Healing the Shoah

I never thought I would go to the Camps. However, when I trace the origins of the journey, I find a preoccupation with the Shoah * since I was a child, which I never acknowledged and always tried to set aside.
Last year when the idea insisted itself upon me, after a similar insistence the year before that I devote myself to studying the Shoah, I turned to my husband, Michael Ortiz Hill, intending to say, “I am thinking about going to the Camps this spring.” But in the instant between the gesture and the speech, I knew that I wasn’t contemplating such a journey; I was simply accepting its reality.

Having decided, I prepared intellectually and spiritually, in every way I knew. I read for months and months until nausea overcame me or until I found myself distancing from the material. Then the next day, I began again, trying to define the questions I wished to address when I was there, looking for the particulars of my concern. I formulated responses, theories, understandings. I brought as much mindfulness as I could to the exploration. Toward the end, I was aware that my ideas, feelings, responses, intuitions, were changing so rapidly that by the time I left, I no longer had answers; I didn’t even have questions.

At Ravensbruck, the first Camp we visited, I found myself sitting down on the floor before the ovens of the crematorium, laying out a medicine bundle which had been put in my hands just as I was leaving the U.S., then grieving, praying, and meditating for some hours. After that, I had some idea of how I might approach the Camps. Within a short time, a ritual approach which was satisfying, if not comforting, appeared, and I was grateful for it. Perhaps my preparation had
had some value after all.
The meditative ritual contained elements gleaned from a long conversation I had had with Reb Zalman Schacter, and another with a friend who was familiar with the Tibetan Chod practice performed in cemeteries. It also combined an ancient and esoteric Kabbalistic practice taught to me by a friend, with elements derived from my own spiritual practice developed over the last years. The contemplative ritual which was developing was stark but allowed for the minimum of
what I hoped to realize: to look unflinchingly at the worst of what human beings had done to each other and had suffered, and to listen for whatever wisdom might choose to be transmitted.

Because Michael and I did virtually nothing else during this month but visit the Camps, the entire time took on the character of a meditative retreat. Personal concerns, ordinary life, fell away and it seemed to us then, and in retrospect, that we were living in non-ordinary reality, were experiencing the odd privilege of descending consciously into hell.
It had been important to me from the beginning to take a train to Poland. I wanted the experience, albeit in my imagination, of following the route to the Camps. So after six days in East Germany, we took a train from East Berlin to Warsaw.

No sooner had the train started than we heard a thump of bodies and a woman screaming in the next compartment in either sexual ecstasy or physical pain and terror. Deeply disturbed but unable to ignore the sounds, unable to understand the language, we listened with increasing ambivalence, incapable of deciphering whether the woman was really in need of help. Finally, however, we felt it imperative to do something. Opening our compartment door, we saw that a small
group of men, equally perplexed, had gathered outside. But just then the train came to a stop and custom officials entered. Informed of the situation, they intervened. The woman had needed help. Later, I saw the two of them
standing in the corridor, the man shamefaced and tender, the woman weeping. The experience of my own hesitancy, my seeming reluctance or inability to act as quickly as I always thought I would to help another human being, mortified and humbled me. This awareness of my own moral failure, appropriately undermined whatever spiritual arrogance and self-righteousness with which I might have so very incorrectly approached this most unfathomable of events in human history.

There are many ways to tell the Story of the journey. But at the end when I was given a Story to bring back, so to speak, I began to see that a theme had emerged or perhaps an agency whose activities I had not suspected had been at work choreographing events and insights in ways I would never have predicted.

I had heard that there was a Carmelite Convent at Dachau where travelers could stay, and I wrote to them originally only because I wanted to see how it would feel to stay over night in the Camp itself. Then a reference in Reb Zalman Schacter’s “Some Dawn Thoughts on the Shoah” [ Tikkun, Vol. 2, No.1. I], to a similar Karmel at Auschwitz aroused my curiosity. When Michael’s sister, Claire, a cloistered nun, spoke to us about Edith Stein, a remarkable Jewish woman,
now beatified, who had died at Auschwitz, we wrote to the Nuns in Auschwitz asking whether we might visit them as well. These Carmelite nuns, like another group situated in one of the former most notorious prisons in Berlin, have a devotional practice which consists of prayer in the places of greatest suffering. The day before we left the United States, we received an invitation from the Nuns at the Edith Stein Karmel, in Auschwitz even though they have no “accommodations for pilgrims.” The letter said, “The intention of your pilgrimage to various concentration camps is beautiful and noble. The place of death must be a place of prayer and the prayer ought to unite people of various religions.”

The night before we arrived at Auschwitz, I dreamed of the Sisters as a gaggle of young girls bustling cheerily about us. In the dream, they’d joined the Order as a means to live together. At one point, the Mother Superior, a warm, motherly woman, put her hands on my cheeks with affection and asked sympathetically, “How is it going?”

“It’s getting easier,” I replied.

“I’m not surprised,” she said. But as we spoke, we both knew that all I had seen so far, had been only in preparation for Auschwitz. And when we got there, it was true: Two and a half weeks and six camps had been, in fact, only preparation for Auschwitz and Birkenau, the two most horrific Camps of all where four million people were exterminated, three million of them Jews.

Two days before, at Sobibor, I had been confronted internally myself with two questions: Was I willing to face evil wherever it was, including in myself? Was I willing to listen and absorb, if necessary, whatever pain presented itself? Afterwards, when I was meditating for some hours in the mass grave of 18,400 Jews shot in one night at Majdanek, the thoughts which insisted themselves into my consciousness were: “Stop the making of enemies. Be fierce, determined, and undaunted in the expression of kindness and tenderness, and not only to your own.”

Continuing to wrestle with what might be the meaning of this, we arrived at the Karmel Edith Stein which is situated just outside Auschwitz in what is said to have been a storehouse for Zyklon-B. Earlier in the day, looking out a window in Block 11 where the gas had first been used on several hundred Soviet prisoners of war, we had seen the large cross in the courtyard of the Karmel and were both comforted and unnerved by its presence. The bird-like nun who opened the gate for us bent over, shyly, as if to hide her face entirely with her veil. We explained who we were, she murmured, “California,” which may be the first English word she ever learned, and invited us in.

We were led to a small room where we waited. After some time, we heard voices and giggles and then the curtain behind the wooden grate was pulled aside and we were face to face with the Mother Superior and a young Nun who spoke some English, not unlike the figures in my dream. That night and the next morning we spoke together for many hours in very halting but moving conversation mostly in English and French. When frustrated, I found myself retrieving once more the Yiddish I’d spoken as a child, which I had first activated in East Germany. Michael, fell, as uselessly, into Spanish, both of us instinctively diving for a mamalushen which, however, neither of the Nuns understood.

Awkward as the communication was, we focused upon the power of prayer, the need to heal, ways to approach Auschwitz, and the controversy engendered when various Jewish organizations demanded from the Pope that the Karmel be moved, insisting that the Nuns’ presence usurps the most symbolic of all monuments to the Holocaust. (Sometime after our visit, after a storm of protest and acrimony, the Vatican agreed that the Karmel would be moved and an inter-faith center established on the site.) But the Nuns asserted passionately that in the spirit of the two people to whom the Karmel is devoted – Edith Stein and Maximillian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, also beatified after dying at Auschwitz – they prayed for everyone and while we were with them we did experience the unquestionable depth and breadth of their compassion.

“This is Auschwitz, not a museum.” The Mother Superior lamented that the Camp having become the most popular tourist attraction in Poland, was unable to serve anyone’s – Christian’s or Jew’s – spiritual needs. And while it was obvious that the Nuns are deeply wounded and perplexed by the hostility to their presence, it was also clear how devoted they were to alleviating what suffering they could through the agency of prayer and contemplation.

We did not feel that the Mother Superior who had been born near Oswiecim was oblivious to the enormity of Jewish suffering. When she was about nine the Nazis appeared at her door terrorizing her and her brother while her mother was away. That same week, she said, the Jewish child her mother had offered to hide at her grandfather’s farm was arrested with all the Jews in the area. “In one night,” she said not without visible emotion, “all the Jews, all the Jews in our town were rounded up and killed.” During the two interviews, the Mother Superior spoke at length about the suffering in the Camps, among different peoples, Jews and Catholic clergy, in particular.

Perhaps, she was presenting the requisite stories, but I did not think so at the time. Nor did I feel inordinate gratitude for her mother’s desire to have saved a child. Anger and envy tainted my response: When the Nazis didn’t find Jews in her house, they went away. And though she had been terrified, she had not been killed.

However, I also knew that while 3 and a half million Polish Jews had been killed by the Nazis, 3 and a half million Poles had been killed as well. And I did not want to play numbers nor did I long for there to have been more dead or more suffering.

While speaking, we were brought a modest but satisfying supper by the Sister who had first opened the door and afterwards were led to a gratifyingly simple room where we slept knowing full well where we were which we could not have known so keenly had we stayed at the hotel also on the Camp grounds. In the morning, when we met again, the Nuns once more voiced their pain about the controversy regarding their presence. By this time, enormous affection and community had been established between us. It was so clear to me that these 14 devout, innocent, yet spiritually conscious women were the pawns in a political-theological struggle they could not begin to effect or understand. And, further, this controversy is taking everyone further and further away from the spirit and healing which that place and this planet so desperately need if we are to save ourselves – or anything at all.

Aside from the politics of the situation, basic theological issues separate the Jews from the Catholics in their response to and understanding of the Shoah or Holocaust.  And this is complicated by the fact that basic theological and political  differences separate Jews from each other in their responses as well. When I had read in the Los Angeles Times that “Jewish leaders outside Poland demand the removal of the small group of Carmelite nuns from a convent they established in 1984. . . ” I wondered, as I always do when I read that phrase, how these Jewish leaders came to speak for me.

Many Jews, it’s true, are offended by the application of the Catholic vision of martyrdom, transcendence and resurrection to the Shoah. The best analysis of the situation I’ve read is Daniel Landes’ “The Pope’s Assault on the Jews,” [ Tikkun Vol. 2 No.4.]. As Landes puts it, “The Holocaust has been transformed from a Jewish tragedy into a Catholic victory.” But for many Jews the issue is political not religious, just as their identification may be secular not spiritual. As the Nuns said, naively but with real perplexity, “Those who seem to be most opposed to our being here, also indicate they no longer have a belief in God.” How Jews look at the Shoah is as complex and contradictory as the ways Jews look at anything.

When one sees the 23 foot cross outside the Convent, it is possible to feel that the Church is “expropriating the Jewish experience and incorporating it into Christianity.” But then it is also possible to speak of how segments of the Jewish community appropriate, co-opt and even sell the Holocaust. It often felt to me as though the original Nazi effort to build Auschwitz-Birkenau for the Jews is being maintained by the insistence that this experience must be perpetuated as a completely Jewish experience. I did not like walking through Auschwitz thinking this is mine anymore than I liked the fact that a Jew became whomever the Nazis defined as a Jew. The next day when Michael and I dug our fingers into the soil of the crematoriums at Birkenau we came up with a handful of ashes and bones. I did not need or want to trace their genealogy; that has been done too often in this century. During this month when Michael, himself Catholic, sat beside me, uttering the prayer he had so carefully written for this pilgrimage, he was as broken hearted as I was. His prayers, are, I know, every bit as good as mine. I was grateful for the Nuns whose presence was maintaining the meaning of an increasingly commercial and secular site. “We pray for everyone,” I remembered the Mother Superior had said.

If I have any criticism of the Karmel at Auschwitz, it is only that the Nuns do not open the doors of their chapel to the public as do the Nuns at Dachau. Walking through Auschwitz, I was beside myself with agitation, in part because there was no place where I could find solitude. The next day at Birkenau, I found shelter from the rain, cold, and crowds in a remote barrack where I sat and prayed on the long cement latrines. This felt soul searing and, therefore, appropriate. But I longed for some temple, some chapel, where I could gather myself together again or completely fall apart and the Catholic Church across from the Camp, designed, it seemed to me, to serve the newly developing suburb, offered no sanctuary. The Jewish exhibit at Auschwitz, was hardly a place to experience grief or healing, and I preferred finally to spend time in the barracks with their horrific displays of suitcases, toothbrushes and human hair – despite the crowds – than to stay in that dark gallery, rather shabbily furnished with now overly familiar photographs and slogans. Walking back to my car after having completely circled the terrible expanse of Birkenau, I was horrified for the literally millions of visitors who have no option but to integrate in the tourist bus whatever experience they can have in the two or so hours allotted them. Mother Mary Teresa who established Karmel Heilig Blut had written in her petition: “The name Dachau will always be connected with man’s most terrible cruelties. The site of such ill deeds, where so many human beings bore unspeakable pain, should not be lowered to the status of merely a monument, or worse, to just a tourist attraction.”

On the Shabbas, the night before, in Krakow, I had attended Services for one of the first times in my life. But the evening left me with another kind of grief. After the Services, one of the younger men, with whom we had been speaking warmly, asked us if we would be in Krakow the next day. Without thinking, I replied we wouldn’t because we were going to Auschwitz. He turned on his heel and walked away from us. Because one must not travel on the Sabbath? Because one must not mourn on the Sabbath? Because of some other restriction or law with which he virtually dismissed us and, for his purposes, reduced Judaism by another one or two ? Where the Nuns had gathered me in, he had set me apart and so it turned out that it was the kindness and tenderness of these very simple, perhaps naive, women which sustained me at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“Come back if you like, to eat or sleep, for whatever you need,” the Nuns said when we were leaving, clucking over us like the proverbial Jewish mothers. We had felt and expressed a deep and surprising love for each other in the short time we’d been together. “Pray for us,” they said, “and we’ll pray for you.” I think they did.

Days later we were at Dachau. I felt apprehensive driving to the Convent. In retrospect, I was ambivalent about my stay with the Nuns. Why? I wondered. Had I overdone my support for their presence in Auschwitz? Had I, in the interest of community, soft pedaled the history of Polish and Catholic anti-semitism? Had I failed to received something from them which I wanted and was it simply something personal: Had they merely been insufficiently interested in what it meant for a Jewish woman to make this pilgrimage? Or had they been defensive or unwilling to seriously attend the Jewish objections to their presence? Or was it only the inner fear of sleeping once again in a place which was so brutally saturated by pain, terror and death ? Was I just overwhelmed with being Jewish among Christians in Germany? Michael was already bending over with the pain of the history of the Church and its relationship to anti-semitism. Was it just that I’d had too much? I want a German to reach out to me,” I said to Michael. “I want some gesture from that side.”

When we arrived, the Nuns greeted us in a flurry of warmth and delight. We stayed three days. There I experienced what I think must be a small vision in the Camp and then the kind of humble miracles which sometimes occur between people. These form the substance of the Story which I feel I have been given to bring back.

“Why don’t we have a temple, chapel, or meditation hall in each of the Camps?” I asked desperately, after the first day at Dachau. Even the smallest room like the alcove off the Catholic chapel at Mauthausen would have been sufficient. Early in the morning, I had lit all the candles I could reach in the Ark shaped Jewish memorial at Dachau whose Menorah in a stunning reversal looms above the wall of the Convent and is as visible there as the Cross is in Auschwitz. Within the memorial there is no place to sit except the floor, and when waves of tourists stomped through noisily, I had to leave and later in the afternoon it was locked. At the end of the afternoon, I sat quietly in the Chapel Heilig Blut grateful for the silence. Later at Vespers, the Nuns sang like angels and I was deeply moved by the service deliberately enriched by the Psalms and Old Testament texts in order to move closer to the Jewish spirit. I was as comforted as I had been in my dream when the Mother Superior from Auschwitz had taken my face in her hands.

“There is no Temple here, nor Wailing Wall, nor sanctuary because there’s no one left to do it,” Michael answered gently reminding me that on the Shabbas we’d spent in the Jewish synagogue in Krakow no more than 15 men, all but two over 70, had gathered for services. There we realized more than we ever had what it had meant for 6 million to have been killed. It meant also that no one was left .

I didn’t know until I spent some days at Dachau that I was wishing that the Nuns at Auschwitz would open their doors or their Chapel to all visitors and pilgrims so that, at the least, we might all have a place to silently recollect ourselves or pray. The obvious had become vividly clear to me. There are no Jews left in Poland, [or Germany, or Austria for that matter] to provide the ongoing physical and spiritual presence to memorialize the Shoah. Perhaps at some time, there will be internationally maintained sanctuaries for all people but they do not exist now. It has fallen to the Catholics, then, to maintain the heart and the sacred.

The last day we had an meeting with Sister Maria with whom we had been corresponding about our stay. After a short exchange, she asked where we had been. I listed the names Ravensbruck, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, The Warsaw Ghetto, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Mauthausen, Dachau. “Oh,” she said, writing them down while chanting them softly, “I once heard such a list in the Jewish liturgy. I will recite it to my sisters.”

Then I began speaking what I had been afraid, of speaking since the first night there when I’d also had a dream. After all, I remembered, it was the Church which had burned witches at the stake. “1 had a dream when I arrived here,” I said. “In it, I was instructed to ask you something which you may not be able to give me permission to do, nor may your Mother Superior. But I can’t do it without your permission. So I must ask.”

She waited quietly. I took the small embroidered blue suede pouch out of my pocket and the brown leather pouch they had given us with the keys to the Convent. “In my dream, ——- Sister Maria looked at me very kindly and then, after a short silence, she replied gently, “Will you show me where you will bury this bundle, so I can pray there each day?”

When we finished the interview, Sister Maria asked if we could pray together, each in our own language. I said the small prayer in Hebrew  which I had been taught; Michael prayed in English and she prayed in German. She prayed for us. I understood enough to be able to decipher that.

After this meeting, I walked through the Camp for the last time knowing I would not go through a Camp soon again, if ever. It was when I was lighting some candles at the ovens when a tour of German boys of high school age entered the crematorium. Like all other tourists they chatted and shuffled as their teacher lectured them on the ways and means of extermination. I would have stopped lighting the candles if I could, but I couldn’t stop. And in that moment I realized I had become part of the display. I felt violated by their presence and this intrusion into the absolute privacy and intimacy of grief. These were my dead they were learning about and the chasm between mourning and curiosity, loomed very large.

These can not, must not be museums, I thought to myself and proceeded to the next candle, as if I were performing a sacred rite. Then something happened; the boys became silent. I then sat down to meditate on the stone floor before the ovens. Michael joined me. The boys continued to be still. They left in similar silence. Other tourists came through, saw us, stood quietly, tiptoed or spoke in whispers. Something changed radically as we were able for a short time to convert that space of horror into a place of prayer.

Later sitting on the earth among the trees, once again on a site of a mass grave, I asked for the last time, if there was any wisdom which wanted to come through me. And I heard the words, ‘Never again,” but they had a different meaning. “Never again for anyone” was what was meant. Whatever it was that caused such a break from the human spirit, it must never happen again. No one ever again must be drawn into committing such evil and brutality, no one must be permitted to have such crimes upon their souls, nor can anyone be allowed to suffer it again. Never again for the victimizer and the victim; never again for Jews and everyone else. “Do what you can to find the sources of this suffering which so many, not only Jews experienced. Look everywhere in history, in others and in yourself, and address it as best you can. Never again, for anyone,” it repeated and I found myself reeling also with the understanding of the suffering which occurs from an alliance with evil.

So, what do I want from these Nuns? I thought later. As a Jewish woman what do I want from the Church? I want them to say Kaddish, I found myself thinking. I want them to say Kaddish for my dead.

And I want them to take me, my people, my dead into their hearts so we can be each other’s. I knew that I wanted these Karmels to remain in the Camps. And I knew that I must not claim that suffering any longer as a sign by which Jews identified themselves and set themselves apart. I had to set aside the idea of the Shoah belonging only to my people. Then I knew that I very much wanted the Nuns to remain and to continue to pray that all souls be released from or transcend their suffering. Because I could not remain there, I was grateful that they were there, as one of the sisters put it, “for our entire lives.”

And I realized also that I wanted to offer them comfort as well, for they have the hardest job. It is not only their people who died there, it is their people who were the Nazis as well – and the latter must be the greater agony. We walked back through the guardhouse which is the entrance into the courtyard of the Convent built upon the quarry where the priests, in particular, had been given the hardest work. I was so glad to be married to a Catholic man. It is good for Jews and Catholics to be like a married couple, both separate and distinct, but together in spirit.

Michael and I sat together for the last time in the chapel next to the garden which was where the SS whorehouse had been. I thought of lines from the prayers of my husband’s eleven year old daughter, Nicole Isaacson Hill and her friend, Lily Rajan: “Heal my heart and the hearts of all dead and living. Heal the sore and hurting patches of bodies and people. Please change the dirt that many are buried in to flowers trees and vegetables. Please feed the hungry with these fruits of life and death.” In that moment, on this last day sitting in the Chapel, I realized that in these places of abject suffering, I had learned to pray. And it also came to me that there had been some humble visions and small miracles, through which despite the mind and soul shattering grief and pain, I had experienced a consistent awareness of the Divine Presence in the universe.

I remembered a story which had been told at our wedding about an Abbot and Rabbi. During the yearly meeting between the Abbot and Rabbi to discuss theology and sacred texts, the Abbot had complained that all the parishioners were leaving and no one was attending services any more. “Is there anything you can say to help us?” the priest asked. “Nothing,” the Rabbi answered shaking his head with sadness. “Nothing but this: The Messiah is among you.”

Astonished and incredulous, the Abbot brought this confusing statement back to his community. The few monks unwilling to challenge the rabbi, began to act as though it were true, treating each other With the kindness and compassion which they would have extended to the Messiah. Soon people in the community began to perceive the atmosphere of holiness which permeated the monastery and returned to worship. Accordingly the sacred community was restored.

Was this in the back of my mind, when one of the Nuns at Dachau asked me if I would speak to all of them when I returned. “Everyone wants to turn their backs on the suffering which occurred here and sometimes we also want to turn our backs and forget,” she confessed.

“But,” I said to her, ‘I think the Shechina is among you.’