Auschwitz – Birkenao

Yesterday I marched the march of the living together with my parents, my sister and 10,000 individuals from some 30 countries. We marched slowly and almost silently along the footsteps of nearly million and a half individuals. It was their via-dolorosa, the very last walk they ever took. Nearly 100% of those who marched that path between 1942-1944 found their death once they’ve reached their destination in Birkenao. They were gassed to death. One million and a half individuals!!!

We marched in their memory. For their wasted lives. For their suffering. With an inner movement which peacefully state that we will do whatever we can to assure that this kind of cruelty will never re-occur. We march to celebrate the preciousness of human life.

As the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors my life was and probably still is affected by the horrific experiences my grandparents suffered during the Holocaust and the post trauma that it incurred. The Holocaust has been a big part of my life at least since birth. Later in life, as a thirteen years old attending junior high school in Whitehall Pennsylvania, I was bullied by a Neo-Nazi gang for an entire year and had a first-hand encounter with Antisemitism. Still, I’ve managed to postpone the March for more than three and a half decades. I refused to go. I was terrified. Afraid I’d be crushed by what I will find there. Afraid I won’t be able to handle the pain. Afraid I won’t be able to comprehend the magnitude of that living hell. However, a few months ago, my parents asked me to join them in the march and I embraced the opportunity. I felt strong enough to face this part of my family history. Felt mature enough to share such a meaningful and intimate experience with my parents.

As expected, the experience was painful. Overwhelming. Sad. Inconceivable. A reminder to the potential of human kind to act in cruelty with no boundaries. A reminder of the moral dilemmas facing bystanders. And the pain anyone who has ever been a bystander to any atrocity must feel. Yet at the same time, as happens every single time I’ve been confronted with cruelty, alongside the overwhelming incomprehensible suffering, there were reminders to generosity and kindness and a first-hand recognition of the magnitude of human spirit and the capacity to love.

For example, our guide at Auschwitz shared with us the story of a young priest from block 11 who sacrificed his life asking a Nazi officer to kill him instead of his inmate – a Polish political prisoner who was sentenced to death and begged for his life.  Miraculously, despite the fact that 90% of the individuals who arrived at Auschwitz died there within 3-4 months, that Polish man whose life was spared lived on and died a natural death in 1995. Later, during the main ceremony, the March organizers commemorated the extraordinary act of kindness of Raul Gustaf Wallenberg , a Swedish architect, businessman and diplomat who single handedly saved over 100,000 Jews during the holocaust.

The spirit of wholeness continued yesterday as well with the Hungarian president who attended the ceremony and ceased the opportunity to apologize to the crowd. He stood in front of 10,000 individuals – survivors and descents of Holocaust survivors – and apologized for Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis in 1944. A collaboration which resulted in the massacre of 600,000 out of 800,000 Hungarian Jews who found their death in just under a couple of months in 1944. 400,000 of them died in Auschwitz and Birkenao. He asked for our forgiveness and asked us to join him in a minute of silent commemoration in memory of those who lost their lives in these camps. I think my heart broke at that moment. As if it melted. I’ve been tearing more or less continuously ever-since.

Then there was the chief Rabbi of Israel – himself a Holocaust survivor – who in a cracking voice pleaded the elderly Holocaust survivors – today in their 90’s –to drop any anger or resentment they might still be holding towards God or mankind. Realizing they will not stay alive for many more years he practically begged them to “come home” and enable themselves to end this life in peace. He said God cannot be understood by reasoning.

And then I realized I too dropped my “reasoning” – I dropped the “why humans behave with so such cruelty”. Dropped the “how did so many human beings enabled that cruelty to take place”. Dropped even the “what can be done to prevent cruelty from happening again”. Suddenly I was just willing to sit there with the way things were. With the way it is. Not arguing with the past. Not resisting the present. Not trying to influence the future.

For a few hours of grace, surrounded by the remains of unbearable suffering, I just allowed it to be what it is. What it was. And also allowed my small self-centered mundane suffering to be what they were. A tooth ache. Losing my parents half way through the march (how symbolic). Embarrassed to  be vulnerable around my mother. Crying anyway. Getting annoyed with my sister complaining she is bored. Knowing I could not have done it without her. Feeling gratitude to my parents. Struggling to convey it. And all through the day the pain of saying good-bye to a man I love. The hurt. The anger. The sadness. The pain. The love. Of myself. Of the world.

And the birds chirping. And the trees. And the infinite clear blue sky.

The soft sound of rain.

The smell of the wet soil.

A yellow flower.

The space around everything.

The nothingness inside everything.

And the undefended heart that can live with all of it: The pain. The beauty. The deathless.

The oneness of duality.

This is the song that my heart has been singing over the past few days.

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About advaharma

Been fascinated by the mystery of life ever since I can remember. Have been practicing meditation for more than 20 years. Dedicated two years to an ongoing silent meditation retreat whilst living in Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and Burma. A Yogi and a Front Line Humanitarian.
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3 Responses to Auschwitz – Birkenao

  1. Srimoy Kar says:

    Adva, Quite a moving piece brilliantly reflected by you. Hope you are fine. Did not know that you are still in London. Was there a few months ago. Stay in touch. Srimoy kar

  2. Tony Amendola says:

    Hi Adva
    I have shared the following story many times as it serves as an inspiration for me and is very much related to all of this………………….

    In Times Like These, Choose Love

    By George G. Ritchie/Elizabeth Sherrill and Gary Amirault

    (An excerpt from the book “Return from Tomorrow” by George G. Ritchie with Elizabeth Sherrill, published by Fleming H. Revell, A division of Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI., pgs. 113-116)

    When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, the 123rd Evac entered Germany with the occupying troops. I was part of a group assigned to a concentration camp near Wuppertal, charged with getting medical help to the newly liberated prisoners, many of them Jews from Holland, France, and eastern Europe. This was the most shattering experience I had yet had; I had been exposed many times by then to sudden death and injury, but to see the effects of slow starvation, to walk through those barracks where thousands of men had died a little bit at a time over a period of years, was a new kind of horror. For many it was an irreversible process: we lost scores each day in spite of all the medicine and food we could rush to them.

    Now I needed my new insight indeed. When the ugliness became too great to handle I did what I had learned to do. I went from one end to the other of that barbed wire enclosure looking into men’s faces until I saw looking back at me the face of Christ.

    And that’s how I came to know Wild Bill Cody. That wasn’t his real name. His real name was seven unpronounceable syllables in Polish, but he had long drooping handlebar mustaches like pictures of the old western hero, so the American soldiers called him Wild Bill. He was one of the inmates of the concentration camp, but obviously he hadn’t been there long: his posture was erect, his eyes bright, his energy indefatigable. Since he was fluent in English, French, German and Russian, as well as Polish, he became a kind of unofficial camp translator.

    We came to him with all sorts of problems; the paper work alone was staggering in attempting to relocate people whose families, even whole hometowns, might have disappeared. But though Wild Bill worked fifteen and sixteen hours a day, he showed no signs of weariness. While the rest of us were drooping with fatigue, he seemed to gain strength.

    “We have time for this old fellow,” he’d say.”He’s been waiting to see us all day.” His compassion for his fellow-prisoners glowed on his face, and it was to this glow that I came when my own spirits were low.

    So I was astonished to learn when Wild Bill’s own papers came before us one day, that he had been in Wuppertal since 1939! For six years he had lived on the same starvation diet, slept in the same airless and disease-ridden barracks as everyone else, but without the least physical or mental deterioration.

    Perhaps even more amazing, every group in the camp looked to him as a friend. He was the one to whom quarrels between inmates were brought for arbitration. Only after I’d been at Wuppertal a number of weeks did I realize what a rarity this was in a compound where the different nationalities of prisoners hated each other almost as much as they did the Germans.

    As for the Germans, feelings against them ran so high that in some of the camps liberated earlier, former prisoners had seized guns, run into the nearest village and simply shot the first Germans they saw. Part of our instructions were to prevent this kind of thing and again Wild Bill was our greatest asset, reasoning with the different groups, counseling forgiveness.

    “It’s not easy for some of them to forgive,” I commented to him one day as we sat over mugs of tea in the proceeding center. “So many of them have lost members of their families.”

    Wild Bill leaned back on the upright chair and sipped at his drink. “We lived in the Jewish section of Warsaw,” he began slowly, the first words I had heard him speak about himself. “My wife, our two daughters, and our three little boys. When the Germans reached our street they lined everyone against a wall and opened up with machine guns. I begged to be allowed to die with my family, but because I spoke German they put me in a work group.”

    He paused, perhaps seeing again his wife and children. “I had to decide right then,” he continued, “whether to let myself hate the soldiers who had done this. It was an easy decision, really. I was a lawyer. In my practice I had seen too often what hate could do to people’s minds and bodies. Hate had just killed the six people who mattered most to me in the world. I decided then that I would spend the rest of my life, whether it was a few days or many years, loving every person I came in contact with.”

    Loving every person . . . this was the power that had kept a man well in the face of every privation.

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