I feel raw inside, sadness alternating with resolve, a sense of loss one moment, determination the next.
One of the triggers is the advertisement shown above: Auschwitz-Birkenau: Tickets here.
Bernie and I are back in Krakow, heading to the 22nd retreat at the concentration camps. Back in 1994, the first time we were there, how many people came to that iconic death camp? Several hundred thousand per year. Some year later I recall reading that the attendance topped 1 million for the first time; now, in 2017, it has topped 2 million per year.
That’s good, I tell myself. It’s good that people want to come and see, maybe even to vow Never Again. Only Auschwitz-Birkenau, or its equivalent, has happened again and again. When we walk through the Sauna in Birkenau and see what people were stripped of from room to room—their belongings, their photos of their past, their clothes, their hair—I think of the refugees everywhere in the world now—in Sudan, Pakistan, Burma, Syria, northern Africa—shedding off their meager belongings and often their family members as they take the path of refugees. Gas chambers are followed by killing fields followed by burnt out villages, Rwandan rivers full of floating corpses (Go back to Ethiopia, where you Tutsis came from!).
How do I relate to these things? If we don’t bear deep witness, is the only remaining alternative to buy tickets, watch the show from the safety of the mezzanine?
The idea started back in 1994, before we were even a couple, but I feel that we worked and nursed this retreat–that became the mother of other bearing witness retreats,–as though it was a child together, and now we see it all grown up, out in the world for 22 years now, doing its work, its legacy carried on by others with so much patience, intelligence, and humor.
People nod in recognition, they come to say hi, remind us their names: We were here in 2014, or maybe it was 2013. One man brought his 16 year-old grandson; others bring their partners, wives or husbands. You don’t remember me, but I was here 19 years ago, 14 years ago, now again. It’s not just me this place has called year after year, it’s called so many others.
For the most part, we don’t come to commemorate the Holocaust (though a few do). Underneath it all, we go to look at what happens when we don’t get along, when we don’t recognize our own brothers and sisters just because they speak a different language and wear different clothes this lifetime around. When discipline is high but hearts are closed. When the past is evoked, when revenge is sought, when fear not Satan rules.
This year especially I am deeply attuned to my own feelings of loss. There are many things Bernie can’t do; there are many things we can’t do together here in Krakow. He (seen below) can still get animated about things, but usually, some 22 months after his stroke, he’s calm, serene, even humorous, while I feel like a bundle of nerves these days before we embark on the retreat tomorrow morning.
The place has changed so much. Saturday night the main square was empty, but when I walked to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter that lost its Jews to Hitler’s Nazis, I was surrounded by young Poles entering bars, restaurants and music clubs, for Kazimierz is clearly the happening place in Krakow.
We, too, have changed. Where’s the horizon now, I wonder. Is it near, just sitting on my chair and finally settling into long periods of meditation? Is it sitting at my desk and writing? Or is it far, connecting with places and people I haven’t met yet, learning more, listening more? Stay still, I feel like telling the horizon. Stay still just for one minute so I can finally see you.
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