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Dec 30
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Love from Auschwitz: A Bearing-Witness Retreat with the Zen Peacemakers

By Sophie Leger

What an amazing experience this Bearing-Witness Retreat with the Zen Peacemakers turned out to be: Ninety participants from many different countries and religious backgrounds, speaking different languages – people from Sweden, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Canada, US, Israel, Brazil, Columbia, Belgium, England.

Some doing the retreat for the first time, others repeating, coming back, year after year. Services held in the Zen tradition as well as the Jewish and Catholic faiths.

Because of my demanding job, I had to break one rule of the retreat – I did not stop relating to emails. One morning, something quite unexpected showed up in my inbox. A message I had sent and signed “Love from Auschwitz,” returned with this reply:

“No offense, but as a Jew I find your sign off a little glib. I wouldn’t put “love” and “Auschwitz” in the same sentence.

This took time to digest. It was not my intention to be hurtful, insensitive or unkind. I could see how someone might be offended, but the truth was that after spending five days in this hell, what stayed with me was not the horror and atrocities, but the love. The following is a reflection of my experience.

Silence. Lots of it.
Feeling. Imagining. Listening.
Our hearts opening and closing and opening again… Sharing. Listening more.
Crying. Praying. Meditating. Signing.

The Jewish service for the dead. The songs in Hebrew.
Reciting the Lord’s Prayer for the first time since I was 12 years old.
The Zen ceremony to feed the hungry ghosts, past, present and future. To heal our own hunger and that of all beings.

Photo credit Mikko Ijäs

The final offering at the ash pond–which contains the remains of hundreds of thousands of innocent souls–where we all received a flower and threw it on the mirror-like surface of the water, an aspiration for healing.

Bearing witness to the unspeakable horror. To the efficiency of that death factory. To the magnitude of the loss. To the desolation, still palpable.

Being willing to feel, again and again, the despair, hopelessness, agony, betrayal, grief and absurdity of all those lives taken away, and the inhumane and hellish conditions that preceded the killing.

Bearing witness to the incredible strength and courage of the survivors and of those who helped in small and big ways.

Bearing witness to the trauma experienced by victims, perpetrators and by-standers. For generations.

So many deeply personal and unique reactions…

One woman talked about the little child who holds her hands when she stands on the platform… the ghost of an orphan condemned to the gas chamber whose presence she feels every time–a little shivering hand holding hers.

Another woman shares about the joy of getting married in Birkenau a few years ago, feeling her dead relatives’ presence during the ceremony and feeling them smile and celebrate her happiness and hope.

Another talks of the preciousness of feeling her heart open a little and being able to cry after years of dread and paralysis.

Another shares about her shame of being German. How guilty she feels for crimes she only heard about. Her parents’ silence when she tried to ask how it was for them. Her loneliness.

The silence of the survivors … who tried to erase the horror and never mention it again, even to their own children. And the children, here, longing to feel and understand their family’s tragedy, trying to make sense of the unspeakable.

A Jewish man who feels that his own people turned into oppressors towards Palestinians, just a few years after surviving Auschwitz, in the endless war to protect Israel, the Jewish state.

The young Palestinian who reveals how painful it is for him to witness the official delegation from the Israeli army parading in military uniform in the remains of the camp, paying their respect to keep memory alive.

And the tall outspoken Jewish man who gives a hug to the trembling Palestinian to comfort him.

So many tender memories…

… and the distinct feeling that, despite the horror, we still haven’t learned, and are in the middle of another holocaust. Still by-standers to another tragedy… That of our planet and the whole of human life.

Sophie has been an active member of  Shambhala since the late 1980’s serving as an MI, AD, Montreal Center Director, and Chair of the Karmê Chöling Board. Professionally, Sophie trained and worked as an actress in Montreal for over 25 years and also has a degree in English and Spanish literature. She currently works as director of Translations for the worldwide Shambhala community and course developer for Shambhala Online. She has been teaching Qigong for the past 10 years. Sophie lives in a lovely house overlooking the Connecticut River in Massachusetts with her sweetheart and fiancé, Fleet, and she is a proud mother of two amazing sons.

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5 responses to “ Love from Auschwitz: A Bearing-Witness Retreat with the Zen Peacemakers ”
  1. Barbara Lynn
    Jan 4, 2020

    Thank you Sophie for sharing your experience with us. I appreciate your honesty.

  2. Paweł Molenda
    Jan 3, 2020

    Thank you, Sophie, for this post. “Love from Auschwitz” for me is such an accurate paradox that says so much about this place. Your article inspired me to visit Auschwitz again and contemplate what happened there. Much love!

  3. Dear Sophie,

    Thank you for such a beautiful tribute to confronting the the utter tragedy and the beauty of the complexity of bearing witness at this time.

  4. Two thoughts: one is that it’s interesting to hear a report about bearing witness to wrongdoing involving senior people in Shambhala (Acharya Maull is also involved in this programme usually, I believe) when senior people in Shambhala are so unwilling or unable to bear witness to the wrongdoing–albeit, of course, much less damaging–that has taken place in Shambhala. I would be interested, for example, to hear how Acharya Maull equates his bearing witness practice to the events in Shambhala.

    Second [reaches for incredulity emoji]–you honestly didn’t realise that “love from Auschwitz” might sound just a little bit glib? Really? REALLY?

  5. Christine Heming
    Dec 30, 2019

    Dear Sophie,
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience in this tender and touching way. I am deeply moved with few words.

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