A DIALOGUE AT THE GATES OF HELL:
THE CONVOCATION AT AUSCHWITZ,
The sun cutting through the early morning haze reveals a sight the architects of Birkenau could never have imagined in their wildest dreams. A woman Rabbi from the United States is saying Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, amid the ruins of Crematoria #3. The 200 men and women holding hands and echoing her words include Buddhist monks, Christian ministers, gay men and women of all faiths, veterans of the Vietnam War, veterans of the Waffen SS, children of Gestapo chiefs, children of Holocaust survivors, and survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. They have come from fifteen different countries on five separate continents. It is the third day of the Convocation at Auschwitz.
This convocation took place December 4 - 8, 1994 in Oswiecim, Poland, the site of Auschwitz, the most murderous of the dozens of concentration camps operated by the Nazis during World War II. In the decades since, the camp has become an internationally known memorial and shrine. In order to mark the 50th anniversary of the war from the standpoint of honoring peace, the Convocation has invited 200 interfaith representatives for dialogue, prayer, and reconciliation.
Located in the southwest corner of Poland, Auschwitz is actually two separate camps (a third, the slave-labor factory of Monowicz, was razed after the war). Auschwitz I was created in 1940 from an abandoned artillery barracks. Though lethal enough to its prisoners, the atrocities committed there paled before Auschwitz II or Birkenau, built in 1942 for 200,000 prisoners and four gas chamber-crematoria complexes. Birkenau was the true killing zone and the site of the infamous selection ramp where those stumbling from the trains were sent either to the gas or spared for the slow torture of starvation and overwork. An estimated two million men, women, and children were slaughtered at Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1940-1944, 90% of them Jews.
Saturday, December 3rd
"The train jolted...and a slit of light appeared. Through the crack, she saw the clear, blue sky, a sky that belonged to the world outside the Auschwitz kingdom of death." -Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust.
I arrive at Auschwitz by train. It is possible to take a bus or cab but the railroad was the vehicle that transported the victims of Auschwitz so I feel honor bound to follow in their tracks. What was it like to come here 50 years ago, a one-way passage to a nightmare known only in whispers? Unconsciously, I expect to find the town frozen in time with German soldiers, an unspeakable cloud of smoke filling the horizon. Instead, I exit the terminal into crowds of schoolchildren with Walkmans frequenting electronics stores and Coca-Cola stands. The antique town center is still present but rivaled by the industrial sprawl of dozens of factories that belch their untreated discharges into the sky. The air is clogged with a thick, gray haze that defies the cold winter air. Both camps are preserved and remain west of the town. As I ride a taxi to the German Reconciliation Youth Center, the driver informs me there is one Jew living in Oswiecim today.
Sunday, December 4th
"Then Hanukkah came to Bergen-Belsen...A jug of oil was not to be found, no candle was in sight. Instead, a wooden clog became the hanukkiah, strings pulled from a camp uniform, a wick".
-"Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust"
Hanukkah at Auschwitz. The thought alone was my catalyst for coming here. Despite their sufferings, Jews clandestinely celebrated the high holy days in the camps, but never in large groups before the main gate of Auschwitz I inscribed with "Arbeit Macht Frei" - "Work Makes You Free". Composed as a serious maxim by Commandant Rudolf Hoess, it is one of the indelible icons of Auschwitz. The last night of the Festival of Lights is our first experiment as an interfaith group. The Nipponzan Myohoji order of Buddhist mendicants leads a chanting procession through the gloom of the Lager night. The Grimm-like guard towers, sporting lightning rods for protection, loom malevolently from the shadows. We carry dozens of menorahs constructed from brass fittings and tongue depressors to place at the foot of the gate. They surround the centerpiece: a wooden clog of the sort worn by camp inmates but used tonight as a sacred vessel of radiance.
The first of what are to become routine images are witnessed this night: Japanese monks in their saffron robes; solitary figures huddled in private prayer; small groups embracing with shaking shoulders; a blending of Judaic, Christian and Buddhist litanies. The atmosphere is charged with both excitement and sobriety. History is being written at this moment, recorded by a few free-lance photographers and our own memories.
The ceremony ends and some wander over to the waiting buses. Those who remain are unwilling or unable to depart from the Gate with its flickering candles, some of which are laid along the barbed wire fencing. In the silence, an Israeli hymn makes its way around the semi-circle of figures. "Henay Matov" - "It is good to be together with your brothers and sisters." Especially tonight, for the potency of Auschwitz is beginning to assert itself. Sporadic sobs break the night and are smothered by affection. No one moves until the security guard comes along and tells us that he needs to lock up for the night.
Monday, December 5th
"You couldn't cry in Auschwitz. You cried, you died. If you showed even more weakness than you already had, you didn't survive the day."
-Michael Vogel, Auschwitz survivor
The Convocation returns to Auschwitz I the following morning. By day, the streets beyond the Gate are orderly and lined with poplar trees that stand at attention in even rows. The two-story brick barracks remind one of stately Dutch barns. This rustic tableau is surrounded on all sides by double rows of barbed wire and the omnipresent guard towers. The Auschwitz State Museum is located here and has converted several of these structures into exhibits of Nazi barbarity. The most troubling are rooms heaped with the possessions the Germans looted from the unsuspecting arrivals. When the Russians overran the camp in January 1945, they found 30 warehouses full of suitcases, eyeglasses, pots and pans, artificial limbs, and shaving kits (a fortune of stolen currency and jewelry was deposited in Swiss banks). Today, a remnant of this plunder fills several chambers.
Even if forewarned of what to expect, the effect is devastating. "It hits you where you live" is the trembling observation of Paula Green, one of the organizers of the conference. She loses her composure when confronted by an ocean of women's hair, shorn from the inmates and now graying into eternity. A gay man cringes as he sees a striped prison uniform with the pink triangle, the Nazi designation for "Asocial/Homosexual". Sheila Weinberg, the rabbi of Amherst, Massachusetts, walks up to a showcase filled with beautifully embroidered taluses, the Jewish prayer shawls of the faithful. Her body visibly slumps, as though struck by a giant hammer.
I am a teacher whose life is surrounded by young people. In Block 5, there is a small table containing toddlers’ shoes, rubber nipples, and little threadbare sweaters, testament for the one and one half million children whose lives were snuffed out by the Sho'ah. My students have voluntarily written letters to their peers and asked me to bring them here. It is on this table that I lay them and suddenly it is as though the souls of all these murdered children, a white light of sorrow, are roaring through my heart forcing me to collapse on the stone floor weeping. Through a filter of tears, I am lifted up by strangers who form around the table and say Kaddish. I can barely speak. I feel as though I am channeling the Holocaust, for the grief is so strong and other-worldly as to enter the realm of the holy. This Sacred Grief is filled with rightness and a richness that is curiously intoxicating. It is, however, unstoppable, like a fractured floodgate. Even the most secular among us admit that the spirits of the victims are tangible here in Auschwitz. By allowing ourselves to open up to them, we honor those who were never mourned, much less put to rest with dignity.
Still, everyone's nerves are frayed after the Museum visit. Too many emotions have been let loose and reconciliation between anyone seems like a chimera. During an afternoon discussion of responses to the Holocaust, Sara, the Jewish partner of the video documentary film team, counsels us not to rush too quickly into superficial gestures of good will but to acknowledge our rage. This rage is deep and volcanic. The afternoon is a swirl of catharsis. From the tight faces around the circle, it is difficult to imagine tomorrow's visit to the hecatomb of Birkenau. Will the shock of confronting the gas chambers force us even further apart?
One figure sits in the background and serenely observes the turmoil. Wrapped up in a bulbous orange sarong like a giant flower, his placidity looks out of place amid the outpouring of passion. However, Maha Ghosananda, the Chief Patriarch of Cambodia, has earned his serenity on the anvil of war. A legend in his homeland, he has led peace walks throughout a country devastated by 20 years of continuous strife. Last year, he trudged through the very turf of the Khmer Rouge, blessing soldiers (who asked that their bullets miss their targets) and villagers missing limbs from the ten million land mines that dot the country.
Maha Ghosananda says little but his presence is a ballast for the rest. He and Reverend Sasamori, the architect of the Convocation, represent the Buddhist container for the Jewish anger and Christian atonement that will clash and coalesce throughout the week. Like Maha, Sasamori has emulated the Gandhian tradition of spiritual activism. During the early years of the Reagan era, Sasamori appeared in Nicaragua to witness against the Contra assault on that nation. His 40-day fast in Managua gave heart to the Nicaraguans and reinforced his commitment to spiritual activism. In 1985, he was asked by Nichidatsu Fujii, the founder of Nipponzan Myohoji, to journey to Auschwitz to fast and pray. He did so for nine days and nights at Birkenau, chanting on the railroad siding from sunup to sundown and sleeping in the guard tower. The nights were terrible. He was haunted and tormented by the spirits of the dead, an overwhelming presence in his heightened state of awareness. He left Auschwitz to build peace pagodas worldwide, vowing to eventually return here for an interfaith healing ceremony. Currently, he is leading the "Interfaith Pilgrimage of Peace and Life 1995", a 8,000 mile trek from Auschwitz across Bosnia, Israel, Iraq, India and Cambodia. This journey culminates in Hiroshima on August 6, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the destruction of that city.
Tuesday, December 6th: Morning
"Then all the doors were locked tightly and the gas was thrown in. The people inside could not do anything about it so they cried out with bitter laments....They raised their voices to heaven, with a last cry of protest against the greatest injustice ever done."
-Notes of Jewish inmate, Leib Langfus, found after the war.
Small groups arrive in the early morning hours, walking under the monolith known as the "Gate of Death", through which the boxcars rolled to another distinct symbol of Auschwitz; the Selection Platform. The tracks leading there are shrouded by mist but a punctuated drumming, constant and counterbalanced by a droning chant, enrich the air and draw us towards its source. The monks and nuns of Nipponzan Myohoji are sitting here repeating Sasamori's sacrifice for the full week, fasting and praying for the dead.
Birkenau is immense. The women's camp to the west contains the original rows of squat, rectangular barracks. The men's camp to the east is a forest of ghostly chimneys. After a tense prayer service at the platform, the participants form up and march to the crematoria rubble that sits at the end of the tracks. These ruins have been left untouched since the end of 1944 when Himmler ordered the exterminations halted and the complexes dynamited. Despite the destruction, it is easy to locate the dressing room, the ovens and the gas-chamber itself. This is the apex of the Holocaust, the nightmare becoming real. By the time we assemble on the roof of Crematoria #2, all of us have been transported back a half century.
Tears silently run down Sara's cheeks as she wields the huge sound boom. Prayers and songs are gasped more than intoned. Camera clicks mingle with hitched voices. The youthful cast of "The Children of Terezin", a play which will be performed tonight at the Museum Theater, have arrived with their chaperons. While the adults struggle individually, the children huddle together in a private circle that offers safety and protection. They don't try to contemplate the horror. They merely shut it out.
One of the speakers is John Schuchardt, a maverick minister who denounced George Bush in the President's own church at the height of the Gulf War. He has prepared to read a four-page academic treatise written for the occasion but Paula prevails upon him to forgo the text and "speak from his heart". He stands lost in thought and then sinks to his knees. From this attitude, he delivers a blistering condemnation of Christianity's role in the Holocaust and its 2000 year legacy of anti-Jewish hatred, asserting that no Christian can enter this space unless they do so in repentance. His thunderous voice collapses into a heap of wails, so loud they can be heard across the expanse of rubble. Behind him, women from the town sweep the cobblestones with wicker brooms.
Across the way at Crematoria #3 Rabbi Sheila (as she is now called), places Jewish memorial candles along the entrance to the undressing room. She stands solitary and grim, her eyes those of an Old Testament prophet sent by God to demand Justice. Upon her return to America, she will be ill for a week.
Here words fail for her and for others. The magnitude of the Holocaust has bent space and time and coalesced upon this very instant. We have shifted out of the program into a higher realm. Everyone is within themselves, pushed against the core of their souls as though Birkenau has become a mirror whose reflection causes either despair or renewal. The trance breaks as the Buddhists march back to the ramp and their fast. We follow in a walk that is strangely peaceful. For some, the time for tears has been replaced by a commitment of vigilance against the forces that brought Birkenau into being and remain alive today.
Tuesday, December 6th: Afternoon
"And in memory of our enemies, we should no longer be their victims, no longer their nightmares and terror, but rather a help that releases them from their frenzy."
-Leo Baeck, Grand Rabbi of Berlin, survivor of Terezin.
"One By One" was launched three years ago and encompasses a wide range of members. Otto, who resembles an archetypal white-haired grandfather was drafted into the Waffen-SS at age 17. During the war, he participated in the burning of Russian villages and saw his comrades shot for refusing to obey orders. A dream played a large role in directing him towards "One by One". Several years ago, Otto dreamt that he and Moses sat together and God said to him "I shall meet you halfway." Otto understood this as a sign leading him down a new path. This path has led him through a gauntlet of scorn from both survivors and unrepentant Germans alike, but his commitment to witness against hatred has had a profound effect on his Jewish allies.
The afternoon is spent hearing their testimony. The most poignant episode occurs when a German woman named Helga tells of her father who was the Gestapo chief responsible for the destruction of the Ghetto of Lida in former Byelorussia. She finishes her narrative choked with remorse. Listening intently in the audience is Jim Levinson, leader of a small, stateside Jewish congregation who has gently led us in song and prayer each morning. His great-grandfather's family was killed in Lida. As he leads the Convocation in prayer after the seminar, Jim calls Helga up to the front of the meeting and tenderly holds her hand. His embrace of her helps turn the tide. As an entity, we have moved beyond rage and shame and begun to knit our hearts together one by one.
Wednesday, December 7th
"There are events of such overwhelming magnitude that one ought not to remember them all the time, but one must not forget them either. Such an event is the Holocaust." -Rabbi Israel Spira
There is one last visit to the Museum. Author Julius Lester, Rabbi Sheila, and Rosalie are standing in the carefully reconstructed Crematoria #1. Unexpectedly, they and the video crew collapse on the concrete floor and begin to scream and wail. The acoustics of the cement gas-chamber catapult their agony towards the throngs of Polish high school students who congregate here on field trips. Shaken out of their adolescent ennui, they rush towards the howls, blowing past the rattled tour guides who are trying (unsuccessfully) to hold them back. By now, the mourners are circled on the slab chanting Hebrew psalms at the top of their lungs. They look up to this army of curious young faces. Julius jokes, "We're the exhibit of the Living Jew" and is convulsed with laughter. The kids who file past are absolutely mystified, not having much experience with the emotional roller-coastering that we have come to know as "Holocaust Humor".
Thursday, December 8th
"We see Auschwitz and we judge Auschwitz according to the way we see and judge the human race, and life, and God." - Otto Friedrich
At the closing session, Rosalie grabs a guitar and launches into a raucous set of Yiddish Shabbat tunes that have everyone up in a berserk frenzy of release. The same folk who wept and raged at the crematoria now dance, sing, hold hands and weave among themselves with abandon. Viewing this, the Hasidic mystics of pre-war Poland would have heartily approved.
A question echoes in my mind. Natalie, a German member of "One By One" whose ancestors both aided and resisted Hitlerism, pondered whether the Holocaust shattered human consciousness like a hole piercing the Ozone membrane. Can this rupture ever be healed? 50 years later, the human race is still wrestling with the moral implications of Auschwitz. The camp itself will continue to be a sacred site, attracting Jew and non-Jew alike to its tainted soil. Like Hiroshima, its sister city of technological murder run amok, it remains a focus of pilgrimage where the dead will be mourned and the human spirit will hopefully be reaffirmed.
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