We arrived in Oswiecim, Poland by bus from Krakow this morning and settled into our quarters at the Centrum Dialogu (Dialog Center) a short walk from Auschwitz I. After our orientation and lunch we spent the afternoon at Auschwitz I, the original concentration/death camp established here by the Nazis in 1939. This is my 10th Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz, my second this year. I never know how I will react or what my journey will be here, but what arose in me as I wandered through the barracks and exhibits at the Auschwitz I museum was anger, deep anger. I’m not even sure who I was feeling anger toward, just anger that this could and still does happen, that we human beings do this to each other. We concluded our time at Auschwitz I today with a ceremony at the Killing Wall next to the infamous Block 11, the punishment barracks run by the SS.
We are about 90 on the retreat his time, and for the first time we have a contingent of young adults as a retreat withing the retreat, 15 young people, ages 16 – 28, from Israel (Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens), Switzerland, Poland and the U.S. We were supposed to have three young Palestinians from the West Bank, but they were very sadly unable to get their visas at the last moment. The young people will have there own council groups and their own afternoon activities at Birkenau over the next four days, but otherwise they will participate in the rest of the retreat program along with with the older adults. We held our first small councils this evening. Every participant is in a small council group of 7 – 9 participants with two trained council facilitators from our staff. Four the next four days we will meet in council each morning before breakfast. We will spend the entire day at Birkenau (Auschwitz II) the vast death camp where Jews and others were systematically exterminated in five gas chamber/crematorium complexes or killed more slowly in the slave labor camp, some 1.5 million people in all, 90% of them Jews from all over Eastern and Western Europe, from as far north as Norway and as far south as Greece. Tomorrow we go to Birkenau, where we will form our sitting circle at the “selection site” where Dr. Mengele and other Nazi doctors directed people unloaded from the trains either to immediate death in the gas chambers or to a slower death in the slave labor camps. There we will sit silence, followed by sessions of reading the names of those who died here. We will wander through the camp, participate in services, have time for person reflections, and return to the selection site in the afternoon for more silent sitting and more chanting of the names. In the evenings we will have various programs with the whole group, visiting exhibits, engaging in large group dialog, and doing vigil at night at Birkenau. The plunge has begun, and I can feel Auschwitz doing its work on me. My prayer is to be as present as I can here for these next four days of bearing witness, in the hope that presence and bearing witness will bring healing to this place, to myself and all beings.