Acknowledging Our Many Names: My Experience of Bearing Witness in Auschwitz
“Beyond right and wrong, there is a place. Here we can meet each other.”
This November morning in 2017 was colder than I had expected it to be. It was our group’s first walk through the streets of Auschwitz 1. We were participants in a “Bearing Witness Retreat” with Roshi Bernie Glassman, who had been creating and leading these unique and meaningful retreats that take place in (former) places of war, hate, suppression and expulsion since 1994. We were not yet aware, but it also became his last Bearing Witness Retreat in Auschwitz…
Feeling the soles of my feet touching the cobblestones, my fists clenched deep in my pockets, I stayed a little behind our group to avoid speaking. I wondered what self-compassion tools I could use to calm myself as my heart was racing and my mind tried to comprehend the cruelty that once was present here. I brought my awareness to feeling the rhythm of my breath, consciously placing one foot in front of the other, accompanying every step with my breath. For comfort and support I found myself resting one hand on my heart and once in a while also bringing my other hand to the heart for additional support and protection.
From this first silent immersion on the streets and around the buildings of Auschwitz 1, we continued to the desolate landscape of the ruins of Birkenau, which presented such an unexpected vast space. Being asked to avoid drinking and eating was surprising and became more and more unpleasant with each step. Beech and oak trees surrounded us and created a soft forest floor covered with autumn leaves. It stood in such contrast to the emptiness and grayness of this land in early winter. My mind wandered to how our children would love to play tag or hide and seek under the trees on the soft, mossy forest floor. I reflected on how often we are unaware of the history of the ground we place our steps on, unaware of the injustices that might have taken place there. Our daily meetings in Council Practice became a pillar of relief for all of us. There we could voice feelings of anger, resentment, shame, confusion, numbness, grief and sadness, and listen to others share similar feelings. In these meetings I experienced a deep sense of common humanity, as we all experienced extremes and contradictions so close together.
With each day that passed, less rational answers were available. The boundaries between “victim” and “perpetrator” started to dissolve; they didn’t seem to fit the size of the cloth anymore. Something new, unexpected, and intangible started emerging; the felt-sense of not knowing. It felt confusing and uncomfortable at first, but as my inner container grew it started feeling like the most natural way of being with each other and with oneself. At the closing circle on a meadow Roshi Glassman, sitting in a wheelchair, asked us what we had learned after a week of Bearing Witness practice. Our voices, one after the other, named the darkness of the human experience—the shadow, the horror, the incomprehensible… Roshi Glassman simply replied, “This is not what I meant for you to take away from this experience. Instead, I hope you experienced the preciousness of life.”
Bearing Witness in These Times
I began the retreat, asking, “Where is the good?” I left the retreat learning that finding the good requires a conscious effort of seeing clearly and trying to understand deeply. Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk of almost 96 years and a pioneer in interreligious dialogue, has sometimes described the incomprehensible that we humans are capable of doing to each other and that is embedded in the collective field as “something not yet good.” When we bear witness to Auschwitz, we become all the elements of Auschwitz—the good, the “not-yet good,” the known, the unknown. Then, with this awareness what we choose is no longer an act of will, but an act of letting go. When we are able to let go of the concept of who we think we are, we can enter into the space of not knowing. And not knowing is a place where change can begin.
Having grown up in Germany as “a grandchild of war,” I feel that our generation is called to look more deeply at and collectively start healing the trauma caused by war(s). Now, with the war between Russia and Ukraine and other almost-forgotten zones of ongoing conflict where human beings are living their lives just like us who are reading this article, hopefully, we may wake up more and more to the preciousness of life that Roshi Bernie Glassman had referred to.
Practicing inner peace as a core value and a collective task and practicing self-compassion is not just for ourselves but for future generations who will once more have to live with the visible and hidden traces of war trauma. Learning to listen deeply and bear witness to ourselves, to each other, and to our planet Earth seems to be more important now than ever before, enacting what we yearn for—trust in life.
When we learn to hold the experience of both the victim and the perpetrator in our inner space, we may become more fully alive as human beings. Only then can we become “all the voices of the universe” – of those who suffer, those who cause suffering, and those who stand idly by. Because we are all those people as Thich Nhat Hanh expressed in his poem, “Please Call Me by My True Names.”
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.
If you would like to learn more about bringing self-compassion into your life or go deeper with your self-compassion practice, explore our different programs, workshops, courses and events at https://centerformsc.org/all-cmsc-offerings
“May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy. May all beings be free of suffering. May all beings live with ease.”