(by Peter Sternberg, LCSW)
(Editor’s Note: This is a deeply moving and inspiring story – well worth your time to read to the end.)
In early November of 2014 I took a trip to Poland, linked up with a group called The Zen Peacemakers and spent five days at Auschwitz at their 19th annual Bearing Witness Retreat. This is the brief story (covering 13 months) of how I got there, some notable moments from the retreat and some reflections on the impact of the experience.
Each November, for the last 19 years, the Zen Peacemakers have done a 5-day interfaith, international, Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz. They stay at the Center for Dialogue, which is a half block from the Auschwitz I gate. This year, 100 people were present. We were in Council groups of ten, and met daily to process our experience. I was one of three Americans in my group and the only Jew. Other group members were German, Polish, Swiss and Italian.
Before continuing, I want to tell you about the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers. They are:
- Bearing Witness
- Not Knowing
- Right or Loving Action flowing from the first two
Bearing Witness means being fully open and present. Here, we allow ourselves to be affected without knowing exactly what is in store for us. One could Bear Witness at a place of slaughter. One could Bear Witness sitting with a friend who is dying or by hanging out with your grandchild as they master sliding down the slide.
Not Knowing is a state of accepting that we cannot make sense of certain moments. In this state of acceptance one is free to have many reactions, questions, insights, or simply be silent. All are okay. In the state of Not Knowing we are open, and more views come to us.
The founder of Zen Peacemakers is Bernie Glassman. His description of Right or Loving Action is, “Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises. Loving action is right action. It’s as simple as giving a hand to someone who stumbles or picking up a child who has fallen on the floor.”
The retreat at Auschwitz had these components:
- Intimate and detailed touring of Auschwitz I and Birkenau
- Rituals and services held at different locations and on different days in Birkenau
- Daily sitting meditation on the selection platform at Birkenau – sometimes in silence, other times, four people at a time reading out loud names of victims. On the last day all 100 of us simultaneously read names out loud. Perhaps you can imagine the power of that.
Here is a partial picture of the guy I was prior to October 2013. I intended to never purchase anything made in Central or Eastern Europe. When I traveled to Europe I avoided these areas. Why? Because I felt these countries and their people were the enemies of my people. At different times over many centuries, Jews have suffered mightily in just about every European country. So, my big compromise was to go to restaurants that serve cuisine from these countries. Good food – my moral undoing.
While carrying on as a successful psychotherapist and family man I was nonetheless a fearful, one might say, quietly paranoid person. I obtained a third degree black belt in a martial art and am proficient in three other arts. I have objects that could be used as weapons placed strategically throughout my house. From my early 20s I’ve owned small-denominated gold coins and have kept my family’s passports always up to date in the event of the need for immediate travel. In October of 2013 I asked myself, why would a person have this inventory of objects, skills and admonitions?
It was in October of 2013 that I attended a conference on the book War and the Soul by Ed Tick. The author talked about the importance of reconciliation in the healing of PTSD. Hearing that shook me awake. I realized for the first time in my life that the fears of persecution I lived with were actually PTSD.
And in an instant, I knew the following two things:
- That my life position of regarding Europeans as the enemies of my people was a mindset that desperately needed to be examined and reconciled,
- And, this would require that I encounter the people and the countries I assiduously avoided.
When I discovered the Bearing Witness Retreat in January of 2014, I knew, despite my fright, that this was the right thing for me to do and I signed up. I went through a period of intense preparation and training for this trip. Throughout the months of immersion in study and reflection I revisited my past.
When the retreat began, this is how I introduced myself to my Council Group at our first meeting: “From age 11, when I first became aware of the Holocaust, I harbored a fantasy that as an American flyer during WWII, I could firebomb Germany until it was a sheet of glass, at which time I’d turn to the Russians and say, go ahead, you take it. In another long-held fantasy I moved about like an automaton, returning every German sadistic action with sadism upon the perpetrators and the German populace. What does this sound like?” I asked the group who looked at me intently. “Why it sounds like extermination,” I said. “The truth is, in my heart, for all these years I have secretly been a guy who harbors feelings that sound strikingly like Adolf Hitler. So, I named this aspect of myself: “my inner Hitler”. Everyone in the Council group looked at me, nodded their heads and conveyed acceptance of the rage in my statements. They supported me speaking so openly with them; they told me I was courageous.
I had named my “inner Hitler” to myself and to the Council Group but that wasn’t all of it. As I continued to explore my capacities for evil I realized that had I been born in Germany in the early 20th century as a German, I could have been swept into the madness that descended upon that country – a view expressed by many other retreatants, including a Rabbi. I could easily have ended up in the Wehrmacht or the SS. There is no reason to think that I would have been a courageous resistor, sparing my soul but paying the price with my life. And this is why I believe that is so: a personal story of seduction and corruption. I told my Council group that as a young man of 21, I studied experimental psychology. I proposed a study that caught the attention of my professor. He shared the proposal with a researcher who agreed to sponsor me. What followed was unheard of. As an undergraduate (accustomed to working on lab rats) I was given primates to do my brain research. This was an academic honor. What I was doing was special; it was seen as significant. I was in my glory and my family and friends were duly impressed and celebrated this glory with me. Perhaps you can imagine the inflation of my ego. Now double it – that’s how inflating it was. I did not consider nor did anyone bother to question my capacity to think through the consequences of this undertaking. I was making such a contribution to science that my sponsor wanted me to turn the project into a PhD in his lab! And so, I put on heavy leather gloves and extracted a terrified monkey who was clinging to the bars of its cage. Thus I began to devastate these animals and myself. It turns out that for me, there was no contribution to science and attendant glory that could overcome the horror I felt at what I inflicted upon those animals. Nonetheless, I resolved to complete the study so as to not waste their lives. Then, to the dismay of my sponsor, I left experimental psychology. In 2014 I realized I had something in common with the many Nazi doctors who did research on the Jews at their disposal. Like them, I had felt the egoic thrill of having a creature’s life in my hands to take advantage of as I wished. Like them, I had become caught up in the opportunity and seduced by glory.
These stories speak of my sense of identification with the perpetrators. In the case of my actions as a young man, I have known the shame and burden of the perpetrator. It has been a burden I have secretly carried throughout my life. As powerfully identified as I am with the suffering of the victim, any victim, anytime, anywhere, at Auschwitz I found myself in a strange intimacy with the perpetrators. This became a major point of the retreat for me, and it is captured in this story from an Auschwitz survivor and author named Denur. After fainting while giving testimony at the Eichmann trial he explained what happened by saying, “I saw Eichmann was an ordinary man, not a monster. I was afraid about myself,… I saw that I am capable to do this. I am … exactly like he.” This is the central point of the entire 13-month encounter – this is the intimacy with the perpetrator of which I speak.
And here is the other side: the story of me as victim and being identified with victims. As you will hear in a moment, it is more than being Jewish and carrying the 1900 year legacy of being ostracized, hated and persecuted. It is more than the 20th century legacy of being exterminate-able. I told the Council group the following story, which came back into focus after 48 years. As a 15-year-old new cadet at military school I encountered Anti-semitic brutality. On a couple of occasions associated with Jewish holidays, my roommate (also Jewish) and I had to run a gauntlet while being beaten with belts by old-boy cadets. And, on one occasion I was surrounded in my room by old-boy cadets who forced a long broom pole down one shirtsleeve, across my back and then down the other shirtsleeve. Then, with the ends of the pole protruding I was lifted up and hung on hooks on the wall. While hanging there, to the delight and satisfaction of my tormentors, I was proclaimed to be crucified. Connecting to this story, telling the Council group, and telling you this story is large for me: it is un-secreting a very difficult and vulnerable experience that my 15-year-old self handled as well as I could. But then the whole thing went underground; never forgotten, but not held openly, not cleared. The Council group received this story with great compassion. In that moment of revealing the dreadful secret of persecution, the shame of having been victimized lifted. Quite a moment for them and for me, which allows me to share it with you now.
As I mentioned before, we read the names of victims on the selection platform. We were able to add names to the list we were reading. I spoke the names of my paternal grandmother’s family, and other names given to me. And I read the names of my poor monkeys and added all the other animals upon whom I experimented so many years ago. This is how it registered; yes it was monkeys and not humans, but on the selection platform at Birkenau where Dr. Mengele prowled, stood a self-identified perpetrator, openly taking responsibility, reading the names of his victims. It was a breakthrough moment for me. It brought lightness, resolution and peace.
I then had the following insight: seeking or granting forgiveness overlooks the fact that under certain circumstances the harm-doing is a moral wound that can fracture the soul or split it off altogether. Veterans know about this. Some veterans can identify the exact moment their soul either fractured or left their body. It may sound wacky, but at that moment of my healing on the Birkenau selection platform, I realized that all these years, I have had a fracture of the soul, which is why forgiveness had been so elusive.
The Council group experience continued to be touching. Tearful moments revealed our reactions to the place, to the Shoah, to our ancestries; to shame carried, pain carried, secrets carried, rage carried, fear carried as well as awareness of our own capacities for madness. Outside of the Council group, conversations broke out spontaneously. On the second day, while waiting in line for tea, the woman standing behind me decided to take a chance and reveal to me that she was the granddaughter of a major Nazi. She was so ashamed of her lineage she could barely bring herself to share this information. She could not bring herself to live in Germany. Another German from my group told us she did not feel entitled to be at Auschwitz – as though her German presence profaned a sacred place. What I noticed is that without effort I felt touched by these people and their stories. People told me they were touched by my openness and sharing.
And the outcome? The barriers came down. I watched a lifetime of barriers, of hate and paranoia, crumbling in the moment. In their place – acceptance, understanding, compassion. Amazing. Simply amazing… Imagine, Auschwitz, a place of love. And that is what it became. It is bizarre to consider a factory of death, where null-humanity was revealed in its full madness, or Poland for that matter, one big cemetery to Jews and to Poles, turning into, for me, a place of calm, quiet, deep reflection, peace and connection.
While in Poland, I visited three death camps: Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz. I visited four mass graves. At each ghetto, cemetery and death camp, following Jewish tradition, I left one of the small rocks of remembrance I had brought with me from home. My words were: “I am here, you are not forgotten”.
And I did Tai Chi in the most unlikely places; in the waning light of day beside a mass grave in a cemetery dating from the 14th century, at Treblinka, watched by a group of Israeli youths on tour, near the entrance to Majdanek death camp, in the dark, at a mass grave in a forest and at the retreat center for the five days I was there.
Tai Chi is several things to me. It is a way for me to forge courage and find the strength to honestly connect with the world and myself through the full range of experience: from love to evil, from the smallness of ego to the largeness of all living things. And Tai Chi is martial art. As I prepared for this trip, I knew I would do Tai Chi at places of atrocity. Doing Tai Chi supported my immersion into the atrocities. It helped me find the courage to look deeper into the perpetrator experience and discover the universal capacity for evil.
To me, as a martial art, Tai Chi is a statement of presence and a pledge: to face evil, to name it – even in its subtlety, to change it, condemn it and if necessary, fight it.
To my surprise, it turned out that Tai Chi is how I prayed for the victims and the perpetrators, how I prayed for my fellow retreatants and, for myself.
All of this came from my journey and my liberation at Auschwitz in November of 2014. Thank you for this opportunity to share my story.
Peter Sternberg is a clinical social worker in Chicago. He has been doing Aikido for over 35 years and Tai Chi for 12 years. He frequently integrates movement from these practices into psychotherapy. His website is http://petersternberg.com
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