Art of Attention: Recalibrating History.

Via on Sep 20, 2013
Photo: Elena Brower
Photo: Elena Brower

As an American Jew, I grew up with the awareness that Germany was decidedly not a place for me.

The seemingly irreparable anger that hovered around the subject of Germany throughout my childhood had to be respected: again and again I was taught to remember the six million Jews who were needlessly killed in those years.

I’d always felt that the hatred was never mine and this had always been confusing to me—which made it all the more interesting when I learned that the first translation of my book, Art of Attention, would be published in German.

This meant I’d have to go there, teach yoga classes and do book signings in several cities. I’d been there once before, with a different job, to a small city for just a few days. I’d worked hard, seen very little, and had never been back.

I was nervous about all of it.

Planning began: four cities, two weeks. I was relieved to begin in Berlin, where I already had a dear friend, the co-owner of a beautiful yoga studio in the center of the city. Two days before my departure, a New York friend insisted on sending me his private tour guide in Berlin to take me on a field trip, which ended up being one of the biggest turning points in my life.

Berlin greeted me with blazing sunshine, warm breezes and happy Berliners (the weather was gorgeous for the first time in months) and beautiful art seemed to be everywhere I rested my eyes. Most of my weekend there was sparkling bright, so the overcast sky on the day of my field trip with my inimitable guide Burkhard was especially memorable.

That day, the sky took on a periwinkle grey that helped me remember something I didn’t even know I’d forgotten.

***

December, 1941. My name is Hannah, and I’m 15 years old, living in the heart of Berlin, in a neighborhood of mostly Jews. Required to wear gold stars on our clothing, we were slowly being forbidden from sitting or standing in certain places, nor using certain public facilities, which was confusing and becoming more scary. The feeling of being watched was mountingand everyone else in my neighborhood had begun feeling it too.

I had a little brother, almost four at the time, and a little sister who was nine years old. 

The day I’m speaking of was a weekday, but my brother was sick, so I was at home caring for him. My father was working at his friend’s shop that day, my mother was helping her friend with some housework, and my sister was at the school down the block from our house. It was brutally cold that day, and the wind chilled my bones through the cracks in our windows.

At midday, a Nazi soldier knocked loudly on the door, shouting that we had five minutes to get outside, and we were only allowed to carry one bag. I was too afraid to ask the soldier about my parents and my sister, so I moved quickly. I could hear other soldiers knocking on other doors, shouting, followed by crying and the hasty shuffling of feet. 

I wrapped my brother up in as many articles of his small clothing as I could find, placed a scarf and a few pieces of clothing into a small bag; we didn’t have much and I had no idea what to do without my parents there. I carried my brother and this bag outside, and the soldier shouted, too loudly, to walk. At the next corner, more people from my neighborhood, carrying bags and children, were walking too.

None of us knew where we going. As we passed homes of other Germans, they looked out their windows, but as soon as I saw them looking, they’d move away from the window and close the curtains. I remember wondering what they knew and why they kept doing that. We walked for over an hour, in an eerie silence, through our neighborhood, and then into a part of the city where the houses were bigger, and there were many more trees.

I remember being so cold and being grateful for my brother’s body to help keep me warm as we walked—and wishing we could live in one of those beautiful houses, with trees growing outside. 

We arrived at the Grunewald train station on the outskirts of Berlin, freezing, and were ushered onto a platform in the open air and there were hundreds of other Jews there, shivering in the bitter wind. Babies and children were crying; we were all so hungry and cold. Soldiers shouted in German for us to get closer together so they could fit more people onto the platform.

There were hundreds of us, told that the trains would take us to Threisenstadt, one of the propaganda camps which the Nazis used to show the world “what they were doing” —theatre and art.

That ended up being a waystation between life and death—a front for the concentration camps. 

As the train arrived slowly what seemed like hours later, we were pushed towards it. With my brother in my arms, I came close to the door, and there stood one soldier, the last face I saw before I got on that train. He was the first and only Nazi who didn’t shout at me. Slowly and quietly he motioned with his hand toward the door and said, “Bitte, das ist Ihr Zug.” 

“Please. This is your train.”

My story is the same as millions of others. 

***

Looking down at my sneakers as I walked onto the platform of Track 17 on that first full day in Germany with Burkhard, all I wanted to do was lay down on the platform, face down and let my tears be absorbed into the ground.

He explained to me that in the creation of this memorial to the deportation of 50,000 Jews from that very platform to extermination camps, each section of the track carefully lists the dates, the number of Jews deported each day and the locations to which they were sent.

The Nazis had kept meticulous records of all of it and in seeing the numbers and the dates, I told Burkhard I felt like I could hear voices, feel the cold air; I swear I could feel the bodies against mine clamoring to keep warm. It all felt so familiar, the trees, the tracks, the periwinkle grey color of the sky, and I felt inconsolable there.

We left Track 17 after about 20 minutes; I had to teach in a few hours and I needed to rest.

When I sat down to teach my class later that evening, I knew I’d had a life-altering experience on that platform. Both my teaching voice and my singing voice were somehow different—I felt more confident and clear in my instruction, and at the end of the class I sang the closing mantra in a new voice, a sweeter voice I’d never heard before. I felt more connected to my heart and my purpose than I’d felt in a long time.

After class I went to dinner with some of my host’s students and they asked me about my first day in Berlin. I reported my experience and they all fell silent. With a touch of real discomfort and so much deep respect, they listened as I told them of how holy it felt being on that platform.

We all wondered if perhaps some family member of mine had been there.

I learned that Germans in general are still so ashamed of that history and realized it was our time, right there at that dinner, to begin healing it all. I spoke openly about how I’d been taught animosity towards Germany in general and how sorry I was for that. In that moment of that confession, the light changed.

Something shifted—we all felt it.

We stared at each other through our tears for a few moments, in a stunning quiet I will never forget.

The next morning near my seat, a beautiful plant appeared, with two purple flowers blooming. After class, one of the students from dinner the night before approached, and sat down, and told me that the plant was from his grandparents to mine. We obviously hadn’t been there, and yet on both sides, we’re all still victims.

Until we choose otherwise, we hold positions and opinions we haven’t really chosen. In that moment, we made a new choice. We embraced and were transported through the thin veil of time, healing decades of countless interactions between Germans and Jews.

The gratitude has grown in my body since that moment, and cellularly, I feel somehow more equipped to be a leader of peace.

The rest of my days and evenings there were filled with new friends, wonderful meals, stories and walks. Berlin really did feel like my home and by the time I arrived at my next stop, I knew why. What I’d experienced on that train platform, whether you believe this or not, I now realize, was my soul’s memory.

I have lived before, there.

In a long meditation I saw this entire scene and am certain it belongs to me: I know details, smells and sensations I cannot explain, which is why so much of Berlin felt familiar and poignant to me—it was my home. That was me on that platform, carrying my brother, that much is clear.

I only wish I could tell my grandmother about this, about how full of light the Germans are, how beautiful it is to witness their yoga—and how important it was for us to open space for this healing.

I went on and told this story in the subsequent three cities I’d visited and was met always with similar reactions as I’d look around each room.

First, discomfort: nobody knows that I’m Jewish and the shame is still in the air. Then, grief: the profound sadness of hearing about how I felt compelled to lie down on that platform and connect to all the souls who stood there destined for death.

Then, in moments, the discomfort and grief turned to light. Together, each time, we arrived at the conclusion that this is precisely why the book was translated into German and why I was sent to that Track, and why we’ve come together under these auspices to practice.

Die Kunst der Aufmerksamkeit.

No matter what nationality, I was met with a similar sentiment: people from Israel, Spain, France, Czech Republic, Poland had only gratitude. Thank you for talking about it, they said, thank you for being willing to forgive, thank you for wanting to be closer. So many thanks were exchanged in these two weeks. I’ll never be able to express my gratitude for this complete overhaul of my vision, but I’ll have to give it my best now, in closing.

Kai and Tina at Yoga Tribe Berlin, Simone and Fred at Yogawerkstatt Hannover, Ana at Anapurna Yoga Cologne and Isa and Ann-Kristin at Flow Yoga Mannheim: Thank you.

Thank you for your beautiful communities, for your love—and for your listening, without which I wouldn’t have been able to arrive at this understanding. I know how much goes into planning events like this and I acknowledge your commitment and your efforts.

And thank you to Maren Brand at Kamphausen/Theseus, my German publisher—thank you for being the catalyst for this shift.

A special thank you to Spring Groove and her percussionist, Erhard Reyl. In rehearsal for her concert to end my trip in Mannheim, she sang Hine Matov, a Hebrew song which I haven’t heard in decades, since Hebrew school—and I immediately burst into tears upon hearing it.

I realize now that my tears were part of this story too. I’m certain I’d been singing that song to comfort my brother in the cold that day, while we walked, and onto that train platform.

I know it in my bones.

Hine Matov Umanayim. Shevet Achim Gamyachad. 

Translated: “How wonderful we can live together in harmony” or “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”

Germany, I see you and I send you so much love.

 

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 Ed: Bryonie Wise

Thumbnail photo: Chloe Crespi

About Elena Brower

Jonah’s mama, founder and co-owner of Virayoga in New York City, Elena has been teaching yoga for 14+ years. After graduating from Cornell University in 1992 with a design degree, she worked in textile and apparel design for 6 years, living in both New York City and northern Italy. After completing a year studying Art Education at the New School and teaching art in two schools in downtown New York City, she trained with Cyndi Lee, subsequently met John Friend, and began studying Anusara. More than ten years of study with John Friend, Douglas Brooks and Hugo Cory led her to the Handel Group™, with whom Elena collaborates to bring practical, day-to-day relevance to the yoga. Elena’s classes are a masterful, candid blend of artful alignment and attention cues; they bring patience to your mind, articulation to your body and empowerment to your heart.

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24 Responses to “Art of Attention: Recalibrating History.”

  1. Michelle says:

    Wow. This is stunning. Thank you, Elena.
    Namaste,
    Michelle

  2. Johanna says:

    Thank you for sharing, Elena! Beautifully written & deeply moving.

  3. Melanie says:

    Elena, thank you so much for sharing this unbelievable, transcendent experience with us.

  4. Shri says:

    This moved me- thank you. Universe big picture makes more and more sense to me……

  5. Stefanie says:

    Thank you for sharing, Elena. I know that yoga and the yoga community can heal and release those stories.
    Yoga really got me during my time in Jerusalem,while remembering and connecting to the ww2 tragedies with my soul memory again and again.
    I came back to Austria and could bring more and more clarity and TRUTH to my grandparents past and how it was influencing my family until then. Then I could release more and more of the past of all those stories sitting on my family's shoulders. It is also so heavy on each ones family's shoulder in Austria and brings so much narrowness into the bodies of that country – I hope that I can release more and more of those stories doing my work and your article makes me alert again that I can bring that more into my teachings, with or without words. :)
    Leaders of peace :)
    Thank you for sharing, Stefanie

  6. Jim says:

    You brought tears to me. Beautiful. Thank you.

  7. Ruth says:

    Oh Elena, thank you. I don't share your Jewish heritage, but as an Irish woman with a history of suppression and abuse under the mighty power of another country, I think I can relate to that shame, grief and sadness. We all need this kind of healing. THANK YOU.

  8. Nick Cheeawai says:

    This story is a deep one which touches and pierces… In this era of desensitivity, my empathy is not just heightened but realized… I too have visited Germany with similar apprehension and experiencing the dark past in the then present. I was with a group of co-workers and it was palpable and shared by Jews and Gentiles. Peace is a turning point – a vital one and through real piercing tears shifts occur that effect change. This story the one I will have to come back to again and refer others to who have not perhaps understood but hopefully will genuinely feel a shift as I too have felt.

  9. Jennifer Duran says:

    Priceless.

  10. chana says:

    Thank you for sharing!

  11. Jaime says:

    Elena- I hope you are well. This piece had me on the floor, in a corner, in pieces. Thank you because I severely needed that. It’s been too long since I thought of my grandparents experiences there. This was needed… Thank you. – Jaime

  12. Hrönn says:

    Deeply moving – thank you so much Elena for sharing your contemplation! All love

  13. ajza says:

    Thank goodness for this story, for you, for all of the people, and for forgiveness; lifting heavy burdens from hearts.

  14. Juliánna says:

    My god, this was beautiful.

  15. gioia esme says:

    Thanks for that beautiful story.

    I am of mixed heritage (non-practicing jewish/british & italian) but like you I was brought up with a deep mistrust of Germany. My grand-mother (a british jew) worked in Bletchley Park, outside London as part of the decoding team. It is safe to say that she maintained a firm hatred of germans all of her life. She married my grandfather who was a mix of british jew and italian, but who chose UK citizenship over italian and fought for the UK during the war. My parents have traveled to many parts of Europe but have never been to Germany. I first went to Germany on a school trip and have also learnt how the past is still a terrible source of guilt and shame in a generation that has no responsibility for the holocaust. I've also seen how so much of what was german heritage was wiped out by the war. Most cities in Germany were completely destroyed and rebuilt after the war.

    My boyfriend is half german and has a german name. I think it was hard for my father at first, but he knows deep down that human nature unites us all. We like to think that the culture we come from has never and will never commit crimes as bad as the holocaust but history (past and current) teaches us otherwise. It is a constant reminder that people of all creeds and origin are capable of both terrible and beautiful things.

  16. Berlin guide says:

    In 13 years of guiding in Berlin, I have had two of these 'soul memory' guests who became convinced they had been to the SS headquarters or the concentration camp memorial I had taken them to many years before, in the body of a victim.
    This made me feel uncomfortable both times; I couldn't shake the aftertaste these declarations left, that this was partly an (unconscious?) desire to appropriate victimhood from the real victims. At least, not stopping for a moment to consider this aspect of what is an extreme identification with the victims seems to cross a boundary for me, although I am happy to accept this may be entirely unintentional.

  17. Sarah Fox says:

    Elena, you might appreciate the poetry of Paul Celan, a Romanian Jew whose family was killed in the camps during the war. He escaped and lived most of the rest of his life in Paris. German was his "mother tongue," the language of his oppressors, and the tool of his poetry–a subject of incredible complexity for him and one that dominates his work. I think no poet gets to further edges of consciousness and its grievings and passions and pain. Here's probably his most famous poem: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16961

    XO,
    Sarah Fox (Nora's mama, currently in NY waiting with Nora for her overdue little Libra baby to arrive!!!)

  18. foxopomp says:

    Elena, you might appreciate the poetry of Paul Celan, a Romanian Jew whose family was killed in the camps during the war. He escaped and lived most of the rest of his life in Paris. German was his "mother tongue," the language of his oppressors, and the tool of his poetry–a subject of incredible complexity for him and one that dominates his work. I think no poet gets to further edges of consciousness and its grievings and passions and pain. Here's probably his most famous poem: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16961

    xo, Sarah Fox (Nora's mama, currently living in Harlem awaiting with Nora the arrival of her overdue Libra baby! <3 )

  19. Gayla Derges says:

    Oh Elena – so powerful and beautiful! It touched me deeply.

  20. Chris Andresen says:

    I have been to Berlin as well. And being a Christian of Jewish descent, it was for me as well, an interesting experience. I was there in 1995, not long after the wall came down. I understand your hatred. Yet for me, it was an emotion of sadness and loss that I experienced to the greater. My Jewish family had lived in Berlin before the war. None of them survived the war. I visited their synagogue while I was there. Most host family knew my background, and I think it made them uncomfortable. This too I understood because it was their father's generation that had done all this. Yet I saw that this was a generation missing. Nearly all the grandfathers were gone, only the grandmothers remained. The Holocaust, when it was discussed at all, was always couched in apologetic terms. This could have been in deference to me and my background; it's hard to say. I was acting as the translator for my boss, an extended business trip to Potsdam nearby Berlin. The hatred went both ways. I was introduced to the chief of surgery at a Potsdam hospital. An older man of about 60 at the time. In German he said to me, "The last time I saw an American, he was dropping bombs on me." I toured all over Berlin, blending into the general population. My family was from Berlin, after all, and the dialect I spoke was the Berlin dialect. Translators provided by our host for our official meetings said they couldn't tell if I was a native or not, and had to ask to find out which I was, German or American. I saw the devastation left behind by WW2. The bullet holes were still in the walls in 1995, in the Reichstag and many other buildings that had survived the war. In my mind's eye, I could see the devastation, the price that Berlin paid for embracing Nazism. yet the old anger was still there for me as well. We were walking near a waterway one afternoon, when I stepped on a bamboo fishing pole a local had set on the sidewalk. The invectives were fast and thick among which was the term "untermenschen" or sub-human. I bristled and replied with a harshness I hadn't known was there. My host did her best to cover up for me and my outburst, but she knew why I had been so angry. It was that word. By blood, I am a Jew. I think as a Jew, learned to speak Hebrew, like a Jew, and am concerned for my people as any son of Israel would be. I am a son of Jacob, and yet I understand the bewilderment of the journals I have read from my family. How could our own people betray us so? Were we not Germans as well? Did we not spill our blood in the last world war to defend Germany? How then could our own neighbors betray and abuse us so? Yes, I understand the hatred. But, sorrow fills the hole even more so. My people, Germans and Jews have become the lesser for this happening.

  21. Agata says:

    I am a Polish girl living currently in Germany. My country was invaded, destroyed by the nazis in 1939. I lived near Auschwitz, it was the place we went at least once in a year from school, I know it so well so, almost by heart. It was a schock to a child I was the first time I went there, it took me years to understand, to accept the truth, the unimaginable things that happened there. The war and holocaust belong to polish history like nothing else, it destroyed everything and nothing could ever be the same. The litterature, the arts never stopped dealing with this time, how could they… Yet, I never ever felt like the Germans I meet now have to apologize for something their grandparents did and I’m proud of that. I’ve read and been thought for years about atrocities nazis did to people, to children and it made me cry and the images never left my head but I can live in this country without any hatred, I can talk the language without thinking of the nazis yelling their orders in it. Thank you, Elena for this, for chosing to come to Germany, despite your mixed feelings. For forgiving, for rising above hatred and intolerance.

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