I have just returned from twelve days in Poland. I went as a photographer and participant in an interfaith meditation retreat at Auschwitz organized by the 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 fifty years ago, and to listen for the ways in which those events echo in our lives today.

Peter Muryo Matthiessen and Roshi Glassman at Birkenau.
Peter Muryo Matthiessen and Roshi Glassman at Birkenau.

I must start by advising everyone that to tell a Polish joke around me is to risk my violent wrath. This is a country that has suffered tremendously and is poised for rebirth. Our trauma in the US and in Western Europe ended fifty-one years ago, while theirs did not end until about 5 minutes ago. My own ignorance had left me unaware of the significance of the Warsaw uprising in 1944 (as opposed to that of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943). In the summer of 1944, as the Red Army approached from the east, the Polish resistance staged a major rebellion in an attempt to oust the Nazis and gain control of the government before a potential Communist takeover. But the Russians perversely paused on the east side of the Vistula before entering the cit to take over for the next fifty years. They waited for the Germans to finish their slaughter of 800,000 citizens (the population was 1.3 million in 1939); 90% of the buildings of this beautiful medieval city were entirely destroyed and fewer than 5,000 Poles survived. Every Pole living here today has a family member who died in the Warsaw Uprising, and they speak of an entire generation that lost all its poets and idealists. I was impressed that the current generation of Polish children are all taken on school trips to visit Auschwitz; they seem to be well educated about what the Nazis did to the Jews and to their own people. So although there may be much history for the Poles to reexamine themselves, I suggest we find another ethnic group to kick around (if we must), and if you have a vote, I would urge you to use it to admit Poland into NATO. They need time to heal, and given their position on the map, they will surely need protection again one day.

Singing in the remains of the gas chamber.
Singing in the remains of the gas chamber.

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 seven full days. Most people who come here stay for only a few hours. But if you stay for some extended time, you may discover parts of yourself you never expected to find in a place like this.

Our group assembled from around the United States, Poland, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Israel, the Netherlands, and Ireland. 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 Los Angeles, born in Argentina, whose grandparents, a German Lutheran and German Jew, emigrated in disgust from their country in 1933. We laughed and cried together; he denies he snored. I averaged three hours of sleep and lost all desire for coffee, alcohol, and food. Each day we all walked an hour from Auschwitz I, where we slept, to Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau (“place of birches”—the Poles pointedly never use the famous German name; they call it “Brzezinka”). Birkenau was a

 Star of David and crucifix at Birkenau.
Star of David and crucifix at Birkenau.

vast complex of ruins left exactly as it was the day the Nazis blew it up. The rail line, which enters the main gate from the south, bisects the camp—women’s barracks and children’s barracks to the west andmen’s 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 Josef Mengele, would conduct a visual inspection and point prisoners 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, a map from South Carolina named Nolan, objected loudly when an otherwise exemplary tour guide failed to mention the homosexual prisoners in his introductory talk. Nolan also brought great laughter to the grounds of Auschwitz by observing, with a hint of glee, that “in the barracks where the SS men once lived and worked, homosexuals are now gathering to sew pink triangles.” One evening ended (controversially) in a similar tone of joyous defiance, with most of us dancing the hora before a statue depicting a suffering inmate. For me, it was an audacious act of laughing in the Nazis’ faces, as if to say: you tried your best to wipe us off the face of the earth, but you failed miserably.

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