October 5, 2010

Auschwitz Retreat: Prologue.

“I’d rather be commodified than liquidated”

For 15 years, Zen Master Bernie Glassman and the Zen Peacemakers have lead multi-faith, multi-national retreats at Auschwitz in order to bear witness to the darkest parts of humanity. I attended my first retreat in June 2010.

What follows are a series of posts chiseled from my daily journals of the experience.


Arriving at the airport in Poland, I thought ‘gee, so this is where most of my family is from.’ Felt weird.  Like I understood my connection to Poland intellectually, but didn’t feel connected to it.

When people learn that my mom is Argentine, they say: “so, you’re Latino?” “Well not exactly,” I explain “My father is Israeli.” “So you are Israeli?” “Not exactly.  My father’s parents are from Poland.  As far back as I know, both of my parents’ families are from Eastern Europe—particularly Poland.”  Participating in the Auschwitz retreat, I wondered: How can I remember my ancestors?

I took a nap upon arriving at the hostel in Krakow. Some friends invited me for coffee.  I wanted to join them, but also wanted to buy some mouthwash, so I told them I would catch up.  It took longer than I expected.  While I initially felt upset that I missed them, I quickly remembered that I could make my own adventure.  I eased into the gentle spontaneity and openness of feeling like a traveler once again, with warm associations of my days backpacking in South America.

I wandered around and found myself headed towards Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, longing for some connection to my roots. A synagogue that I had passed before was open to visit for 5 zloty. I paid a woman at the door wearing a crucifix necklace. I went in there and I sat.  Some stuff looked familiar and I heard prayers in the empty hall.  I imagined the old Jews praying there.  I imagined my father’s father, Tsvi, who was a cantor.  While I was in Argentina, I developed a comic script based on what I knew of his story (illustrated by Argentine Laura Dattoli, click on images to enlarge and read).

In the synagogue, I felt some of that connection I was longing for.  Some tears fell.  I sat there.  Did some meditation on my sadness—or rather with my sadness.  I didn’t see it this way at the time, but after listening to Bernie, I realize that I was meditating with the ghosts.  Later, Bernie talked about listening to the voices at Auschwitz.  That’s a bit supernatural for my taste and even pretty supernatural for his usual teachings—but I know that he knows what he is talking about. Does that make me a “person of faith?”

While in the synagogue, I dozed off for a bit.  I had a dream that I was with my partner and she was telling me she wants kids…and I felt some uncertainty. Later I wondered, ‘Was God talking to me?’ I chuckled.  

After that, I left and stumbled upon a free walking tour of Kazimierz and the old ghetto. When we crossed to the ghetto, tears were jerked a couple more times—both for the tragedies beset on the Jews and for the heroism of a few Poles.  I asked the tour guide about Warsaw, with my voice shaking and told her that is where my grandfather Tsvi is from. After the tour, she asked where I was going so she could give me directions.  “I don’t know.” I told her.

I ended up at an Indian restaurant with some friends back in Kazimierz.  After food and drinks, while walking by another restaurant in Kazimierz with some other retreat participants, I said sarcastically that a bar that had Jewish paraphernalia and Jazz music made me proud to be Jewish.  “You are Jewish?,” asked another participant, a middle-aged woman.  “Yes,” I told her.  She said she wasn’t comfortable with the décor.  I said, “I’d rather be commodified than liquidated.”

At that she broke out into tears.  I realized I messed up.  I took a few steps aside and another friend of ours held her.  I returned, apologized and told her I had been crying half the day and that was my insensitive attempt to weave between the intense darkness and an attempt to make it bearable.  We walked arm in arm for a few feet.

Looking back on it the next day, I agreed with her. Using Menorahs to sell latkas made by non-Jews in Krakow is weird. I was embarrassed.

There is still space in the next retreat in November: learn more.  You can also support me in my attempt to return to Auschwitz in November.

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