Bearing Witness At Auschwitz-Birkenau

From “Gate of Sweet Nectar”, these words were part of the Buddhist liturgy I and others chanted at Birkenau, honoring those who died there and in other death camps.

In November last year I participated in the 2010 Zen Peacemakers’ Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau near Oswiecim, Poland, site of the Nazi camps where millions lost their lives.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat was founded by Roshi Bernie Glassman in 1996. In most years since then there have been summer and winter retreats for people of all spiritual orientations and ethnic, cultural and national identities. Eighty people attended last November’s retreat, coming together with senior teachers Sensei Eve Marko and Sensei/ Acharya Fleet Maull to "bear witness" at Auschwitz- Birkenau.

All Saints' Day.We happened to be in Poland for All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, November 1st and 2nd, when candles and wreaths are placed on grave sites. A wreath was placed by the tracks at Birkenau as well.

All Saints' Day. We happened to be in Poland for All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, November 1st and 2nd, when candles and wreaths are placed on grave sites. A wreath was placed by the tracks at Birkenau as well.

The Three Tenets that inform the Zen Peacemakers’ five-day retreats are Bearing Witness, Not Knowing and Loving Action.

My aspiration for the retreat was to be present and not turn away. I arrived at Auschwitz with the desire to embrace all three tenets, but was not sure that I could.

I began with Not Knowing. I did not know what to expect, who would be there, from what backgrounds, from which countries, from what spiritual traditions, would it be multi-generational…

I wished to penetrate the unknown. When we don’t know, when we don’t have fixed ideas about something, then anything is possible. Things happen, nothing ever remains the same. Expectations of what should happen block one from experiencing what does happen. I vowed not be attached to preconceived ideas.

But attached I was.

I knew about Bearing Witness. I worked in Cambodia during UN-sponsored elections and wrote a poetry collection about that experience. Although I wasn’t Khmer and didn’t live through the “Pol Pot Time”, I wished to bear witness to the Killing Fields. I feel as a Jew, all holocausts, all genocides must be railed against.

From this retreat I learned to look at Bearing Witness even more complexly. Bearing witness should attempt to encompass the totality of a situation. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, meditating at the train tracks that brought in the exhausted, frightened victims, we “became” the guards in the watchtowers, the Jewish children who learned to spell at Birkenau, the Gyspies (also called Romas) whose entire camp was liquidated one night at Auschwitz.

We became Joseph Mengele, called the Angel of Death, who decided who would go immediately to the gas chambers or who would receive a living death with a wave of his finger. I understood that we each have in us the capacity to be every kind of person from Adolf Hitler to the Dalai Lama. From this realization I could begin to approach not-judging. How would I feel or act if all the trappings that I knew as “me” were taken away?

Finally, a few words about Loving Action. When one truly bears witness one becomes merged with the situation. One experiences non-duality. The loving action, the right action seems to arise spontaneously. Peacemaking is the function and fruit of bearing witness. Loving action comes from the compassion born from bearing witness. Loving action is the right action.

For more information and to see a video about the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau, please visit:

Willa's talk was informed by "Bearing Witness: A Zen Master's Lessons in Making Peace", by Bernie Glassman.

Contributor: Willa Schneberg.
Photos: Willa Schneberg.