Bearing Witness at Auschwitz-Birkenau 2003: A Personal Diary
The following is a journal account of Peacemaker staff-member Laura Carboni's personal experience at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness retreat in 2003, kindly reprinted with her permission. Please see Laura's stark and telling images from Auschwitz-Birkenau at:
On the first day of the retreat we visited the old Jewish quarter outside Krakow, which was the Jewish Ghetto during the war. We went to the only two synagogues left in the area and started the history of the war in Poland. We then left on a bus for Oswiecim, the town where Auschwitz-Birkenau is located.
On the second morning of the retreat we arrived at the Auschwitz I camp. We sat down and watched footage from the day they liberated the camps. I could only watch aghast. I could not believe or "process" what I saw: sickening images of bodies; mountains of decomposing skeletal corpses lying around or being "cleared up" by the allies; thrown into pits for burial; images of survivors, the few that there were, mere shells of human beings. The horror. The shock. The shock! Store rooms abandoned by the retreating Nazis full of plundered victim's clothing, shoes, piles of toothbrushes and combs; piles of severed heads; this and so much more. Beyond words, beyond imagination...
As we walked away from the film room, frozen in shock and disbelief, we passed through the wicked gates of Auschwitz with its cynical archway "Work Makes You Free", and my tears turned to uncontrollable sobs. The energy of each of those prison walls, each barrack, each stone, watchtower and wire fence, permeated every fiber of my being, breaking through that layer of shock - erupting forth from such a deep place where suffering has no bounds.
And not only despair, but also rage. Rage! I cannot believe how intense this emotion came up for me - such rage I did not know. The more we walked through the camp - the buildings of death and torture, the hanging gallows, the roll call area where people were made to stand hours and sometimes days at a time, in the freezing weather, as punishment and death sentence, the execution wall - the more I wanted to kick down their buildings and towers and fences of imprisonment.
I wanted to scream and break things and hurt those who perpetuated such atrocities against humankind. Dear God, how could this happen? It is so unbelievable. It is so unfathomable. It is so inhumane. Is this what is inside us all? If so, what are we then? I struggle to understand how close are light and darkness. How can I travel into this darkness and find the light? The "plunge" had started and I was thrown over the edge with nothing to hold on to.
In the afternoon we boarded a bus and made our way over to Auschwitz II - the Birkenau extermination and concentration camp. We were led through its history. We walked in an area of woods where people were made to wait for their death when the gas chambers and crematorium could not keep up with the volume of people being annihilated. Moving past lakes of human ashes, we arrived at the "sauna", a place where those deemed productive and of use were stripped of their humanity and prepared for their living hell. Their belongings taken away, hair brutally shaved, tattooed with numbers, scalded or frozen with foul water, they were given their bare thread uniforms and ill-fitting wooden clogs and sent to the "quarantine" barracks to be introduced into the brutal laws of the camp.
Within the sauna there are walls that hold hundreds and hundreds of photographs (those that were not destroyed) belonging to those that entered Birkenau, and probably never left. They are pictures of lives interrupted, pictures of love and laughter and families and memories. I tried to look at each single face, knowing it is not possible in it's magnitude, but nonetheless I was taken with trying to make eye contact with all of them, trying to restore each person that the Nazis turned into a "number" - into a human being again by the very act of "seeing them". Each face is a life, each life honored and prayed for.
It was in this place that we formed a circle and performed Kaddish. Ohad, a most sensitive and loving Rabbi, guided us through it. I was raw. Afterwards, we walked, most of us in silence, to an old torture barrack where we set up candles and again made a large circle. We began to read the names of those who died at Birkenau. Despite the grim atmosphere and history of the spot I was standing on, I felt calmer. I felt connected. I heard their names filling the space and I felt them reclaiming it.
That evening at the youth hostel our group met all together and the level of deep sharing was astounding. There were about fifty people on the retreat, each one with their own story, their own history, and their own personal connection to the Holocaust. They came as survivors, as children of survivors, as grandchildren of S.S. men. They came as Poles, Israelis, Americans, Germans and many nationalities. Most importantly, they came as human beings.
We shared and began our own process of healing as individuals and as a group. We did that a lot in the following days. There was an incredible amount of support and love in those Council groups and, sometimes, even disagreement, of course. But there was a need and willingness to explore the depth of that experience.
The next few days were spent at Birkenau. After morning breakfast and small group councils, we made our way by foot or bus to the camp and set up meditation cushions and benches in the middle of the selection site. This is the area of the camp where life and death was decided when new arrivals were brought to the camp. Cattle trains jammed with people beyond all conceivable capacity pulled right into the heart of the camp, built to expedite the process of selection and extermination: the fate of these hundreds of thousands of people, still clinging to some sense of hope, was decided in a split second by a few individuals. The pointing of a finger and a sharp command doled out life and death. To the right, one was sent to certain death in the gas chambers, and to the left, to an uncertain hard existence in the labor camp. A slow death most likely by starvation, cold weather and the whimsical brutality of the criminal camp Capos.
On this selection railway platform we set up our cushions and benches in a circle and placed an Altar in the center. Stones and wood radiating out like the rays of the sun held in its heart center an elaborate carved wooden box where, after we finished reading them, we placed the names of those who died there. Candles interspersed throughout the stones continued to burn throughout the day, keeping the flame of remembrance alive. We alternated between the reading of names and silent meditation.
In the afternoons we would take part in different religious services held at various points throughout the camp, praying and singing songs for all the victims of Auschwitz. As well as through the services, people did this in their own personal ways too.
I myself chose to spend a night in the camp. I spent some time walking through the darkness amongst the ruins of barracks, singing and talking with those who perished there. I set up a candle alter inside the children's barrack and performed my own service, allowing my voice to be carried to every nook and cranny, working into the darkness. I sat with the children. I meditated with them. I also worked with my fear and the darkness of my own soul.
Later I lay down in their bunks and lay with them. All night the rumblings and horns of freight trains passing nearby pierced the silence of the night, reminiscent of the trains that worked day and night to bring more people to the camps. I did not really sleep. The bitter cold and damp permeated to the core of my bones, and as I lay shivering and trying to keep warm all I could think about was the cold and suffering they must have felt. Of course, I could only guess at it. I knew that tomorrow morning I would walk through those gates to warmth and love and safety, to a family, to friends, to a life.
I knew that I was free.
It is indeed a very privileged place to experience a death camp from. I am under no illusions. Nonetheless, it is the only way I have to bear witness to it.
To go into every detail here of the retreat would take pages and pages. The crux is that the retreat was amazing. When people ask me about the retreat these days, all I can say is that it was difficult and painful and entailed working through immense suffering and anger. It was also beautiful. It was healing and intensely moving to be with so many people all working through the darkness and reaching out to one another. It was inspiring.
I am still processing and I imagine I will probably never stop. I've been back for over a week now and most nights I still dream myself at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Questions I brought to Auschwitz with me:
Can I find in Auschwitz, a place of immense suffering, mass murder and extermination, a healing energy?
The answer is that I did find there a sacred energy. It is a sacredness born out of the thousands of people from all over the world who go there every year on a pilgrimage to bear witness to what happened there, and to replace love with hatred, to replace intolerance with inclusiveness and acceptance.
As a sacred place, can it heal? Can it teach? Can it liberate and forgive? It can for me. As George Santayana has said "The one who does not remember History is bound to live through it again." The act of bearing witness itself is the key to this remembrance.
Genocides and mass exterminations continue to be perpetuated against whole peoples. There is so much work to be done. There is so much darkness, both in ourselves and in others, that needs attention. That is why it is important for me to bear witness. That is why I will use this life that I have been gifted with to work for peace. For me, Auschwitz is an affirmation of that commitment.
This has been a very long letter.
I really want to thank people, not only for supporting me on this journey, but also for actually making it possible. I would not have been able to do this without you and your generosity. I offer you my deep appreciation and love.
Just when you thought my letter was long enough, I leave you with a quote. I don't know who wrote this, but it is in the liturgy book we were given for the retreat, and it deeply speaks to me and inspires me, so I would like to share it with you as a parting meditation:
"...even here, on the ground of Auschwitz, we cannot allow death to have the last word. From the remains of the victims, like grains of wheat, a new life must rise up. Auschwitz must become a place that reminds the world of the dignity of man and that makes each of us responsible for world peace. As then men (and women and children) arrived here from all over Europe to die, so now from here the proclamation of human dignity must be taken to the whole world. As then many people were at the service of death, so now we are all called to stand for peace, forgiveness, solidarity."