On Tuesday, July 19, I will take a tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, not far from Krakow, Poland. Tonight, I’ll write about the experience of stepping into a place of history created by a man whose social vision was white supremacy and whose political strategy was to blow smoky lies into peoples’ minds, to shout hate and fear into the “ears of their hearts” (an allusion to a Benedictine expression), and to sow seeds of disrespect into the body politic.
Polish friends, who live at the site of Hitler’s deceptions, are as alarmed by the politics of modern-day ultraconservative nationalism in Poland as alert Americans are by the politics of personal ambition, egotism, and ignorant deception offered by Donald Trump. Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is a way to contemplate the consequences of not paying attention to illusions and self-deceptions for society and human relationships.
July 19, 2016 is the last day that the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration/extermination camps will be open to the general public for a couple of weeks. For a while, only groups associated with World Youth Day will be able to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. To fulfill one of the key aims of my Summer Listening Odyssey, several months ago I grabbed a ticket for this one day. The ticket and bar code that I bought online and printed out in Denver, Colorado was my entry pass to this first of two pilgrimage goals for the summer. (The second is to visit and take a photo of the residence at Limorowskiego 35, Lodz, Poland. More on this aim in a later post.)
Auschwitz-Birkenau—arguably one our world’s most significant historic sites—is just an hour and 20 minute drive from Krakow’s main bus station. Today, this historic place is a state museum in a wholly ordinary Polish small city: Auschwitz (Oświęcim). One gets to this place of horror in an ordinary microbus, passing ordinary schools and churches, homes with lovely gardens, gas stations and supermarkets, coal mines and building materials stores—places associated with all of the usual wherewithal for ordinary daily living.
There are a lot of people making this trip. They come by car, microbus, public bus, tour bus, motorcycle and bicycle, by the thousands. There was a very long line to get to the museum entrance and security check. There were people from Jamaica, Slovenia, Germany, Poland, the US and the UK, and I’m sure many other countries. Visitors tour the museum in language groups with wireless earphones. My friend Marek came as a child along with his classmates on a field trip that is officially a part of the school curriculum for all Polish elementary students.
I don’t know how many visitors to Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum distinguish trips, tours, and pilgrimages. My young hosts sent me off in the morning, wishing me a good trip, and instantly said, no, it should be called a pilgrimage. I appreciate the opportunity to make a distinction. I have traveled these several thousand miles as a pilgrimage: to experience this place in person and to learn something about the place, its history, its significance, and myself. I had no idea what to expect, but in the event, I was surprised.
It is not surprising that all of the people in my little language group were sober and attentive. Our guide spoke fluent English and her commentary, though clearly well rehearsed, did not feel canned or robotic. My interior state was sober and attentive, but it wasn’t until the end of the tour that I felt more. What was surprising is that as our guide was saying “Thank you for your attention. This is the end of our tour. I wish you all well” my heart filled with emotion and my eyes began to leak tears.
Why did this deepest emotion occur at the end of the tour, triggered by the goodbye of our guide? I have a hypothesis.
As our guide was making her concluding remarks about the arrival of the allied troops who liberated this concentration/extermination camp, my mind was formulating a question. “You offer many people this deeply important service. [An “…important service that allows us to remember and walk around the place where something demonic took place that shattered individual lives and whole societies,” was in the back of my mind, but those are this morning’s words.] I wanted to ask her how she cared for herself so that time after time she maintained her own selfhood and center. I was startled by my emotion and chose not to try to speak through it.
Our guide receives visitors like me and leads us through this place of historic horror. We listen attentively and look inquisitively, photographing what we see so that we can tell our families and friends what we saw. What we saw was a horror that ordinary people saw happening but did nothing to stop. Our guide’s matter of fact narrative—she left nothing out—made it possible for us to see the history by objectifying the past in a narrative in the present. Her narrative did not include us until she was about to say good bye to us. The moment she announced the end of our relationship, I lost the protection of her words and our movement from place to place on a schedule with a conclusion. Without that protection, I was left with my own relationship with the raw facts of that place, in that moment. In parting, the historic horror of the Jews, the Poles, the gypsies, the disabled, the twins, the weak, the elderly, the women, et cetera, et cetera, became my horror. A human horror began to live in me in a visceral, emotional way.
It seems to me that the whole reality of incarnation—that spirit lives within matter, that our bodies embody the energy of creation—includes a God-given capacity to take in and feel horror. We have the capacity to experience the whole truth, transcend it by seeing it, and transform it by taking a relationship to it. Seeing reality, including horror, need not lead to disintegration into naiveté, credulity, denial, or insanity.
The light that appeared at the end of the visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is the image that as beings who are relationships between matter and energy—body ad spirit—we have this ability to notice the extremes of human behavior and receive the extremes of interior experience, and the capacity to contain both in the energy field of the grace of creation that is always offered to us and will forever live within us.
Saying this in another way: The fact that we are energetic beings contained within material bodies, given freedom of will in the nature of creation itself, means that we can experience negativity and allow it to leave us. We can experience positivity and not let it distract us. We can see horror and not be consumed. We can hear folly and not be derailed. We can be angered by injustice without projecting our own anger onto others. We can be afraid of the future without disengaging from the present. We can grieve that the world of our childhood is passing away without denying the possibilities that lie in the future.
These are experienced truths, noted by generations of our spiritual forebears, and passed on to us by trusted teachers and guides.
Any political candidate who does not give evidence of having had these experiences and learned these truths can not be trusted to lead or represent us in the world of reality, relationships, and creative becoming.