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Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat 2010: Day #2

We began our morning as usual with the small council circles, where the listening and sharing goes very deep. After breakfast we walked or rode the bus to Birkenau, about 25 minutes on foot. I went ahead with the truck carrying our sitting cushions and benches for our sitting circle at the “selection site” between the tracks at Birkenau.

As we rounded the bend and Birkenau came into view, my whole body shuddered with fear and dread. Birkenau seems to always do me in the first day, and today was no different that the other nine times I’ve been here on retreat. It always takes me a while to find my seat at Birkenau … to really be present and work with the intense energies of this killing ground, where human beings were systematically murdered/exterminted on perhaps a larger scale and with greater, cold efficiency than at any other place in the world or any other time in history. At the participants arrive, we handed out meditation cushions, chairs and benches in silence. Some ninety strong, including our youth component, we gathered in our circle at the selection site for silent sitting followed by the chanting of names of those who perished here. Later we walked in silence to the “Sauna,” the complex where those chosen for the slave labor camp were stripped of all their belongings, brutally shaved, disinfected and tattooed with their camp number before being sent to a quick or slow death from overwork, starvation, the elements, and brutality in the work camps.

We returned to the main gates of Birkenau and had our traditional lunch of soup and bread outside the gates of Birkeanau. Some gathered in clumps engaging in quite conversations while eating their soup. Others sat alone deep in reflection. After lunch we returned to the selection site for more sitting and chanting of names followed by free time to wander about the camp before returning to our lodging at the Dialog Center. Tonight the group is visiting the amazing, powerful exhibition of Marion Kolodziej’s dark, visionary drawings from his time as a prisoner at Auschwitz. I’ve been there many times with Marian. Marian passed earlier this year. I decided to stay here at the Dialog Center and rest. When the group returns around 9 pm, we will have a large group dialog and share stories about Marian and his work.

At our spirit holders (guiding group for the retreat) over dinner this evening we talked about the young adult retreat and how it’s proceeding … a work in progress … thinking of ways to further engage the amazing young people from Israel, Europe and the U.S. We decided to have the film making project scheduled for Friday begin earlier. The youth will be assisting an Italian film making crew in the filming of a documentary about the young people’s experience here. Over all the retreat and the young adult component within the retreat are going very well … Auschwitz does all the work really. For the most part, as facilitators, we just hold space and and let people discover their own journey here.

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