BLACKBIRDS AT BIRKENAU

I know the schedule for the retreat by heart. It stays with you if you’ve done it for this many years.

So I know that Friday late morning is when we have our last sitting in the circle we formed at the Birkenau Selection Site by the train tracks. At that last period all of us read out loud the names of those killed at the death camp. If I have time, I check with a Polish participant how to pronounce certain Polish names on the list; I have some confidence I won’t butcher French, Greek, or Italian names. The names also show dates of birth and death, and the city of origin. In earlier years I used to quickly mentally calculate how old the men and women (and often children) were when they died, but my mind doesn’t work so fast any more.

A cruel gust blows across the brick remnants of barrack chimneys and the wooden barracks still left intact on the other side of the tracks. Bernie has complained in the past that, what with global warming, it’s no longer cold enough to do a retreat at Auschwitz in November; the goal has always been that people feel just a little of the bluster and iciness that inmates here must have felt. In other words, we don’t come when it’s comfortable. He needn’t have worried this year, it was cold, the wind chilled us to the bone and turned our faces pink crepe.

After the reading we will disassemble the circle, pick up benches, chairs, cushions and mats, and take them away, leaving the siding by the train tracks intact. Please make sure you look all around you and take with you anything that doesn’t belong here, Rami Efal, the retreat manager, instructs on the megaphone. And we do that, though I’m not quite clear what does belong here other than remnants and ash.

No, I take that back. The birch trees belong here (hence the name Birkenau), the grass that was once devoured by hungry people, and the birds, the lucky, lucky ones.

We neaten up the place where we have sat for days on end because it feels—can I say it?—downright dear to us. Like home. The place where people were directed to their death has become a temple, a sitting space, a place of intimate encounter.

In Auschwitz you don’t just face what happened long ago, said Andrzej Krajewski that first evening at orientation, who co-founded these retreats years ago. You face yourself.

That’s our work here. There are prayers, songs, and stories told of those who died, but the work is to face ourselves. In a place like Auschwitz there’s no place to hide. It[s harder and harder to tell our customary lies to ourselves, harder to keep up pretense. Auschwitz shatters not just the soul, but also the shell, and when the shell breaks, what happens? Will you die without it? Will you be mangled and hurt? Will you have no more protection against the world? Will you be like a newborn chick, trembling and cold in a new life?

What message will you get—that no one cares? That we’re lucky we avoided that terrible war but feel guilty about feeling so lucky? That we are part of an insignificant planet rolling fast and without control down some anonymous avenue in the Milky Way, alone and without meaning?

During the retreat we tell stories about the dead and we tell stories about the living, and what it means to be alive. So finally it’s time to tell the final story, to read the names of those who died for the last time this Auschwitz retreat. Tourists—3 million of them this year, I’m told–pass on the sides and look askance at this group that has settled down here. Most have signed up for tours of both the Museum and Birkenau that end in three hours flat. We have settled in the fire, and this will be our final sitting. By now the guides know us, I think, for I hear the words group doing meditation here several times during the week.

Does everyone have names? Rami inquires. Shir Yakov, a rabbi, will stand any moment now holding his shofar and blow it to signal the beginning of the period. They say that before the Redeemer comes, the shofar will be blown.

And just that moment the blackbirds fly over to us. They were perched on the barbed wire fence and the grass further away, but at the blowing of the shofar they fly over as if to listen one last time. I turn around—who can’t hear them? Who can’t feel the sudden flap of wings, the air turning attentive? I wished to take a photo because it was an important moment, and I am developing the unfortunate habit of recording certain moments rather than living them. But I can’t get up and leave the circle.

So what’s left is a short video of what happened that instant, taken by Andrzej Krajewski who stood behind the circle and recorded it. Just a brief moment when everything stopped, and then began all over again.