Walking with Bernie’s ashes

It’s a rickety flight out of Warsaw to London and then to Boston; a short delay due to fog in London.

“How are you doing?” my brother texted me yesterday.

“Well,” I wrote back. “Auschwitz was the best part.”

An odd thing to write, but as soon as we arrived on Tuesday to the gray, smoky skies, the smell of fertilized farmland, the train-crossings with barriers and clanging bells, dogs barking from the gardens behind houses, and finally the dark brown brick barracks behind the wires, it was the strangest thing, but it felt like home.

Not home at Auschwitz, home at the retreat in Auschwitz.

Disembarking at the Center for Dialogue, getting room keys, turning towards 90 warm faces from different lands. The many staff who come again and again, a humorous smile on their faces as if saying: Here we are again.

Andrzej Krajewski and I visited the Director of the Auschwitz Museum, which now gets well over 2 million visitors a year. I thanked him for his work.

“It’s you I must thank,” he said, not addressing me personally but the Zen Peacemakers. “Whenever November comes I remember that now the Buddhists are coming to do their work.”

What work is it that’s called us here so many times?

“Do the retreat for the souls that are there,” Reb Zalman Schachter, Founder of Jewish Renewal, told Bernie and me so many years ago when he gave his blessing for the retreat. Yes, but what is it exactly that we’re doing? It’s the koan of our retreat, I think, whose answer changes from year to year, an answer I present not just while I’m there but during the rest of the year as well.

You’re in a place of incomparable and incomprehensible horror, so it’s not unnatural to dwell on smaller, more bearable pains and losses. I recall a Belgian woman many years ago who wept the entire retreat over a bitter fight she had with her father. She’d refused to talk to him till the day he died. The resentful silence between an Austrian man and his SS father. Fathers seem to figure prominently in stories people have told during our years here.

When we’re in a place that dwarfs our own experiences of suffering, self-pity is replaced by forgiveness; the blame that till now was so important goes out the window. Instead, cherishing takes over—of life, parents, teachers, birds and grass, and even the gray skies over the Selection Site where we sit.

I, too, had the luxury of carrying out a small, personal errand, bringing and leaving Bernie’s ashes in Birkenau as he’d asked. It was as if this whole year since his passing pointed to this action in this place. He wanted his ashes to lie right in the middle of deep catastrophe.

A small group of us did this, the people I think of as his Auschwitz family, those coming year after year to serve this retreat. Indeed, December will mark 25 years since he and I made our first trip here as part of an interfaith gathering, when his eyes widened with recognition at seeing this place, and knowing it was his place. I never imagined that 25 years later I’d be bringing his ashes here. So much sitting there, right in the palm of your hand.

It was a very simple thing really. I held the box and person after person took a handful of the soft, grainy ash, said some words or stayed silent, and softly left it on the ground at different places: Selection Site, this crematorium, that crematorium, the spot where a friend, August Kowalcyk, successfully escaped Birkenau, the horrific White House. I thought we would run out of ash, but there always seemed to be more. We left the rest around the base of a tree he loved, and called it a day.

It was good weather, not warm and not cold, and the sun was out most of the time. “We try to preserve the neutrality of this place,” I was told. They don’t allow flags anymore, so Israeli flags don’t march in carried by school groups from Israel, nor are Polish flags allowed to be brought in, which, I gather, upsets the current Polish government exceedingly. It is sad that when narratives collide, instead of bearing witness to both we rid ourselves of symbols and call it neutrality. The best we can do.

In Auschwitz, every single thing you do feels meaningful. A cup of hot chocolate outside the Birkenau gates feels richer than anything else you possess. A warm down jacket feels more loving than your mother’s caress, and a smile against brutal cold air is a joy you never had in your life.

You return to the Center for Dialogue at the end of the day and experience the miracle of normalcy, of faces saying hello, searching for room keys, checking when will be time for dinner. All of life is smack in front of you, closer than the tip of your nose.

You’ll board a plane, fly home, the garage door will rise to greet the car late at night, dogs will wiggle their way around your legs as you pull the heavy valise across the kitchen floor to the hallway and finally look up at dark, sleepy stairs.