(This is actually the penultimate chapter of The
I also used some of this material nearly verbatim in Minyan.)
When my grandmother lay in her sick bed, near the end of
her 94 years, she used to randomly repeat these words:
“The Hitler, the Hitler.”
She had never recovered from the tragic
moment in 1939 when she and her three young children, one
of which was my mother, received visas and tickets of passage
on the Bremen, the last passenger ship, according to family
lore, that Hitler permitted to leave for America. There
was no visa for my mother’s grandmother, Elise Grumbacher,
who lived with them. Naturally, the elderly woman insisted
that her daughter get out with her children as soon as
possible, to join my grandfather, who had departed a year
earlier to make arrangements for the family in Paterson,
New Jersey. They promised to send for Elise as soon as
a visa could be obtained.
Shortly after, she was taken away in a “cattle car” and
died in Gurs, a labor camp near Pao, France.
Nobody gets over such a thing, and it haunted my grandmother’s
soul until the very end.
Although the Holocaust was never discussed in my family
when my brother and I were children, I noticed something
peculiar: every once in a while an old black and white newsreel
would appear briefly on the television screen as our family
was gathered around, and my mother would suddenly turn her
face away in horror, and say very loudly and abruptly, “I
don’t want to see that”, and my father would
quickly turn the channel. Over time I figured it out.
My mother kept an axe under her bed whenever my father was
away. I felt utterly unsafe in our house in Fair Lawn, New
Jersey, as if we were in imminent danger of the bad guys
breaking down our doors. It was a very terrifying way to
live, and I developed a unique way to communicate my fear.
When lying in bed at night after being put to bed, I would
at some point begin screaming one word very loudly and abruptly,
a clipped yelp:
I’d wait about 30 seconds, and repeat it.
I would continue this, infuriating my brother in the bed
next to mine, until my mother would virtually sleepwalk into
the room and get into bed with me, at which point she’d
promptly turn away and fall back asleep. I would remain terrified
with no further options.
And then I heard the story, from my Uncle Norbert, my mother’s
younger brother. Some time ago I mentioned the axe to him
and he said: “Oh you know what that was about don’t
you?” I didn’t. On Kristallnacht, the “night
of the shattering glass,” the night the Nazis went
on a rampage, setting fire to synagogues across Europe, a
couple of them broke down the front door of my mother’s
house — with an axe — in the little pristine village of Rheinbishofsheim,
Germany. The axe fell at my grandmother’s feet, and
she picked it up and handed it back, saying, “Is this
yours?” Thank God, at that point a group of non-Jewish
neighbors and friends appeared and chased the two thugs away.
My mother wasn’t even home when this happened, but
that axe somehow traveled through time and space and landed
under her bed in New Jersey.
My Grandmother went into the burning synagogue in the village
to rescue the Sefer Torah, which she brought to America with
My mother, one of only two Jews in her class, was asked to
stand up in her classroom and read aloud from Der
Sturmer magazine, articles which ridiculed the Jews and depicted
them as rats and vermin, while the rest of the class laughed
and laughed. Her teacher was a Nazi who once asked her an
arithmetic question and when she took a moment too long to
reply, smacked her hard across the face.
Being directly exposed to terror and evil at such a young
age was to forever damage my mother’s trust in life
and the world. Forever after, life would be a matter of being
safe at all costs, from “them,” with them being
virtually anyone outside of our immediate family and perhaps
a few close friends. “Them” were the Christians,
all potential anti-Semites and Nazis, and they were everywhere.
We lived in a Christian world and had to lay low. Even now,
the sight of a policeman in uniform can evoke in my mother
the heart-stopping terror of the Gestapo, coming to take
My brother and I fought her on this. We insisted that her
world-view of “us vs. them” didn’t apply
to us as kids in America. I had only run into anti-Semitism
twice growing up, so naturally my personal experience didn’t
match my mother’s. The first instance was learning
that several of my 7th grade classmates lived in communities
where Jews were prohibited, through an unspoken agreement
in the neighborhood. The second had occurred when I was younger,
playing down the block in the schoolyard. What I called a “big
kid” confronted me and asked me if I was Jewish, and
I instinctively replied, “No, I’m Catholic” and
he said, “Good, because I beat up Jewish kids.” I
ran home and told my family the story — all the relatives
were over — and everyone laughed and said I did the
But apart from that, it appeared to me as if I lived in
a world that was largely safe from the things my mother was
busy protecting me from. It took me well into my 30s to truly
understand the logic of her position towards life, and now
at age 50, at times to share it. For years I worked on my
fear as if it was a psychological problem — paranoia and
neurosis that had been handed down. Now there is glaring
evidence in the real world for it. I am terrified by news
of neo-Nazis and the rise of anti-Semitism. I live in a world
where people who don’t even know me want me dead. When
I sink into thoughts like that, even an axe under the bed
cannot save me.
Nobody warned me that this was the world I was being born
into, a terrifying and dangerous place filled with evil shadows
lurking in dark corners. I inherited ‘fear of Nazis” like
a gene. The first breath I took was of the same atmosphere
that Hitler poisoned. The world he ruined for my grandmother
and my mother remained ruined when I showed up, and I felt
it in every cell of my body.
In a sense, my entire life of seeking spiritual enlightenment,
of seeking integration in therapies, of trying to find myself,
has all been just this one thing:
An attempt to cure myself of terror.
When I was in Israel I met a man, an Orthodox Jew with long
sidelocks and a long beard, who lived in Mea Shearim, the
ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. He told me that
if we are sad, if we can’t be joyful, if we can’t
sing, then Hitler won. And conversely, the way to prove Hitler
lost is to rejoice. It was with this injunction in the back
of my mind that I set off for what I imagined could well
be one of the most shattering events of my life: a Bearing
Witness retreat at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in
Poland, under the guidance of Zen master Bernie Glassman:
I bring my guitar, thinking that if I can sing — and
sing joyfully —at Auschwitz, then perhaps getting
out of bed in the more ordinary world of daily horrors might
become more manageable. I would go into the heart of terror,
and I would sing. First, I imagined, I would be shattered
and broken; first I would shudder with fear and trembling,
and break down in unspeakable horror and sorrow; and then,
I would sing.
My friends, Rabbi David and Shoshana Cooper will be there,
and I ask another friend, Asha Greer, to join me on the trip,
telling her I might need her to take care of me when I fall
apart. We take off for Krakow on a cold November morning
and some 19 hours later settle into our room at the Hotel
Saski. Jet lag gets us up at 4 am, and Asha suggests a walk.
It is not something that would have occurred to me, ordinarily,
so I say sure, and we wander in the dark and silent streets
of Krakow, walking along the Vistula River, beneath the Wavel
Castle. It takes me a few minutes to recognize that it actually
is safe. Safe in a way you don’t feel in American cities
at night. It is misty out, and the mist, coupled with the
overnight jump from Charlottesville, Virginia to Krakow,
makes it all feel very dreamlike at four am. We end our walk
at dawn, attending six o’clock mass in the huge cathedral
in the central Market Square. There are figures and designs
carved into every inch of the cathedral — the railings,
the stairwells, the towering ceiling. Jesus is suspended
in mid-air, bleeding.
I don’t take communion.
I do feel communion, though. A little.
There are about 100 of us at the retreat, representing twelve
countries. Perhaps 20% or less are Jewish. We gather in the
morning to tour Kasmierez, the Old Jewish Quarter. There
are a few synagogues, a Jewish cemetery, a Jewish bookstore,
several Jewish-style restaurants… and no Jews. Of
the 70,000 Jewish people who once brought life to this village,
there are perhaps one or two hundred still in Krakow. The
rest were hoarded together into a walled ghetto and later
transported to their deaths.
I order potato pancakes.
In order to board the buses that will take us to Oswiecem,
the town of Auschwitz, we are asked to walk about a mile
or more with our baggage, through the streets. I believe
it is intended to give us a sense of what being a refugee
might have felt like… it doesn’t.
We stay at an International Youth Hostel about two miles
from the camp, where we will also meet each morning in small
group “councils” to “speak from the heart
and listen from the heart.” Some have lost parents
and other relations at Auschwitz. Some of the Germans have
had the "Nazi shadow" in their families. We discover
that our experience as children was the same on both sides:
mostly nobody talked about it.
Auschwitz is divided into several camps, including Auschwitz
I and Birkenau — eventually Birkenau became the principal
extermination center. In the morning we walk the two miles
to Auschwitz I to spend the first of many days outdoors in
extreme cold. Of my seven layers, two are thermal. Yet somehow,
when contemplating the stories of prisoners being made to
stand naked outside in the snow all night, the experience
of being cold becomes very easy to bear.
At the camp, we are shown a short film made by the Russians
at the Liberation, depicting German civilians carrying truckloads
of corpses over to a mass grave. There is a bucket of heads,
and a bulldozer moving dirt and body parts as one.
Auschwitz is surrounded by a wall and barbed wire, and contains
row after row of large brick structures, the cellblocks.
These now contain museum exhibits. There is a very large
room piled floor to ceiling with a mountain of grey female
hair, as well as an example of the textile that was created
from it. There is a similar mountain of dusty black shoes,
then thousands of eyeglasses. Another entire room just for
shaving brushes and hair brushes, another for pots and pans,
for suitcases. The people were told to bring 25 kilos of
personal belongings and they brought their necessities and
valuables, all of which were promptly surrendered when they
arrived and sorted through for use by German civilians.
Death Block 11 features a basement of cells, including the "Stand-up
Cell" — a tiny bricked-in space where 4-5 prisoners
were made to spend up to two weeks standing squeezed together
in the dark, crawling in through a tiny opening at the bottom.
Three of us get in to get the sense of it... we don’t.
There are also hooks high up on posts where prisoners were
strung up by the wrists behind and above their heads, whipping
racks, gallows, and an execution wall where thousands stood
and were shot in the back of the head — babies were often
shot first, in front of mothers.
We are guided into the gas chamber and see the ovens where
the corpses were burned. A woman cries in there. I don’t
feel anything apart from morbid fascination and a growing
inability to truly comprehend what happened back then. I
keep trying to create pictures in my mind, but it is unimaginable.
Or rather, whatever I imagine cannot possibly be anything
like the experience of someone who went through it. We can
only bear witness.
We walk another two miles to Birkenau, where we will spend
much of the remaining days. It is huge — about three square
miles, containing the ruins of five gas chamber/crematorium
complexes, rows and rows of barracks, some whole, some gone.
The Nazis attempted to blow up the camp near the end of the
war and succeeded partially. The guard towers are still intact
and barbed wire is everywhere. We see the latrine: four rows
of 30 holes each, side by side, and we are told that prisoners
were allowed only 30 seconds to do their duty or risked whipping.
Day after day, 10,000 or more Jews, Gypsies, gays, criminals
and others were transported here in overcrowded, stuffed
cattle cars, many of them already dead from lack of air and
food and toilets. In the early years, there would be a "selection" in
which Dr. Josef Mengele would personally decide each person's
fate by pointing to the left or right — either directly to
death or to the camp for a slow death, or to be the subject
of one of his medical experiments. His favorite was twin
children. He wanted to figure out the reproductive secret
to making twins so that German women could more quickly double
the Aryan race. It is said he especially appreciated the
opportunity to kill both twins at once, with an injection
to the heart at precisely the same moment, and then immediately
dissect both bodies for comparative study.
Eventually there were too many prisoners for this "selection" and
the people were simply herded off as soon as they staggered
off the trains, directly to the "undressing room",
then entering the "shower" where they would be
gassed and burned in ovens. We read many accounts while there:
one man reports what it was like to see thousands of men,
women and children, day after day, marching by his window,
and only hours later seeing a truck piled high with ash drive
The gas pellets were dropped through the ceiling and broke
open when hitting the floor, so people would climb over each
other to get higher up and keep breathing as the gas rose,
and when the doors were opened there would be a huge pile,
often with men on top. Sometimes the gas failed to kill everyone
and the living corpses were put into the oven alive. If there
were fewer than 500 people, it was not economical to use
the gas, and they were shot instead, then burned.
Many people point out that Auschwitz never truly ended and
still goes on today in horror stories and ethnic cleansings
and torture worldwide, as we well know. However, the scientific
efficiency of the methods of genocide used in Nazi Germany
remains uniquely evil.
The routine and structure of the retreat is to sit in a
meditation circle near the selection site, and from the four
directions at once we take turns reading names aloud of those
who died there, followed by Kaddish in six languages, religious
services in Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam/Sufi.
Asha is the instant Sufi teacher there, and one day she and
David Cooper combine the Jewish and Sufi services for a simultaneous
chanting of the Shema and "La illaha il Allah" which
both essentially affirm that there is one God.
But we are free to participate in all that or not, and I
often just wander alone or with someone else through the
grounds. One day I go off alone to lie in the middle claustrophobic
tier of one of the men's “beds” in the barracks.
These are three parallel boards, like bunk beds, that once
held up to six men squeezed like sardines onto each platform,
with barely any headroom or air for the bottom and middle
Lying there I notice that on a purely Zen level, clearly,
the barrack is nothing more than an old shed, some wood hammered
together, a feeling of hardness underneath my body. For it
to "mean" anything more, one must mentally and
intentionally add on the story and history of the Holocaust.
Or else one must believe that the subtle energy of a physical
place retains a memory of sorts that can be felt by those
more intuitive and sensitive than the likes of me. But it
is appropriately dark, dank, damp and oppressive. When I
get out, I watch myself spontaneously switch from victim
to oppressor, and strut up and down feeling very comfortable
as an SS man.
I fearfully approach the crematorium ruins, where a sign
says, "It is forbidden to climb on the ruins." As
I nervously consider breaking this rule, it occurs to me
that the worst that could happen is that the local headlines
would read: "Jew Arrested for Breaking Into Gas Chamber.” So
I walk slowly through the undressing room, into the gas chamber,
and on through to the end where the final flame of the ovens
once roared. At the moment of arriving there, I suddenly
am able to drop that whole horrible story for a moment, and
see that I am merely standing on some old rubble — rocks
A big controversy arises when a German man requests that
in addition to reading the names of the victims who died
there, that we also read the names of the Nazi SS men who
died. As you can imagine, there is much heated discussion.
Not all the Germans agree with him, and not all Jews oppose
the idea. Each person has a very personal response. Someone
suggests that after we finish reading the eleven million
names of the victims, we could then decide about moving on
to the tormentors. Others understand the psyche's need to
acknowledge the lives and existence of the perpetrators as
a step towards wholeness, but object to doing it in the same
manner as the way in which we are honoring the victims. In
any event, it is left up to individuals to do it if they
want, but it is not agreed to as a community event.
So do I sing at Auschwitz? Yes, I sing the Shema at the
execution wall with the group, arms around each other, and
I sing a slow “Shalom” chant as we walk along
the train tracks, and I sing the Sufi zhikr in the snow at
Birkenau. But I am unmoved by religion in this place. I don’t
think any of it matters. I don’t think there are “souls
stuck at Auschwitz” who get released through our song.
I don’t know what is accomplished by our reciting the
names. I don’t light a candle when the opportunity
is offered. I just plain don’t know if anything makes
any difference. Bernie had said at the beginning of the retreat
that “Don’t know” would be one of the themes
of the week, so I guess I am right on target. (Apart from
a few remarks here and there, Bernie keeps a low profile;
Auschwitz itself is considered to be the principle teacher
at this retreat.)
Then, on one of my last cold grey mornings there, I am walking
alone, traversing several miles diagonally across Birkenau,
and I begin to sing:
“Blue skies, smiling at me…
nothing but blue skies, do I see.
Blue days, all of them gone,
nothing but blue skies, from now on.
I never saw the sun shining so bright…”
It is the closest I will get to fulfilling on my intention
to sing with joy at Auschwitz. Was I joyous? Not really.
But I was definitely on the plus side of numb, and that was
all I could muster. It’s a start.
So why did I do it? Did I benefit from a ten-day immersion
in such a gruesome reality and psychic bombardment of impossible
images? I don’t know. Perhaps it defused some of my
not-so-subconscious terror about being Jewish, through looking
at the horror square in the face, making it very real, and
possibly incorporating it into my psyche more intentionally,
instead of through the back door, the way it originally entered.
Yet it is impossible to integrate what I saw in any sane
way so I am left trying to integrate the fact that some things
cannot be integrated.
Or perhaps I did it for Elise Grumbacher, after whom I was
named. Or for my grandmother, muttering about Hitler in her
last days. For my mother, with her axe. For me. For my children.
And for you.