Gypsy Girl

On the window ledge behind my altar is a charcoal drawing of a Gypsy girl who was killed at Auschwitz/Birkenau, done by the Austrian artist, Manfred Bockelmann. For the past ten years Bockelmann has done charcoal drawings of children and young people killed by the Nazis from photos taken by the SS (

The photo was given me by a participant at the Auschwitz retreat that took place in early November. The girl seems to be around 10, dark, fringed hair parted down the middle and waving down the sides almost to her chin. Short, dark, upraised eyebrows under a high forehead. Eyes slightly slanted, pupils high and penetrating, the corners of her small lips turned down. A blouse with a V-shape collar, and what looks like a beaded necklace from which something dangles below the bottom edge of the picture.

I’ve looked at this drawing every day since coming home, at the round face and pale, defenseless skin below her neck, and mostly the eyes that seem to call out with some kind of plea: To be remembered? Understood? Loved? Are they asking me to bear witness to what happened to Gypsy girls like her, to the starvation and exposure, their terror and despair? Recently I read about Settela Steinbach, who was murdered along with her mother and 9 siblings at Auschwitz. Do I bear witness to the scale of such atrocities each time I look at the Gypsy girl’s face? Or does that face become a catch-all for my own confusions and fears, my own dread of being blown away one unexpected, disastrous day?


Our last day at Birkenau is always Friday; having been there for four days, we arrive like old hands. Our routine, too, feels like a daily practice. I go through the familiar gate and down the tracks to the shed housing our equipment, pick up a chair, bench, cushion, or mat, and continue down the tracks to the site where they once did selections of who’d die right away and who’d die later. People offer to carry my chair. The truth is that I like to carrying it myself, I want to be part of this group of people carrying what they need to set up a circle that will bear witness to what happened here over 70 years ago, and to what still happens around the world.

By 10:15 the circle is set up. The mist dissipates, frost no longer glitters between the grooves of the wooden slats, the sun is coming up, gray and ashen, and the place is ours. The big groups haven’t arrived yet in row after row of parked tour buses, the loud voices of guides speaking in clipped, assured English of something that is beyond words, the occasional flapping of blue-and-white Israeli flags. Those will come by noon, but for now, strange to say, we have Birkenau to ourselves. In the second period of sitting we’ll chant the names of those who died here, but this first period of meditation is silent, giving me a chance to ponder what I’m doing here once again, this 20th year at Aushwitz/Birkenau.

This time I locate inside myself a special dislike of labels and abstractions: the perpetrators, the victims, the Nazis, the Jews, the Poles, the Israelis, the Europeans, the indigenous people, the refugees. We look at photos of men and women in striped uniforms and heads shorn, which cause their facial features to seem bigger—ears protruding from the sides, eyes open wide, chin more pronounced—but after the first few, the photos begin to blur into one generalized countenance of suffering. I try to individualize and separate, but soon I give up. My eyes aren’t good enough, my mind, my memory. My imagination.


Chanting of the names begins at our meditation circle. The names aren’t chanted fast, but I can’t attach anything to them, can’t attach a family, a job, a wife, children. Names are all there are, muttered, proclaimed, shouted, or whispered into the morning air.

This year I spent a lot of time in the Sauna at Birkenau, looking at photos that were found of entire families that perished there, the siblings and cousins, those who married and those who didn’t, those who left Poland before the cataclysm and those who came back just in time, the Orthodox, the Communists, the ones who built businesses and the ones that lost them, children everywhere, and the vacations with green hills and the faces of fun-loving friends. Finally, they’re individuals with stories. But only members of four or five families are memorialized in this way; the rest are just names. We don’t know the color of their eyes, the name of their mother, their favorite food, if they were quiet or liked to laugh, what they thought about the sky.


My father died right after our retreat at the concentration camp and overnight I became a mourner. We looked at photos of him, listened to many visitors’ stories about how he affected their lives, sniffed his smell in a jacket draped over a chair, listened to his voice leaving a phone message (“Not to worry, today is a good day for me”), saw his body before it was buried.

How does one mourn at Auschwitz/Birkenau? People died there over 70 years ago, leaving in their wake ponds, fields, and trees nourished by human ash. They’re all here, I tell myself. They’re not gone; in some way and fashion they’re still all here. That’s the best I can do.


Deer-shooting season has begun back home and Stanley (the dog) and I wear bright orange vests when we go into the woods. At night I glimpse a deer running cross the road and find myself wishing it will survive till January, when the shooting season is over (though many will then starve to death in New England’s bitter, long winters). What do I bear witness to in that deer? To its grey brown color and the white underside of its tail as it bounds down the slope? Its grunts and snorts warning the rest of the herd? The feel of earth under the scraping of its front hooves or the rough feel of branches as it rubs its head against them? The taste of the leaves, twigs, and grass that it loves? The sprint and leap over a fence and the rush over the crackling leaves on the ground?

Or do I bear witness to my own sense of powerlessness, my own fear of the uncertainties and dangers in life? Do I bear witness to myself or to the deer?

In the morning I look again at the pretty Gypsy girl. How easy it is for my imagination to pour onto that face all the suffering of the world, the killings, the assaults, the indifference, the helplessness, the unendurable fear and pain. But is that all she is, a Gypsy girl killed at Auschwitz? When does empathy become projection? When does the desire to feel for others become just another reflection of my own self concerns? I look at her photo, and especially at the dark strands that come down to her neck, and wonder: Did she like flowers? Was she close to her brothers? Did she have a favorite color? A favorite food? Did she like music? Did she like to play games and dance? Was she beginning to wonder about boys?

“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories,” Pope Francis said in Washington, D.C. about the Syrian refugees whose photos continue to swamp the front pages of newspapers every day. Are they all nothing but the essence of misery multiplied by thousands? Reproaching mirrors to our own neglect and indifference, amplifiers of our guilt? We don’t kill them like the Nazis did, but don’t we equally label them, attributing to thousands the same characteristics, as if they’re all interchangeable? Numbers instead of humans?

Person by person, I think to myself. Story by story, detail by detail. What’s your name, I can ask the homeless person on the corner. “Where do you eat? Where do you sleep? Do you have a family? Do you like to watch TV? Did you dream last night?” If I ask those questions of the picture of the Gypsy girl, I’ll get no answers. But I can ask them of one living human being.


twilight copy

20 Years Later

April 2015

Thursday night was our usual night at the barracks. On this evening before Friday, the last day of the retreat, it’s customary for us to return to Birkenau in the darkness and sit in one of the barracks by candle and flashlight. Years ago some of these vigils lasted till midnight and even all the way till morning, but this stopped with the theft of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign several years ago, which caused to Museum to tighten its rules and regulations.
As we arrived at the main brick gate through which the train tracks tubed into the camp and directly to the sites of the crematoria, we went upstairs to the guard tower built above the gate. Here, looking out over their machine guns, SS guards enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of men, women, and children stumbling down from train cars that had been their prisons for days and even weeks, with no food or water, pushed and prodded by other guards with clubs and snarling dogs in the direction of the extermination sites. This has always been a chilling spot, inviting us to bear witness to guards with a panoramic view of the terror and suffering below, drinking coffee, laughing, complaining about the hard work and bad weather, gossiping, wishing the shift would end. Somewhere in that scene many of us could find ourselves, preoccupied by our own problems and our own lives, fitting with more or less ease into a system we may bemoan but won’t violate.
We then walked single-file to the barrack, where Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi invited us to look closer at perpetrators and victims. He especially invited the German participants to talk about their lives and families, their parents and grandparents who went through the war. Stories were related about depression, guilt, silence, denial, and the quiet violence that goes along with keeping secrets. I was moved to hear them. But I felt frustration as well, not with the stories but with the heavy, mechanistic view that if we can understand the past we’ll be able to change the present and future.
The Dalai Lama has said that karma is a subtle thing.
In my understanding, its dimensions are practically unknowable. We are given tours by well-trained guides who provide numbers, data, and facts, but can’t explain the effects of the Auschwitz genocide on the sky or the wind, on the poi dances of the Maori in New Zealand or the wild, timid manners of the alpaca in Peru. A few can point to the birth of Israel as a consequence of the Holocaust but not to global warming and the loss of half our wildlife over the last 40 years. That Thursday evening in the barrack I silently asked for a quality of bearing witness that was no longer just about perpetrators or victims, of who did what to whom, but to something much, much bigger.
How could something like Auschwitz happen?
Is a question that is asked not just by folks in our retreat but probably by most visitors walking down the dusty, pebbly paths between strings of barbed wire; you can almost see it in their eyes. The American president Dwight Eisenhower said that if you’re having trouble solving a problem, make it bigger. That night in the barrack I felt it was time for this Auschwitz retreat to go bigger. Clubs and labels—Nazis, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, Gays, Heteros—are as alive now as ever, exciting the same deep emotions, but it feels too linear, too much like old history lessons. I feel we need to change the conversation concerning both the large phenomena of genocide, or Shoah, and the smaller, more personal conversation about the inner voices we ignore or deny. Both are not big enough. We have to ask larger questions even though we don’t know the questions; I don’t even know the words.
Instead I find myself thinking of bacteria, specifically the strains of bacteria that outwit antibiotics and pesticides. They mutate quickly, reproducing fast and changing their chemistry in the process. We humans don’t mutate quickly. If anything, I’m conscious of the slowness of my faculties, the resistance to change, the falling back to patterns, labels, and stories that cast blame or victimize, my desire for fast results that have nothing to do with the patience and sacrifice of billions of bacteria cells that die in the process of regeneration and renewal.
January 2015 will mark 70 years since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. Historical forces are at hand, and we can ride them or ignore them. I find myself searching for new words, new stories, new formulations. I want to change my own old chemistry and uncover the energies that I believe are still bubbling in that gray place enclosed by barbed wire, powerful energies we haven’t begun to uncover. What is the Buddha’s work in this land of attachments? How do I change the chemistry of greed, anger and ignorance into healing and renewal on all levels, in all dimensions? I looked up again and again on Thursday and Friday at the gray skies over Birkenau and asked myself not what the inmates saw there 70 years ago, but what will be seen there 70 years from now. Will any of this still exist? More important, will anyone care? Or will things have happened that will dwarf the camps at Oswiecim?
For this reason I continue to be deeply moved to see so many peacemakers gather in this place, the same place where, over a period of almost 20 years, many of us met each other for the first time, and then many times after that. We trained on the weekend before the retreat and on the weekend afterwards in listening not just to all the separate voices, but also to the greater truth of the group, the rich and complex language of people sitting in community, bodies stretching to bear witness to everyone in the room, and after that continuing to ask: And who else is in the room? What else must we listen to?
I feel these Zen Peacemakers are on to something, making their gathering place in the ruins of crematoria, in the green killing hills of Rwanda and in the rapacious thievery and violence of the Black Hills in the Dakotas, rooting ourselves in very specific historical events even as the challenge is to address who and what else is in the room. Nothing is without antidote, and even the deepest ash pits will still yield healing herbs to those who know how to search. So perhaps our work—at Auschwitz, Murambi, the Black Hills, Srebrenica, and the streets—is first to bear witness to what happened, and then find some way to create medicinal potions out of blood and cinder, a new chemistry for our precious world.
Many, many bows of appreciation to all who participated in and served this retreat for close to 20 years, and to the souls and spirits of Auschwitz.
Photo by Peter Cunningham
Photo by Peter Cunningham

20 Years Ago

March 2015

I first accompanied Bernie Glassman to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the first days of December 1994, before anyone conceived of a bearing witness retreat at the site of the concentration camps. He was going there to do a Transmission of Precepts ceremony for Claude Thomas, a Vietnam veteran, at an interfaith convocation convened there by Buddhist activist Paula Green and the Nipponzan Myohoji Zen community. Claude was later joining a group that would walk from Poland all the way to Hiroshima, Japan.
In my family, two aunts and an uncle died at Auschwitz. Another uncle barely survived the hard labor and lived the rest of his life like an extinguished candle. My grandfather died in 1944 and my mother and her other siblings hid in cellars before getting caught and sent to the Terezin camp near Prague, Czechoslovakia. They were close to death when the Russian army liberated the camp in 1945. Given all this history, I thought, what better way to go to a place like Auschwitz than with one’s own teacher?
But as I sat alone on a bench along the Vistula River on the weekend before meeting Bernie, I wasn’t so sure. Years of Zen practice slipped off me like snakeskin, revealing underneath the Jewish woman whose forbears lived, prayed, starved, and finally left Poland for Czechoslovakia.
“Don’t just go to see where they died,” my brother had told me on the phone, “also go to where they lived.” So I had indeed flown to Warsaw and taken the train south to Krakow, peering out the windows at dark, hushed houses and even darker twilights. Other Westerners in the compartment, en route to the convocation, talked eagerly and happily; they were not Jews. They didn’t listen to the clanging wheels or the shriek of brakes, they didn’t look out at bare, wintry farms and remember shtetl markets, they didn’t try to pierce through black beech and pine trees and wonder about unmarked graves in the forests.
Only some six years had passed since the overthrow of Poland’s Communist government; the beautiful Old Town was not yet crowded with tourists, cafes and flashy shop windows as it is now. The Jewish quarter of Kazimierz had only one café and bookstore at the very top of ulica Szeroka; Klezmer and Jewish revivals, now a staple of Kazimierz, were still a long way in the future. I walked for hours searching for small bare rectangles on doorframes where mezuzahs had once hung and the carvings of Jewish stars or menorahs on the walls of the old houses, then sat along the river beneath Wawel Castle watching the crows, listening for the trains as they approached Krakow Glowny, the main train station. Is there an East European Jew who doesn’t dread the sound of trains in Poland, who doesn’t imagine instantly the sealed boxcars, the lone whistle of a locomotive echoing across a ravaged countryside, shunted down smaller tracks till it finally rolls in, slowly and exhaustedly, under a brick arch and comes to a stop?
I walked a great deal that weekend and never once saw Poland or Poles, just the dreadful land of stories whispered to me at night long ago when I was a child.
I picked up Bernie at the airport and together we continued to Oswiecim, home to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We arrived in the late afternoon at the German Hostel, which would host several of our retreats in later years, and were greeted warmly by Paula Green, but almost instantly I felt like a stranger. Talks were being given in the main room by a variety of speakers: Buddhist monks in orange robes, Catholic priests wearing collars, rabbis wrapped in talises or wearing yarmulkes, whites and blacks, activists and saints. Maha Ghosananda was there from Cambodia and Russell Means from the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in South Dakota.
What am I doing here, I wondered in confusion. This is not my family, this is not my people. They talked about compassion, love, and making sure that Auschwitz never happens again; their words meant nothing to me. We were in the same place but they were on a different planet. To my ears they talked spiritual jargon, while in my body I could almost feel the children huddling against my legs as we walked together towards where the guards pointed, watched by knowing eyes full of dread.
What’s this got to do with wisdom and compassion, I wanted to ask the person at the microphone. Look at where we are! There are no words for a place like this.
We walked to the Gate of Auschwitz 1. It was a freezing night and the ground was covered with ice as we stood in front of the slogan written in black, Arbeit Macht Frei, and there lit a candle for the first night of Chanukah. The flames of those candles dancing in the cold wind lightened my spirits.
But the hardness came right back the next day when we went into Birkenau, entering under the famous guard tower and walking down the tracks. Like so many people before and after, I was stunned by the vastness of the camp, sharpened by its geometric flatness and precisely placed barracks. There were wood and brick structures, but more than anything there was the terrible bareness of it, the frosty air that whispered of hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, a death city peopled by ghosts. That first time it was easy to let my imagination take over, sense a quivering inside the barracks, look up at the sky and feel that the land where I stood, filled with visitors, was more abandoned than the North Pole.
Once again I remembered the stories I heard as a little girl lying in bed as my mother recounted what happened to Frieda, her sister, who chose to hold on to her baby and die with him rather than to part with him and join the laborers, as Mengele suggested. I thought of Mordechai, 10 yeas old and sickly all his life. When they knew they had to go into hiding, his parents scraped up some money to keep him in a hospital for safety, but the Nazis sent all the patients, including children, straight to Auschwitz. No mother had accompanied this young boy to his death and my grandmother never forgave herself.
But the old voices were interrupted by the strange singsong of the Nipponzan Myohoji followers chanting their devotion to the Lotus Sutra, Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, and banging their hand drums as they walked down the tracks. I was repelled. This is not yours, I wanted to tell them. It’s our place of death, destruction, and grief, not your peace pagoda. Its gray, empty skies are meant to be left empty and alone, a perpetual question mark, not filled with rallying cries or chants. I blamed them for my eyes remaining dry, the lack of tears down my pinched cold cheeks. I shouldn’t be here, I thought to myself. I shouldn’t be here with Buddhists or Christians or American Indians. I should be here only with Jews.
Up ahead a crowd assembled around the remains of a crematorium. I didn’t want to join them, didn’t want to hear any talks, especially by a man who now slowly made his way to the center of the group and introduced himself as a Protestant minister. I watched from the perimeter as someone gave him a mike but he shook his head. He began to talk in a low voice, faltered, tried again, stammered, and stopped. He looked around him, and quietly said that he hadn’t wished to speak but was persuaded by others. And then he apologized. Till he came here he had no idea, he said, how much his co-religionists had contributed to the mass murder at Auschwitz. He collapsed and people hurried to help him up, but he remained on his knees and apologized for the words and messages of his religious tradition, for the subtle and not-so-subtle ways his religion had demeaned mine, his people had persecuted my people, and his participation in oblivion and denial. He ran a home for children who came from places of war all around the world, but that meant little in a place like this, he said. Here there were no good deeds to evoke, no partial expiation. All he could do was express his deepest sorrow and guilt, as a Protestant minister and as a human being.
And that, finally, was when my tears came. I sobbed like I hadn’t sobbed in my entire life, before or after. I remember the liquid heat burning my cheeks as I stepped away from the group, hardly seeing where I was going. Something opened that had never opened in 45 years of life, something was touched that no previous memorial service, story, or Jewish prayer had ever touched. And it came through the words of a Protestant minister who’d looked hard and deep at the spiritual abyss of Auschwitz and made no excuses. He didn’t open up his Bible to find justifications or beatific quotes we could all find refuge in, he simply collapsed in horror and then apologized.
What unlocks us? What opens up deep traumas that I believe go way back before our parents’ stories, before our childhood, even before our birth? Therapists can help us deal with issues of our lifetime, but what about the karma of history, the fears of multiple generations? How do we finally confront streams of fear and hate that seem as old as time? I don’t know the answers to these questions, only that my own turning came that afternoon when I encountered the tears of a Protestant minister whose name I don’t know to this very day standing on the remains of Crematorium 1.
I experienced a profound act of letting go. Certain things changed radically afterwards, first of which was my relationship to German people and the German language. But that was only a beginning. Returning to Auschwitz year after year also helped me shed the insidious identity of victimhood and its accompanying sense of specialness and entitlement—not right away, of course, the process continues, but it began on the grounds of Birkenau that winter morning in 1994.
That, too, was the day I heard Bernie speak out his resolution to do a retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau and bring others with him. Six months later we returned to Krakow and were met at the airport by a tall, broad-chested man from Warsaw, Andrzej Krajewski, who’d heard we needed help to create a silent retreat at the site of the camps. No, Bernie explained right away, it wasn’t meant to be silent; it wasn’t meant to be a Zen sesshin. It would present an opportunity for people to engage with others about their relationship to this place. And not just with others, but also with Others, with those who personified their fears and hatreds. It would be a retreat where as many different people as possible could come together, in the very place where differences, or any variation from the Aryan norm, were eliminated. Instead of remaining in your private realm of thoughts and memories, as I had tried to do, you would bear witness to those who spoke differently, who even said things you disliked.
He jotted down a draft schedule on a cocktail napkin he had in his pocket: small groups in the mornings, walks to Birkenau, sitting by the Selection Site, chanting names, and in the evenings meeting all together, in one big circle of diversity.
Twenty years have come and gone, twenty years of personal narratives from many different people, including different narratives from the same people as they’ve come back again and again. Some are stories about being Jewish and losing members of your family in the camps; some are about being German or Polish, about being gay or Gypsy. Many participants have only a tangential relationship to what took place at Auschwitz, but they too have their stories about the things that have marked their lives. I remember a European woman crying over and over about her broken relationship with her father that never mended before he died. Between sobs she apologized that in this place she was talking not about murder and genocide, but about a personal loss that took place many years later.
German participants have talked about the secrets in their families; Poles talked about the silence in theirs. Palestinians and Native Americans have inveighed against the loss of their land, Rwandans wept about their own massacre. Who hasn’t had her story of loss—a son, a daughter, a parent, a future? Who hasn’t been blamed? Nazis, Germans, Poles, Israelis, Europeans, Americans, President Clinton, Saddam Hussein, and yes, even Jews. What hasn’t been expressed during these retreats? Anger, rage, self-righteousness, indignation. It’s so easy to be offended, especially by superficial opinions that barely seem to scratch the surface, or sudden laughter and giggly gossip by people who for the moment forget they’re standing in the middle of the world’s biggest cemetery.
Certain words came up often, like healing and transformation. You don’t come to a giant cemetery for healing, a participant raged one year. I agree, but nevertheless, it can find you. What started out 20 years ago as mourning my own dead, grieving for what happened to the Jews of Europe, became over time something quite different. There’s great power in the place where life and death come together. How do you meet this place, I’ve asked myself each November, year in and year out. Each time the answer has been different, for meeting this place is meeting my own self in the form of Auschwitz.
So in November 2014 I looked up at the gray skies over Birkenau and asked myself not what my family members and other inmates saw there 70 years ago, but what will be seen there 70 years from now. How much of this will still exist? Will anyone care? Or will things have happened that will dwarf the camps at Oswiecim? Don’t do this work for yourselves or for the people who come, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, said back in 1996 when Bernie talked to him about that first retreat. Do it for the souls that are there.
Right now it’s no longer just the past that calls out to me from the ruler-straight railway tracks and the remains of chimneys. Rather, the past has reached its tentacles to shadowy corners of our present and our future, too, giving Auschwitz, with its stones and rubble, a timeless quality. But it is no abstraction. Something there is deeply present and continues to cry out, warn, remonstrate, implore, and summon forth our energies again and again.