated by this formitable group, but by the second day I found myself arguing vehemently about effective means to avert reoccurrence of the history we were surrounded by. My hot opinions may have done little but stir the morning air, but the act of putting down the camera and speaking up was very cathartic for this usually silent photographer. Our little morning discussion group became an ephemeral family of immense intimacy.


Throughout the day, when we weren't sitting silently, the talk continued. Everywhere you turned there was a conversation with a stranger who was going through a unique experience. I met two Europeans who told stories of being born of Jewish mothers and SS fathers, and I met several who, like myself, had parents who never spoke of their war experiences, or who were not told they were of Jewish heritage until they were older. I entered this retreat thinking my own story was hardly worth mentioning next to those that involved more bloody horrors, but I learned that the scars on these children of silence were deep, widespread, and well hidden. My mother, at age 19, left Vienna on the last train before the Anschluss in 1938. She grew up in a long assimilated Austrian-Jewish family with no religious affiliation and developed the instincts of a peacemaker-mediator. In the charged atmosphere of Vienna in the 30's, she tried to get her classmates, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, together for constructive dialogue. My parents subsequently brought me up in a Massachusetts community Congregational-Unitarian church where I was president of the "Pilgrim Fellowship" and was not aware of my Jewish roots until I was 20. My parents values were molded by a life experience where such ethnic and religious distinctions had brought a catastrophic conflict that ended the world as they knew it. I spent a couple decades working through resentment about being "deceived" and readjusting to my new identity, but speaking with children of silence in Auschwitz I developed even more compassion for my mother, and others who had to cope with more extreme situations than hers. Given the virulent anti-Jewish propaganda of the 30's (not to mention the centuries before) and the traumatic choices many people had to make, it is not so surprising that silence has prevailed among both the oppressors and the oppressed.

I made a new friend from Berlin whose Jewish mother married a Gestapo officer - his connections managed to keep her family outside the gates of Terezenstadt, but, having to fit in so completely into the countryside, the mother suffered a kind of schizophrenic split. Even now, she is completely unable to speak about her Jewish roots. If asked she says she doesn't remember and if pressed she breaks into tears. Fifty years has passed and it is still so difficult for so many people and it is so understandable.

Back in New York now, the concentration camp reality seems a dream - really like a dream - just as my New York world seemed a dream from inside the barbed wire. (I am reminded of Chuang Tzu wondering if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.) To live amidst such incomprehensible horror... I could grasp parts of the totality part of the time, but I could never come near wrapping my mind entirely around what actually happened here - in the museum you would see a vast sea of braids, hair cut off Jewish and Polish women...or a long display case filled with trashed artificial limbs... or gas canisters...or a mountain range of toothbrushes and combs....or the children's clothes in a case below photographs of child-twins who were the subjects of Dr.Mengele's experiments aimed to find ways to more quickly spread the pure master race.

But for me the most frightening thing....on a walk to the extreme north-eastern corner of the camp, I found a building sporting a large crucifix looming over the 220 volt electric barbed wire. The building was originally built as the new SS Headquarters, but had been given to the Catholic Church in 1982 to be used as a retreat center. Unfinished when the war ended, it had been intended as central command for the coming EXPANSION of the already huge Birkenau Concentration Camp. Auschwitz was only in full killing operation for a year and a half. Previous to 1943 it had been primarily a forced labor camp with a large Polish population which killed anyone not fit for work. In '43 the operation accelerated and most Jews arriving on the trains were directly gassed and cremated; even when the war was obviously lost, the killing continued to ACCELERATE.
The Jews were certainly the #1 target, but these people wanted to eliminate everyone who was not like them genetically or ideologically, and if they had succeeded I'm certain these death factories would have expanded without limit.


This is enough to say for now, but there is much more, only some of which I am yet aware. In part because we all lacked the capacity to constantly feel the total horror that is omnipresent, this became a very provocative place to spend extended period of time. One is forced to integrate these interrupted lives - these trapped souls - into one's consciousness, they are looking over one's shoulder all the time, they demand that you PAY ATTENTION, not just to them, but to your own life and mind. Perhaps it's not an accident that they call this a "CONCENTRATION CAMP". Those souls lay in wait wielding huge kayusaku (big Zen awakening sticks), and when you are tempted to act selfishly or when you let your mind wander from the present moment , they immediately see, and they whack you hard over your shoulders; you feel a fool, but you wake up right away. On the other hand, when your concentration is complete, when you are fully alive, awake in this place, you feel in some way that you are releasing these souls from their bondage. If not literally, then in the sense that you are breathing for them the breaths that they were never allowed to take. It is at once an inspiring opportunity and a heavy responsibility to breath or weep or smile or speak or just maintain silence on behalf of these spirits. This is a place of great intensity. It is a place for great sorrow and great joy, for great bitterness and great love. This mix of emotions was a complete surprise to me and to others in our group, but I think this is why many people consider Auschwitz a Holy Place, and why it was, for me, a pilgrimage that became a personal transformation.

Zen Peacemaker Order

Photographs and text by Peter Cunningham
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An edited version of this essay appears in the Spring 1997 issue of
Tricycle Magazine
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