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Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat 2010: Day #3

Wow, what an evening. I’m guess I’m going to write about today starting in reverse, because that’s what’s most alive for me right now. We just finished a two-hour spiral council with the entire group, about 90 participants, including the youth component. Council circles, also known as talking stick circles, listening circles, peace circles, etc., are a core part of this retreat. A “spiral” council is a format where you have an inner circle of chairs, in this case seven, surrounded by a much larger out circle. We started with seven people in the inner circle who are in council with each other while the outer circle witnesses. That in of itself would be a “fishbowl” council. What makes it a spiral council, is that once everyone has shared people can leave the inner circle returning to the witnessing circle, and people from the witnessing circle can join the inner circle to share and participate in the council. The rule is that only one chair in the inner circle can be vacant at a time. So you can’t leave the circle until someone take the empty chair.

Tonight this was hardly a problem as people kept enthusiastically entering the inner circle. What was really cool, was that the young people were jumping in, even though this practice was new for most of them and they had been a bit reticent in their own morning council groups. People, young and older alike, shared powerful experiences, stories, and feelings. I’ve facilitated about nine of these big councils over the years at Auschwitz and you never know how they’ll go. Some times they can be really flat. Tonight was one of the best ever in my experience. I actually got really emotional when I was bringing the council to a close after two hours.

So today we again spent the entire day at Birkenau. Unlike yesterday it was fairly cold and windy. This was a relief for me. Yesterday, was so mild, it just fell too easy on a physical level. It always feels appropriate to suffer physically at here at Auchwitz-Birkenau, where the prisoners suffered unspeakable horrors and deprivation. Some years we have had bitter cold. As usual we held our sitting circles and chanted names of the victims at the selection site in the morning and afternoon. Today’s highlight though was the ceremony we did at the Woman’s Barracks, a block where women condemned to death for various camp infractions or other reasons where kept awaiting there turn in the gas chambers. Sometimes when the block was full they kept additional women simply in the field outside next to the barracks even in the dead of winter. Our dear freind Rabbi Ohad led us in ninguns and other songs as we serenaded the spirits of the women who has suffered so terribly here. Many women actually died in the barracks, before their turn in the gas chambers, due to the extreme conditions in the barracks. We all held candles and sang life into this wretched place and then chanted the Kadish prayers from the Jewish tradition in Hebrew, English, German and Polish.

We also held religious services today, Christian, Jewish and Buddhist, with participants having the choice of which they would like to attend. I lead the Buddhist service along with my good friend Sensei Genro Gaunnt. We did the Gate of Sweet Nectar, a core liturgy of the Zen Peacemaker Order adapted from the Kanroman, which is about feeding the hungry spirits, invoking the energies of the five buddha families.

We have two more days at Birkenau. I’m really feeling the place working on me, swinging between profound shock, anger, and deep sorrow, but mostly resting in not knowing as I try to breath in the suffering and offer some gift of presence to this charnel ground.

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