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Posts tagged ‘Auschwitz’

Bearing Witness at Auschwitz

The limitations of bearing witness at Auschwitz
Only Fiction

by Hawa Allan
Tricycle
Review of In Paradise: A Novel
088ReviewsOnlyFictionby Peter Matthissen
Riverhead Books, 2014

What are you doing here? is the refrain of the novel In Paradise, the last word of prolific author Peter Matthiessen, who passed away at age 86 in April, three days before the book’s release. In its pages, we meet a few of the 140 pilgrims from 12 countries who have traveled to Auschwitz for “homage, prayer, and silent meditation in memory of [the] camp’s million and more victims” and observe their awkward attempts at “bearing witness” to the suffering that occurred there.

The book is based on real annual Bearing Witness Retreats held at Auschwitz and led by Zen teacher Bernie Glassman. The intent of these retreats, according to Glassman, is to dissolve the ego so that practitioners become the elements of the atrocity: “the terrified people getting off the trains, the indifferent or brutal guards, the snarling dogs, the doctor who points right or left, the smoke and ash belching from the chimneys.” After attending three of these meditation retreats, Matthiessen, who had long wanted to write about the Holocaust, was inspired. “Only fiction,” he said, “would allow me to probe from a variety of viewpoints the great strangeness of what I had felt.”

The book’s protagonist, the poet and academic D. Clements Olin (né Olinski), attends the retreat at Auschwitz for the sole purpose, he insists, of conducting research. But Olin’s ostensible intention to deepen his scholarship on survival literature is complicated by the slowly uncovered backstory of his aristocratic family, who fled Poland for the United States at the onset of German occupation. While Olin’s underlying reasons for attending the retreat are often elusive, even to his own probing mind, he eagerly subjects the aims of his fellow participants to critical dissection.

Among them is “the retreat’s unofficial ‘spiritual leader,’” Ben Lama, a “near-bald psychologist left over from the flower-power days of a psychedelic California youth.” To call Lama a leader is to use the word very loosely, as the participants are like a herd of cats: a dispatch of nuns (one of whom, “Olin suspects, has had less difficulty than she might have wished obeying her vow of chastity”); the Germans, “the neediest, most eager” sharers; and the American Jews, who, Olin supposes, “have come to assuage a secret guilt.” There is even a Palestinian who emerges from his “well-wrought isolation” to make a vague, equanimous retort to having been called a “raghead,” and then disappears for the rest of the novel.

Who are they? What are they doing there? These questions are most often posed to a retreatant named G. Earwig, a bellicose New Yorker who, unlike Olin, does not take passive-aggressive swipes at his peers—he simply berates them to their faces. This character, Earwig, also happens to be a mouthpiece for every fathomable objection one might have to hosting a meditation retreat in a death camp, like the risks of fostering sentimentalism instead of self-reflection, and that the retreat could devolve over time into a mere commercial enterprise complete with “package tours and jumbo buses, youth hostels, snack bars, kosher fast food,” and so on.

Earwig is also quick to detect any whiff of self-righteousness (a common accomplice of sentimentalism), swiftly rebuking a woman who claims “that movie about the kind German enamel manufacturer in Cracow who saved his whole list of productive employees” made her want to“ run right out…and do something for those people!” “Do something, lady?” he responds. “Like what? Take a Jew to lunch?”

According to the fictional retreat’s official literature, what the participants are supposed to be doing is “bearing witness.” Indeed, as Olin reflects in exposition, the term is a stale phrase, one that implies a kind of moral decency but—with overuse and underexamination—has become devoid of meaning. So, in effect, one can attend a meditation retreat at Auschwitz and be satisfied that she is “bearing witness” while imagining the torture and mass killing as whatever scenes she can recall from Schindler’s List.

Therein lies the challenge of “bearing witness”: it is far too easy—as Olin and Earwig demonstrate—to point out the wrong way of doing so. What about the right way?

The author and essayist James Baldwin said the root of his vocation as a writer was to “bear witness to the truth.” Although Baldwin was rather fuzzy on what he considered a witness to be, he remarked that he himself was a witness to where he came from and what he had seen. For Baldwin, there is something about being a witness that is personal, experiential—something unlike the authoritative, and perhaps removed, temperament of a spokesperson.

Baldwin’s insight helps illuminate the inherent conundrum of In Paradise’s meditators, insofar as a witness arrives at truth through the immediacy of his or her own perception. Though a scholar of survival literature, Olin himself “tends to agree with the many who have stated that fresh insight into the horror of the camps is inconceivable, and interpretation by anyone lacking direct personal experience an impertinence, out of the question.”

Read entire essay and more at TRICYCLE.

Child of the Holocaust – Part 1

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call by Gabriel Constans.

Child of the Holocaust – Gitta Ryle – Part 1

Auschwitz. The word is synonymous with death, loss, murder and extermination, the worst barbarism that can be inflicted by one human upon another. For many it symbolizes evil incarnate. Most of us know it only as that: a symbol, a word, a dreadful image from the past. Yet for others, such as Gitta Ryle, Auschwitz is a living, cold reality that consumed her beloved father and grandparents who were starved, beaten, gassed and incinerated in its Nazi machinery of hatred and racism.

Mrs. Ryle survived the holocaust by being hidden in French schools with her sister and was reunited with her mother at the war’s end. While pregnant with her third child her mother died of a heart attack. Gitta’s years of family separation and loss were compounded and reawakened with the death of her husband from cancer.

Over the years, Mrs. Ryle has spoken of her life during the war with increasing frequency to elementary, high school and college students. Her living, breathing, realistic account of her experiences has brought history and its relevancy to the present, before the hearts and minds of many generations. On a more personal and less publicly noticed form of engagement, she has provided support and comfort for young people who, like herself, have had to cope with the death of a family member or friend.

GITTA: I was born in Vienna in 1932. In thirty-nine Hitler invaded Austria. Since my family was Jewish we had to flee from the Nazis. My father was in the most danger. To avoid capture, he and some other men left almost immediately. My mother, older sister and I stayed on for a while. Mother eventually heard of a children’s organization called the OSE that took Jewish children out of the country to try to save them. After a few preliminaries, my mother decided to have us go and put us on a train with other children to France, where my sister and I stayed throughout the remainder of the war. My mother answered a job announcement and got a job as a cook/dietitian in England. They sent her a ticket and she stayed there until the war ended.

In the meantime we learned that father had escaped to Belgium. Through the Red Cross in Switzerland, we were all able to keep in touch with occasional letters. When father discovered where we were he came to France and worked close by the school we attended, so he could visit. We saw him a few times before some French citizens denounced him. He was captured, put into a camp and shipped to Auschwitz. That is where my father died in 1942. I was seven when I left Vienna, so I must have been about nine and my sister twelve. My grandparents, on my mother’s side, also died there. They were not able to leave the country because of health reasons. There was also my father’s brother Moses and his wife and son, Martin, who were captured and listed among the dead in Auschwitz. My father’s parents died before I was born. Luckily, my mother’s younger brother and sister had left before the war and lived in America.

Other friends and some of our teachers were also killed. Each time the Germans infiltrated our school they’d rush us out. I was always in the younger group and my sister in the middle. We went from one children’s home to another until they hid us in a Catholic convent. When the convent also came under suspicion, they put us on individual farms.

I grieved especially hard for some of the teachers that were taken away. One was Boris and his wife. Another was Moses and his wife. As a child I didn’t know what was happening to me. After awhile you start to become numb when somebody dies. There was no place for grieving. You think that this is the way life is. It was a protective mechanism. I guess I established a personality which was just, I don’t know . . . not trusting . . . never knowing what was going to happen.

At one point when we were hidden in a farm cellar, and fighting was going on all around us, I just said, “OK, this is it. They’re going to bomb us anyway.” We said good-bye to each other and it was kind of peaceful to think it was going to end. I think that is partially how I lived my life. When I have done some work or process of trying to get rid of some of the deeper feelings, I’ve thought of how peaceful it would be to just follow them to the gas chamber. That is what I have been working on from this loss, this last loss. I thought I was doing pretty good, but I guess I’m not there yet because it comes up again and again, as now. All of the past deaths, all of the losses, come up each time. It’s harder and harder.

My father was gone, then my mother. I reunited with her when we came to America and she died when I was pregnant with my third child in August of 1965. She died of a heart attack in her sleep. It was her third such attack. She’d had two mild ones before. I believe she died from a broken heart, when she’d had to give us up during the war. I don’t know if I could have done that. She was a very courageous lady. After the war she always worked and kept busy. I don’t think she ever went too deep into herself because that was scary. Part of me wishes I were the same way. Instead, I delve into it and work with it because that is the only way I know how to live.

It makes a difference how you lose someone. When I lost my mother I was quite pregnant. There was a different type of grieving because of bringing someone to life just when another is leaving. I took it very hard. The initial reaction was, “Oh God no!” Her death triggered a lot of stuff, but I didn’t have the time to deal with it like I did when my husband died. I had three small children to take care of. I guess that is what they mean when they say being busy is good, though I don’t believe it. Maybe it helps other people but for me it just pushes things down and puts it away.

When my husband became ill, he was sick for eight months, I started grieving upon hearing the prognosis and kept hoping he was going to make it; hoping for some miracle even though the death sentence was three to six months. Up front I did not accept that he was going to die, even though in the back of my mind there was that stuff going on that realized it was indeed going to happen. This made his death the most traumatic. It brought up all the others I had not had time to deal with. For the first year and a half after his death I was numb. I had Hospice and saw Norma (a bereavement counselor) once a week and there was a wonderful social worker named Betty. She talked with my children. I told her when it was all over that then I could see her. She was very good. She came a month or so after his death and it was very helpful.

A month before Bob (husband) died, his ninety-one-year-old father died. So while I was taking care of Bob I also took care of his father. He was a very difficult man but through me being with him I learned a lot of compassion and he always said he loved me and appreciated that I was there for him. When he died Bob didn’t want to go see him but at the last minute said OK. I drove him to the funeral home, went up to his dad and touched him and gave him a kiss on the forehead. I cried. I think in some ways I was saying good-bye to my own dad. After the war we searched in vain for my father, until we found a listing that said he was shipped to Auschwitz. Taking care of my father-in-law and Bob gave me a way to do what I couldn’t do for my dad.

For the first few months after Bob died I didn’t accept the reality and being alone. It was the first time I’d ever slept alone in my entire life. There was always somebody around . . . children, parents, husband.

I always felt Bob was around though. I wasn’t afraid. I closed the door, went to bed and that was it. It’s been like that ever since. That is why the house is good for me. There are all kinds of beliefs about this. We each have to pick what fits for us. I put a bench out by the ocean, just a half block from this house, in his honor and I put some of his ashes close by so I can go there anytime. He used to love the sunlight, so he faces the lighthouse (South).

Growing up I knew a little about Judaism, but not that much. We didn’t have schooling or anything during the war and being in the Catholic Church for only six months, in a convent, I learned the rosary in French and listened to the chanting and stuff. I liked it. It made me feel safe, so as a child it was OK. I did a lot of work on myself but not too much on religion. I couldn’t give up my Jewishness, but I did survive for a reason, whatever that is, so I needed to keep it.

When my children got to the same age that I had been when we were separated from our parents, I started getting ulcers. I was physically sick and there was a lot of fear in me. Bob said, “You need to get some help.” My kids were six and seven-years-old. I went and talked to a counselor. At first I talked about things that bothered me everyday and then we got deeper and deeper, to the point where the guilt and not understanding why someone would want to kill me when I didn’t do anything wrong . . . all that stuff came out. That is when I say I started the work. When anniversaries of the war occurred, forty then fifty years, people started asking me more questions and I told them my story.

Before that I hadn’t talked to my children, only when they asked because of something at school. They just knew I was from Europe. I think each one of them was affected a little differently about it.

When the schools began to discuss the holocaust they became interested in what a live person who’d lived though it would say. It’s had a big impact on those I speak with. I’m OK about doing it when I’m asked, partially because we don’t want to forget about it. When I talk to kids I give them a little lecture and try to put across, “Yes, what happened was terrible.” and “Yes, I went through it and survived. I am who I am because I survived. It’s the yin and the yang, nothing is all bad. I could have gone another way. I could have become a killer, but for some reason I choose not to. I chose to be an OK individual, to be healthy and honest.”

The reason I chose good over evil came from my beginnings. I had a very loving mother and father. It was my sister and I and mother and father. We lived in a small apartment in Vienna and I remember a lot of love and compassion. I was very special, especially to my dad. So I have some real positive food that was given to me very early and I think that is why I talk to young people who have children about how important it is, that beginning. If I hadn’t had that I don’t know which way I would have gone. When the family was separated I didn’t understand, but as I became an adult the nurturing and caring stayed with me and helped me go the right way.

I remember a lot of hugging. There was always greetings, comings, goings, holding and explanations of things. My dad was quite religious and he would explain what he was doing. I vaguely remember going to temple as a little girl and having happy memories. My mother was a fabulous cook. She gave us wonderful food and was always there for us. I was never left alone. When I went to kindergarten, right before Hitler came to Vienna, my sister always went with me on the trolley. She would drop me off when she went to her class. We were a unit. We were a very strong unit, then just like that . . . it was all cut off.

Part 2 (Conclusion) Tomorrow.

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