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Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat 2010: Days #4 & 5

The wind and cold were even more intense on Thursday, the 4th day of the retreat. Suffering even a little seems to make Birkenau some how more graspable, though one cannot begin to imagine the experience of the prisoners.

Our long time friend, August Kowalczyk, one of the few who made it to freedom during the June 1942 mass escape, the only mass escape attempt at Auschitz where 50 prisoners, political prisoners in the penal colony who were being continually punished and regularly shot, made a run for it. Only nine, including August, made it to freedom. The Nazis killed another 300 in reprisals. August went on to become a famous actor in Polish film and television after the war. August joined the Zen Peacemakers when he first joined our circle at the retreat some 15 years ago. August has been an outspoken voice for freedom, peace and reconciliation since the war. in conjunction with the Polish Peacemaker Community he founded a hospice in town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz), which if just now finally getting full funding and about to open its doors. Soon there will be a place for people to die with dignity and compassion in this place where human beings were stripped of all dignity, victims and perpetrators alike. I hope to return to Poland next year to provide hospice training at the Oswiecim hospice.

Even listening to the witness of August, who survived three years in Auschwitz and Birkenau under the most severe conditions as a Polish political prisoner, it is impossible to imagine the deprivation and suffering of those who lived here under the dark skies clouded with the smoke and smell of burning human bodies. After our silent sitting and reading of the names at the selection site we walked to the “children’s barracks,” where children who were subjects of Dr. Mengele’s cruel experiments were housed. Sketches of children’s drawings remain, preserved on the walls inside. We sang lullabies for the children and said Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, in many languages. Thursday evening we returned to one of the barracks at Birkenau for a night time vigil. We listened to stories of people’s family losses at Auschwitz. And we listened to August, who spoke powerfully of the need for love and reconciliation among all peoples.

On Friday, the final day of our retreat, we spent the morning at the selection site alternating sessions of silence and of reading the names of those who perished there. In the afternoon we walked through Birkenau as a group, doing an interfaith pilgrimage to various sites in Birkenau, where different clergy guided us in reflections, meditations and prayers. We finished at the “ash pond,” a large pond near Crematoria V that contains the ashes of several hundred thousand victims. We encircled the pond with memorial candles and sang songs of hope, peace and love followed by a quiet, reflective long walk back to our bus at the gates of Birkenau. Back at the Dialog Center (Centrum Dialogu), we participated in a beautiful shabbat service led by our dear rabbi, Ohad Ezrahi, celebrating life and joy in the Hasidic way. A celebratory meal and concert continued late into the evening, as we each found our own way back to life after spending five days in the ashes and darkness of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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